Inter-american court of human rights

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3. Presumption of innocence principle

  1. The Commission did not allege a violation of this guarantee. The representatives argued that “[t]he manner in which the evidence was gathered and assessed […] shows that, from the outset, the criminal proceeding was intended to prove the guilt of the [victims].” They pointed out that the courts “fragmented the body of evidence, placing value only on those items of evidence which, although produced irregularly, were useful to prove [their] involvement […] in an unlawful act, and excluding those items of evidence that necessarily led to the conclusion that the evidence had been fabricated and the confessions obtained under torture.” Furthermore, the courts shifted the burden of proof to the victims and assumed that it was not the State’s duty “to confirm that [their] confessions were not coerced.”

  1. For its part, the State pointed out that “even through [Messrs. Cabrera and Montiel] were arrested during the commission of a crime in flagrante and the detainees themselves confessed to have committed certain illicit acts,” the courts focused their efforts “on proving the existence of a criminal act and consequently, their criminal responsibility.” Also, the State “emphasize[d] that at no time was the defense was hindered […] and each one of the arguments and evidence furnished by the defense was subjected to legal assessment.” Moreover, “the burden of proof fell upon the [P]ublic [P]rosecutor’s Office, which had to fully prove the elements that constituted the crime, based on different items of evidence which, once furnished and correlated with each other, proved the criminal responsibility of Messrs. Montiel and Cabrera.

  1. In the instant case, the judgment by the court of first instance established that “[t]he court weighed up the issues that were beneficial and prejudicial to them, the fact that their health was endangered, the tranquility, peace and public security, […] and it [was] determin[ed] that the level of guilt" of Messrs. Cabrera and Montiel “[was] minimal and [that] minimum penalties [should be] imposed on them, especially because it was not conclusively proven that […] they belong[ed] to an armed group.”275

  1. For its part, the judgment of August 21, 20002 indicated that the principle of innocence “[was] revalidated since all the evidence demonstrated [the] criminal responsibility for the perpetration of the crime [which] was […] consider[ed] proven, based on the evidence that turned out to be appropriate and sufficient for that purpose.”276 In any case, the writ of execution prior to that judgment emphasized that “[the] Federal Court considered ineffective the evidence gathered by the Public Prosecutor’s Office during the preliminary inquiry in relation to the crimes of possessing a firearm without a permit and a crime against health in the form of cultivating marijuana.”277

  1. This Court has pointed out that the principle of presumption of innocence is the basis of a fair trial [judicial guarantees].278 The presumption of innocence implies that the defendant does not have to prove that he has not committed the offense of which he is accused, because the onus probandi rests with the prosecutor.279 Thus, the convincing demonstration of guilt is an essential requirement for a criminal sanction, so that the burden of proof falls on the prosecutor and not on the accused.280

  1. The Court has also held, as stated in Article 8(2) of the Convention, that the principle of presumption of innocence means that a person cannot be convicted unless there is full proof of his criminal liability. If the evidence presented is incomplete or insufficient, he must be acquitted, not convicted.281 Thus, the lack of full proof of a person’s criminal responsibility in a condemnatory judgment violates the principle of presumption of innocence,282 which is an essential element for the effective exercise of the right to defense and accompanies the defendant throughout the proceedings until the judgment determining his guilt is final.283

  1. According to the European Court, the principle of presumption of innocence implies that judges should not start a proceeding with a preconceived idea that the accused has committed the crime as charged; the burden of proof is on the prosecutor, and any doubt that arises must benefit the accused. The presumption of innocence is violated if, prior to the accused being found guilty, a judicial decision concerning him reflects the opinion that he is guilty.284

  1. In the instant case, the Court notes that, in the first stage of the proceeding against Messrs. Cabrera and Montiel, evidence challenged by the defense as being irregular and fraudulent was admitted. These questions were duly analyzed by the different courts that heard the case and, in some cases, the argument of the defense was accepted. Indeed, according to the ruling of August 14, 2002, “[the] Federal Court considered ineffective the evidence gathered by the Public Prosecutor’s Office during the preliminary inquiry regarding the crimes of possession of firearm without a permit and a crime against health in the form of cultivation of marijuana” (supra para. 73), and therefore part of the evidence challenged by the defense was not assessed in the decision to convict the victims.

  1. The Court finds that there is not sufficient evidence to consider that the victims were treated as though guilty. In fact, although they were associated with a situation of flagrante delicto, in general terms, the domestic courts treated them as persons whose criminal liability was still subject to a clear and sufficient determination. Therefore, this Court considers that it has not been proven that the State violated Article 8(2) of the Convention, to the detriment of the victims, in relation to the trial conducted against them.

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