Inter-american court of human rights

Exclusion of the evidence obtained under duress

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2. Exclusion of the evidence obtained under duress

  1. The Commission and the representatives indicated that “when” the victims “made their self-incriminating statements before the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office and the Judge of the Mina Judicial District[,] they were still suffering from the effects of fear, anguish and inferiority, given that only a few days had passed since their detention and physical mistreatment.” The Commission considered that the lack of “a serious, exhaustive and impartial investigation into the alleged acts of torture,” meant that “any possible flaws in the confessions rendered” could not be corrected “and therefore the State could not use those statements as evidence.” Furthermore, the Commission and the representatives pointed out that the practice of torture is reinforced by the legal validity granted to the first statement made by the accused, which was rendered before the Public Prosecutor’s Office and not before a court, added to which the Mexican courts gave validity to this statement. The representatives also pointed out that “the confessions of the victims should have been excluded from the criminal proceeding” and that their ratification of these statements before the court should not have been taken into account, given that Messrs. Cabrera and Montiel “were still suffering from the effects of torture and threats and did not understand the significance or scope of that ratification.”

  1. The State argued that the conviction “was not exclusively based on the confessions made by the accused.” It indicated that the trial judge “heard, assessed and corroborated all the evidence and records in the case file” and that if it were proven that the judgment "against the […] victims was based on the confession obtained under the circumstances described, this would result in the competent authority calling into question its evidentiary value and ruling according to the rest of the body of evidence and pursuant to the relevant law and then determining whether such a violation left the accused unprotected and affected the outcome of the ruling.”

  1. In this respect, the Court notes that the rule of excluding from judicial proceedings all evidence obtained under torture or through cruel or inhumane treatment (hereinafter “exclusionary rule”) has been recognized by several international treaties257 and international bodies for the protection of human rights, which consider that the rule of exclusion is intrinsic to the prohibition of such acts.258 Therefore, the Court considers that this rule is absolute and irrevocable.259

  1. Accordingly, the Court has held that the annulment of procedural documents resulting from torture or cruel treatment is an effective measure to halt the consequences of a violation of judicial guarantees.260 The Court also considers it necessary to emphasize that the rule of exclusion does not only apply to cases where acts of torture or cruel treatment have been committed. In this regard, Article 8(3) of the Convention is clear in indicating that “[t]he defendant’s confession is only valid if made without duress of any kind,” that is, it is not limited to the factual situation of torture or cruel treatment, but extends to any form of duress. Indeed, whenever it is proven that any form of duress has interfered with the spontaneous expression of a person’s will, this necessarily implies the obligation to exclude that evidence from the judicial proceeding. The annulment of such evidence is a necessary means to discourage the application of any form of coercion.

  1. Furthermore, this Court considers that statements obtained under duress are seldom truthful, because the person tries to say whatever is necessary to make the cruel treatment or torture stop. Accordingly, the Court considers that accepting or granting evidentiary value to statements or confessions obtained by coercion, which affect the person or a third party, constitutes, in turn, an infringement of a fair trial.261 Similarly, the absolute nature of the exclusionary rule is reflected in the prohibition on granting probative value not only to evidence obtained directly by coercion, but also to evidence derived from such action. Consequently, the Court considers that excluding evidence gathered or derived from information obtained by coercion adequately guarantees the exclusionary rule.

  1. Some of these elements of international law are reflected in Mexican law. Article 20 of the Constitution, in force at the time of the events of this case, stated that “[a]ny form of solitary confinement, intimidation or torture is prohibited and shall be punished by criminal law. A confession rendered before any authority other than the Public Prosecutor’s Office or the judge, or before such authorities without the assistance of a legal counsel, shall have no evidentiary value.”262

  1. Notwithstanding the foregoing, this Court notes that following its visit to Mexico in 2001, the Committee against Torture indicated that "[d]espite the binding rules in the [Mexican] Constitution and laws on the inadmissibility as evidence of statements obtained under duress, in practice it is extraordinarily difficult for an accused to have a confession forcibly obtained from him excluded from the body of evidence. In practice, when an accused retracts the confession on which the Public Prosecutor’s Office has based the decision to commit him for trial, complaining that he was forced to make it under torture or duress, the courts have no independent procedure to establish whether or not the confession was made voluntarily.”263

  1. Bearing in mind the foregoing, the Court considers it appropriate to determine whether, in the instant case, a forced confession was used. It is worth noting that Messrs. Cabrera and Montiel, who could not read or write (supra para. 149) placed their fingerprints under the statements in which they confessed to criminal activities at three procedural stages:

  • In the statement rendered before the Public Prosecutor’s Office on May 4, 1999, Mr. Montiel Flores admitted: i) possession of weapon for the exclusive use of the Army, specifically a .45 caliber semi-automatic pistol; ii) possession, without a permit, of a .22 caliber rifle and iii) possession and cultivation of marijuana. For his part, Mr. Cabrera admitted: i) possession of a weapon for the exclusive use of the Army, specifically a 7.62 mm MI rifle, and magazine, ii) firing a weapon against the Army and iii) being a member of an illegal armed group (EPR).264

  • In the statement rendered before the Public Prosecutor’s Office on May 6, 1999, Mr. Montiel Flores amended his initial confession, ratifying only the offenses of possessing a firearm for the exclusive use of the Army (a .45 caliber pistol) and the cultivation of marijuana. Mr. Cabrera García also amended the content of his initial statement, admitting only to possession of a firearm (a 7.62 caliber MI rifle).265

  • In the preliminary statement of May 7, 1999, before the First Instance Court, Mr. Montiel Flores only admitted to possessing the firearm, whereas Mr. Cabrera ratified that he had been in the possession of a rifle and the magazine.266

  1. Since making these statements, the victims have never again admitted to having committed an unlawful act. The defense counsel in the domestic proceeding alleged that:

“[…] it is clear that my client[s] were forced to sign papers, without knowing their content, which resulted in self-incriminating statements rendered at the Public Prosecutor's Office, after they had been held incommunicado, tortured, both physically and mentally, and threatened that their families would be harmed if they did not do so; I ask this court not to give any probative value whatsoever [to the statements] when ruling on this case.”267

  1. This Court notes that the tribunals which heard the instant case stated that: i) there was no proof that Messrs. Cabrera and Montiel were mistreated or torture in order to obtain their confession;268 ii) although it was not proven that the statements made before the Public Prosecutor’s Office were invalid, having resulted from cruel treatment, torture or solitary confinement, Messrs. Cabrera and Montiel confessed, before a competent court on May 7, 1999, to several of the crimes for which they were convicted; therefore, their confessions would be valid,269 and iii) based on the foregoing, probative value was given to the statements made on that day.270 However, the Court considers that when making a comparison between the crimes admitted by Messrs. Cabrera and Montiel in three statements, and the final judgment in which they were convicted, it may be concluded that they were sentenced for the same crimes they confessed to in the statement of May 7, 1999. Indeed, Mr. Montiel Flores was convicted of possession of firearm, while Mr. Cabrera was convicted of possession of a rifle and magazine.

  1. In order to analyze the relationship between the three statements, the Court notes that the European Court on Human Rights, in the case of Harutyunyan v. Armenia, indicated that if there is reasonable evidence that a person has been tortured or subjected to cruel and inhuman treatment, the fact that this person ratifies his confession before a different authority other than the one responsible for the first confession, should not automatically lead to the conclusion that such confession is valid. This is so because a subsequent confession may be the consequence of the mistreatment suffered by the person and, more specifically, because of the fear that remains after this type of experience.271

  1. The Court shares the aforementioned view and reiterates that the situations of defenselessness and vulnerability felt by an individual when detained and subjected to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in order to wear down that individual’s psychological resistance and force him to incriminate himself,272 can produce feelings of fear, anguish and inferiority capable of humiliating and overwhelming an individual and possibly breaking his physical and moral resistance.

  1. In this regard, the Court has already confirmed that Messrs. Cabrera and Montiel were subjected to cruel and inhuman treatments during the days they were detained in Pizotla, without being promptly brought before a competent judicial authority (supra para. 134). From the foregoing, it is possible to conclude that Messrs. Cabrera and Montiel were subjected to cruel treatment in order to break down their psychological resistance and force them to incriminate themselves or confess to certain illegal activities. The cruel treatment had an impact on the first statements rendered before the Public Prosecutor’s Office, as well as on the statement made on May 7, 1999. Consequently, the trial court decided to assess this matter and not to rule out the allegations presented by the victims.

  1. Indeed, one of the arguments used by the trial judges in order not to exclude the evidence from the proceedings was based on the fact that “it is not sufficient for someone to allege that he has been physically or mentally abused for that person to be released, since in principle he must prove that such violence existed and that it was used as a means to extract a confession, which, at most, would invalidate the confession […].”273 Similarly, the expert witness Coronado indicated that “if it is alleged that a confession was obtained under torture, and it is not proven during the trial that there was a torturer, the confession will stand.”274 As stated previously, this Court reiterates that the burden of proof for such facts rests with the State (supra para. 136), and therefore it cannot be argued that the petitioner did not fully prove his complaint in order to rule it out.

  1. For all the above reasons, the Court concludes that the domestic courts, which heard the case at all stages of the proceeding, should have completely excluded the statements rendered before the Public Prosecutor's Office and the confessions made on May 7, 1999, given that the existence of cruel and inhuman treatment disqualified the use of such evidence, according to the international standards previously mentioned. Therefore, the Court declares the violation of Article 8(3), in relation to Article 1(1) of the American Convention, to the detriment of Messrs. Cabrera and Montiel.

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