Roberto Hernandez stood on the stage, his heart pounding, his senses alive. In that moment, he was aware of the effect his work has had, mindful of how much still needs to be done, thankful to all the people who helped him along the way.
On Sept. 26, Hernandez and his wife, Layda Negrete — both public policy graduate students at UC Berkeley and licensed lawyers in Mexico — won an Emmy Award in outstanding investigative journalism for their documentary “Presumed Guilty.”
The documentary was nominated for three Emmys — outstanding investigative journalism, best documentary and best research — and has received about 20 awards from film festivals worldwide.
The film chronicles the life of Antonio Zuniga, a street vendor who was arrested on the streets of Iztapalapa, Mexico, six years ago for a crime he did not commit. Zuniga was charged with murder in connection with a gang shooting and sentenced to 20 years behind bars based on the testimony of a single eyewitness.
“I hoped to show how the Mexican justice system works,” Hernandez said. “The Mexican courts do not work the same way the courts in the United States do. You are presumed guilty. The United States has protections and safeguards in place to prevent unfair trials. Mexico does not.”
The controversial documentary, which premiered last February, was distributed in Mexican theaters before being banned — and later unbanned — by the courts. According to Hernandez, it is the most viewed documentary in Mexican history and surpassed Oscar-winning movies “The King’s Speech” and “Black Swan” in ticket sales.
“Anyone can relate to the fear of being accused of a crime they did not commit,” he said.
During his acceptance speech, Hernandez dedicated the film’s Emmy to Troy Davis, the Georgia state prisoner who was executed Sept. 21 despite international appeals to re-examine his case.
Hernandez said that though Mexico must still implement numerous fundamental changes to reform the justice system, it does not have the death penalty, unlike the U.S.
“That’s why we were able to save (Antonio) and why Troy Davis is no longer here,” Hernandez said in his speech.
The two producers gave credit to their time at UC Berkeley in helping them to create “Presumed Guilty.”
“Anyone can be a filmmaker,” Hernandez said. “Sometimes those with the least experience can do great things. Be persistent, stay with your subject, work with a small crew and never edit by yourself.”
Hernandez and Negrete said they may resume making documentaries in the future, but for the moment they plan to take some time off to care for their two children and pursue their doctorates.