After spending nearly 10 months in jail for a murder he claims he did not commit, U.S. citizen Eric Volz was absolved of the crime Dec. 14 by a Granada Appeals Court that ordered his immediate release this week from state custody.
In February, Volz, a 28-year-old realtor and magazine publisher, was found guilty of murdering his Nicaraguan ex-girlfriend Doris Ivania Jiménez, 25, and sentenced to 30 years in prison along with Nicaraguan suspect Julio Martín Chamorro, whose sentence was upheld by the appellate court.
Jiménez, the owner of a small clothing boutique, was found hogtied, raped and strangled in the back of her store Nov. 21, 2006 (NT, Dec. 1, 2006).
News of Volz’s exoneration prompted outrage from the government’s chief prosecutor, Julio Centeno, who said he would appeal the case to the Supreme Court. Mercedes Alvarado, mother of the murder victim, also reacted with indignation and accused the judges of being paid off.
“There’s too much corruption,” she told local reporters, adding that the Granada judges must have needed extra money to buy their Christmas dinner.
Roberto Rodríguez, one of the two appellate court magistrates who voted to absolve Volz in a split 2-1 vote, denies that he was ever offered bribe money or that he was even pressured by his superiors or any other interested parties.
He say s he met once with members of Volz’s family, but that they only wanted to defend Eric’s character.
“They were kind; they didn’t try to pressure me,” Rodríguez told The Nica Times this week.
Rodríguez, the first of the three magistrates to review the case, said upon reviewing all the evidence and courtroom testimony from the February trial that he concluded that there was reasonable doubt about Volz’s physical involvement in the murder. In the end, he said, he had to vote his conscience, although he thinks that decision could now cost him his job.
“It’s better to have 100 guilty people on the street than one innocent person in jail,” Rodríguez said.
The judge, however, hedged his decision by saying it is not his job to determine guilt or innocence, rather to study the case on a technical and legal basis to determine whether the prosecutor had been able to prove without a reasonable doubt that Volz had “physically participated in the murder.”
And that evidence, he said, was not there, according to his best judgment.
Magistrate Norman Miranda provided the one dissident vote, arguing that the case had been botched early on when two of the original four suspects arrested were released without charges, one of whom was let out on an apparently illegal plea bargain in exchange for offering key testimony against Volz.
Miranda’s assistant told The Nica Times this week that the judge was not available to discuss his vote or opinion on the case.
Rodríguez said that Miranda wanted to keep Volz in jail for another year while the state prosecutor rebuilt his case to try the murder over again. Rodríguez said that wasnot a legal option that he and the other judge could agree to.
Rodríguez said the Granada Appeals Court sent the release order to the Rivas courthouse Dec. 17 to be signed by judge Ivette Toruño, who found Volz guilty in February.
However, according to a spokeswoman from the Volz family, as of 24 hours later the release had still not been signed, and Volz remained under arrest at the Roberto Huembes Hospital in Managua, where he has been for the last month for gastrointestinal illness and asthma.
Rodríguez told The Nica Times that the Rivas judge must by law sign off on the release form. If not, he said,Volz’s continued detainment is illegal.
At press time, Volz’s lawyer Fabbrith Gómez told The Nica Times that the whole case file had apparently been lost after Toruño said she sent it back to the Granada Appeals Court, which claims it was never received. Until the case file is found, he said, everything is on hold.
“It appears that there are some dark forces at play,” Gómez said.
The U.S. Embassy, meanwhile, released a statement Dec. 18 saying, “We hope that the competent authorities implement a decision as quickly as possible. We trust that the Nicaraguan authorities will assure the security and wellbeing of Mr. Volz while he is under their custody.”
Melissa Campbell, spokeswoman for Volz’s family, told The Nica Times in an email Dec. 17 that the family is worried about reports that Nicaraguan radio broadcasts “have been announcing that people need to take justice into their own hands since word of the court’s decision.”
“We are more concerned than ever before for Eric’s safety,” she added.
Volz’s mother, Maggie Anthony, meanwhile went on CNN and NBC’s Today Show Dec. 18 to plead her case and ask the Nicaraguan authorities to honor the court’s decision. She urged U.S. viewers to write to their congressmen and senators to demand that justice be done here.
Rodríguez, meanwhile, says that the state or the victim’s family will now have 10 working days to appeal the verdict to the Supreme Court before it becomes irreversible.
Because of the year-end holiday schedule, during which the courts close today through Christmas, the period of 10 working days will run into January.
During that time, however, Volz is free to leave the country as soon as he gets out of jail, Rodríguez said.
“I hope he does,” the judge said.