Sunday, May 22, 2016

4 Years Later... the case of Maria Teresa

On Friday morning I sat in one of the salas in the Corte Suprema de Justicia in San Salvador as an international observer. The case was one of the famous "17" - 17 Salvadoran women incarcerated for aggravated homicide, specifically for intentionally killing a minor under the age of 13. In this particular sala, the accused, Maria Teresa Rivera, had already been incarcerated for 4.5 years since her original sentencing in 2011. She was accused of intentionally murdering an infant boy, her son, though she asserts he died due to a natural miscarriage exacerbated by serious health concerns untreatable with the meager salary she earned in a sweatshop. At the time of the miscarriage, bleeding profusely, Maria Teresa called the police to get an ambulance to bring her to the hospital. They handcuffed her instead. Later she would be sentenced to 40 years in prison for intentionally killing her son, the longest sentence handed out to any of the "17".

Amidst the overwhelming hopelessness that is the global media today, I need to share Maria Teresa's story. Because something happened in that court room on Friday. In the exchanges between the prosecution and defense, there was the classic, infuriating banter between two sides - empirical observation and impassioned ideology. And boy was that ideology persuasive. The smallest insinuations - mapping out the size of the child when he was born, describing the cruelty of abandoning the child's body - it was difficult to remember as the lawyer's words flew by what was speculation and what was fact.

Photographers swarm Maria Teresa when she first enters the court room (with some familiar gringa chelitas looking on in the background).
And the defense - a dry, almost grocery-list-like examination of the autopsy, the tests, the definitions of hypo-patho-anatomical-blahblahblah. Please define such-and-such a test; please explain why you only did two of the required four iterations... And then WHAM! All that groundwork, all that review, formed a base from which to extract the truth. "And so based on these conclusions would you say that the prenatal asphyixiation could have been due to natural causes?" The room went silent (it was that "perm moment" in Legally Blonde for you Elle Woods fans out there). "Yes, I would say that it could." Amongst the peanut gallery, we exchanged gleeful looks and fist bumps.

In his closing statements, the defense lawyer said, "We cannot base our democracy on ideology, on biases, on suppositions and speculations... in the Bible, God promises us salvation. If we were to read that empirically, civicly, even constitutionally, we would say that true justice affirms the dignity of every human being. Of every. human. being. Anything less is an affront to our country and to her citizens. Four years ago, a judge made a grave error... let there be justice today."

Today at 2:30pm (El Salvador time), after four and a half years in prison, Maria Teresa walked free, absolved of all criminal charges on the grounds that the child died of prenatal asphyxiation, with no conclusive proof of intent to kill. Photographers wiped away tears as they snapped a shot of Maria sobbing into her lawyer's arms. She hugged her 10-year old son whom she hasn't seen in over three years, and she went home.

Maria Teresa hugs her lawyer following the judge's final decision to repeal her 40-year prison sentence and absolve her of all convictions.
To take the time to deliberately arrive at a deduction, not an assumption, seems rare in today's world. In that court room, something critically important and yet so often forgotten was affirmed: the conclusion that we cannot invent criminals to bear the cost of our own hatred. That true justice is the affirmation of human dignity, often in spite of our own biases. That by taking this rule and applying to just one relationship, to just one person, can make an enormous different.

In bittersweet moments like these - honoring both the court's victory and the loss of life in Maria Teresa's wrongful incarceration - MLK's voice seems to shine through: "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." Watching the defending lawyer collapse into his chair after the decision was announced, it was clear that every victory is often earned through great sacrifice. But there is hope. There is this idea, this often violated but almost universally accepted vision of justice. And it is something that we each have the power to practice in our own lives. One relationship, one action at a time.

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