Gringo Justice in Nicaragua

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On Feb. 16, 2007, Eric Volz was found guilty of murdering his Nicaraguan ex-girlfriend Doris Ivania Jimenez. She had been found hogtied, raped and strangled to death in the back of her clothing boutique in the touristy beach town of San Juan del Sur on Nicaragua's Pacific coast. However, a second man, Julio Martin Chamorro, a small-town bully with the reputation of being a "tourist leech," stood trial alongside Volz and was also found guilty of the murder. Both he and Volz were sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Then, after nearly 10 months in jail, Volz was vindicated on Dec. 14 by an Appeals Court in Granada, which ruled in a 2-1 split decision to absolve him of all charges, while upholding the sentence against Chamorro. Yet before Volz's release papers could be signed, his voluminous case file was mysteriously "lost," prompting his lawyers to cry foul. In the meantime, even though his passport has been ordered returned to him, he has not been allowed out of jail and cannot leave Nicaragua because the judge at his original trial has not signed off on the release order.

"There are some dark forces at play here," defense counsel Fabbrith Gomez told TIME, adding that his client is now being detained illegally — an opinion shared by appellate judge Roberto Rodriguez. The U.S. Embassy has weighed in with a letter asking the authorities to "implement a decision as quickly as possible" and assure for Volz's well-being and security while under state custody.

The decision to free Volz sent a shockwave around the country this week and revived a old debate on whether justice is applied equally to foreigners and Nicaraguans, and to rich and poor. The decision to free Volz and not Chamorro seems to have divided people along class lines, with most expatriates and wealthier Nicaraguans applauding the decision. The vast majority of poor Nicaraguans, however, complain that it is another case of the rich getting away with murder.

In the blogs run by the daily newspapers here, some commented that justice has finally been served and wished Volz a Merry Christmas with his family back home. Most comments, however, expressed outrage at what many consider to be corrupt judicial system. "Justice here is like a snake, it only bites those who are barefoot," one reader posted, referring to popular notion here than only the poor do jail time. Similar ire was expressed by the Sandinista government's Chief Prosecutor Julio Centeno, who called the decision a "barbarity," and Human Rights Ombudsman and former guerrilla leader Omar Cabezas, who said Volz should not be allowed to leave the country.

The victim's mother, Mercedes Alvarado, also reacted with indignation and accused the appellate judges of being bought off by Volz's family. "There's too much corruption," she told local reporters, adding that the judges must have needed extra money to buy their Christmas dinner.

Despite the anger expressed on blogs and in statements to the press, the rest of the country remained calm this week as most prepared for Christmas vacation starting this Friday. Even in San Juan del Sur, where Volz had once lived with Jimenez, American expats reported life as usual and no hostility toward gringos, adding that most people there had already tried to put the Volz case behind them.

In Granada, Roberto Rodriguez, the appellate judge at the center of the firestorm, denies that he was ever offered any bribe money or that he was pressured by his superiors or any other interested parties. After carefully reviewing the case, Rodriguez said he concluded that Volz's physical involvement in the murder was not proved beyond a reasonable doubt.

Volz has always insisted that he was two hours away in the capital Managua at the time of the murder, and provided cell phone and IM chat-log records to prove his alibi — evidence that was dismissed by the judge presiding over his murder trial. Rodriguez, however, found that alibi more compelling, despite other inconsistencies in the case. "It's better to have 100 guilty people on the street than one innocent person in jail," Rodriguez told TIME.

The magistrate, who acknowledges that he will probably lose his job over his decision, hedged his decision by saying it is not his job to determine Volz's ultimate guilt or innocence, but rather to study the case on a technical and legal basis to determine whether the prosecutor proved without a reasonable doubt that he had "physically participated in the murder."

Rodriguez said that Volz must be released from state custody, where he is currently in the hospital receiving medical attention for asthma and gastrointestinal illness, and that he is free to leave the country as soon as he gets out. "I hope he does," the judge added.