Trial court reopens but adjourns quickly as defense lawyer is a no-show; Constitutional Court issues three judgments

Presiding Judge Yassmin Barrios reconvened the trial of Efrain Rios Montt and Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez Tuesday morning, only to adjourn within 30 minutes on account of the defense lawyer’s absence. Observers were left with lingering uncertainty about how the trial court would respond to Monday’s appeals court ruling. More broadly, observers and parties wondered whether the trial court would be able to hear the final defense witnesses and closing arguments, or whether it would continue to be stymied.

Meanwhile, in the afternoon, the Constitutional Court released another trio of judgments related to the trial. The tangle of legal challenges pending before various judicial bodies in Guatemala has stalled the trial even while it is technically on the verge of closing arguments. The Constitutional Court’s judgments did not serve to fully clarify the route for the trial to reach its conclusion. The judgments did, however, demonstrate that there is concern among some Constitutional Court judges about the defense challenges and the delays being permitted by the courts.

Trial court briefly reopens but defense lawyer absent

Tuesday’s proceedings began under a shadow of confusion stemming from a ruling handed down on Monday by an appeals court (Sala Tercera de la Corte de Apelaciones). The ruling addressed issues related to the representation of Rios Montt on March 19, the opening day of the trial. On March 19, the trial court expelled Rios Montt’s defense counsel, Francisco Garcia Gudiel, and did not rule on the substance of Garcia Gudiel’s call for two of the judges to recuse themselves.

In Monday’s appeals court ruling, the court ordered that Garcia Gudiel be reinstated as Rios Montt’s defense attorney; and that the trial court consider Garcia Gudiel’s request that two of the trial court judges be removed from the tribunal, and that the trial court remain suspended until that is fully resolved. The trial court had already reinstated Garcia Gudiel on April 30, but had not yet considered again the recusal request.

When the court reconvened on Tuesday morning, defense counsel Garcia Gudiel was absent, citing illness. The court thus suspended the trial for the day and scheduled a hearing for Wednesday morning at 8:30 a.m.

Before closing, Judge Barrios addressed Rios Montt directly, stating that if Garcia Gudiel is unable to appear in court Wednesday, he should bring his other lawyers to represent him. “The constitution prevails over all else,” she stated. “Tomorrow you should come to the courtroom with your lawyer, as required.”

The issue of whether the trial should be suspended pending a full consideration and review of the recusal issue is contested and the Public Ministry and civil parties may seek review of the appeals court ruling, but must do so quickly. In their view, a suspension would be appropriate to deal with a recusal request at the pre-trial stage but not after a trial has already begun.

Constitutional Court issues three new judgments; tangled web of amparos and other legal challenges remains

The judicial process in the genocide case has become tangled in a web of amparos and other legal motions. The prosecution and civil parties have raised concern over what they perceive as an abuse of these legal mechanisms on the part of the defense attorneys. Since the temporary suspension of the trial on April 18, lawyers for the defense have reportedly filed 18 legal challenges; defense lawyers filed more than 100 legal challenges in the year between the indictment and the trial.

Late Tuesday, the Constitutional Court issued three judgments responding to various outstanding legal challenges. One was dated Tuesday, May 7, and the other two Friday, May 3. The Constitutional Court’s judgments again failed to provide clarity on the major outstanding issues, or the path to the end of the trial, but at least one judgment did show some fault lines within the Constitutional Court. Civil parties have reported that they were not notified of Tuesday’s issuance of three Constitutional Court rulings.

Constitutional Court affirms appeals court ruling temporarily suspending trial; judges strongly dissent

First, the Constitutional Court on Tuesday issued a judgment, dated May 3, affirming the April 18 judgment of the appeals court (Sala Tercera de la Corte de Apelaciones) granting provisional relief to Rios Montt, and ordering the reinstatement of Garcia Gudiel and the suspension of the trial “until there is a final decision” (“hasta que quede en firme la decision”). The decision was dated Friday, before Monday’s appeals court judgment granting “final” relief.

The judgment was not released until yesterday reportedly due to the preparation of separate opinions by two of the Constitutional Court judges. Judge Gloria Patricia Porras, in her dissenting opinion, felt that the appeals court judgment went too far, and that the Constitutional Court had already sufficiently responded to this question in a prior judgment—“without ordering the suspension of the trial” (“sin ordenar la suspension del debate”). In Judge Porras’ opinion, she asserted that there was no violation of a fundamental right, given the remedies already ordered, and thus that the court should “revoke the protection granted and avoid unnecessarily stalling the trial.” (“Ante la inexistencia de violación alguna de derechos fundamentales del amparista, por haber sido restituidos…, se debió revocar el amparo provisional inútilmente otorgado y evitar detener innecesariamente el proceso…”)

Judge Porras highlighted the harm to the defendants and the witnesses resulting from any suspension in the trial. She further highlighted the potential for amparos to be abused, referencing the Inter-American Commission’s previously stated concerns on this point.

Judge Mauro Chacon, for his part, described the remedy ordered as “manifestly disproportionate” (“manifiestamente desproporcionados”). He also re-affirmed his concerns expressed in a prior separate opinion that Garcia Gudiel inserted himself into the case, improperly, in order to force the expulsion of two of the judges. (“…asumió la defense con el objeto especifico de provocar la separación de los jueces que ya intervienan”).

Constitutional Court rejects on procedural grounds the prosection’s challenge to annulment order

In a second ruling, the Constitutional Court sidestepped again the request to rule on the legality of the controversial April 18 annulment order issued by Judge Carol Patricia Flores, a judge who ordinarily hears pre-trial matters.

Judge Flores intervened in the middle of the trial ostensibly to implement a Constitutional Court judgment ordering the admissibility of certain previously excluded defense evidence. Instead, unexpectedly, she ordered the entire trial annulled and reversed to November 2011—on the eve of anticipated closing arguments.

The Public Ministry and civil parties filed various challenges to this annulment order, and the trial court also announced in open court that it was seeking a constitutional review of this contentious decision.

The Constitutional Court had already once refused, on procedural grounds, to rule on this issue. On Tuesday, the Constitutional Court again refused to rule on the issue—rejecting on procedural grounds a challenge filed by the prosecutors.

Prosecutors had argued that Judge Flores’ action was a violation of the Constitutional Court’s April 3 order that Judge Flores intervene to admit defense evidence and nothing more. The court of appeals (Sala Cuarta de la Corte de Apelaciones) had refused to rule on this issue on procedural grounds, and the Constitutional Court did the same.

Constitutional Court suspends Rios Montt’s civil action filed against presiding trial court judge

Finally, the Constitutional Court rejected an effort by Rios Montt to advance a civil claim against Judge Barrios. On the opening day of the trial, Rios Montt filed a civil action against Judge Barrios, the presiding trial court judge, arguing that he incurred monetary damages as a direct result of her decision to expel his defense attorney—specifically, that Rios Montt incurred the costs of contracting legal counsel in the absence of his chosen lawyer.

Judge Barrios challenged this civil action, arguing that it was a mechanism to thwart the criminal process. In Tuesday’s ruling, the Constitutional Court ruled in favor of Judge Barrios, affirming that the complaint has no merit.

Unceasing legal challenges stall the completion of the trial

The major outstanding issues that have thwarted the end of the trial are challenges to (1) the adequacy of Rios Montt’s representation on the first day of the trial; (2) determinations by a pre-trial judge on the admissibility of evidence; (3) a decision by a different pre-trial judge that the entire trial should be annulled; and now, (4) whether a recusal motion must be fully considered, and appealed, before the trial can continue.

Any judgments from appeals courts or the Constitutional Court on any of these issues have only served to spur more legal challenges, rather than resolve and clarify the issue. The Constitutional Court judgments released on Tuesday are likely to fall in the same category, as the Constitutional Court continues to sidestep full resolution of some of the more contentious issues.

Emi MacLean, Legal Officer at the Open Society Justice Initiative, provided the legal analysis and contributed writing for this blog. Casey Cagley, Research Associate at the Center for Global Studies at George Mason University, contributed to the research and writing of this blog.