Judges sentenced former public defender Luis Fernando Burgos to 35 years in prison this week for strangling his wife, judicial assistant Maureen Hidalgo.
Gender violence experts celebrated the “historic sentence” as a victory for women’s rights in a country where the vast majority of domestic violence cases go unpunished. Three female judges, despite a complete lack of physical evidence, handed down the conviction that was the climax to the highly publicized, two-month trial.
In a dramatic verdict reading that drew a packed, sweaty crowd to the courtroom in downtown San José Tuesday, former state prosecutor Zulay Rojas was also sentenced to two years in prison for failing to take action against Burgos after he confessed to her the murder. But judges reduced the sentence of Rojas, also Burgos’ ex-girlfriend, to a five-year probation period as it was her first offense.
As the judges read Burgos’ guilty verdict, he leaned languidly over the defense table, hanging his head and resting his weight on the palms of his hands. At the other end of the table, the blond Rojas stood tall, and smiled.
“I believe this sentence will be a case study for our lawyers and for all those receiving training in the Judicial Branch,” in how to punish domestic violence, said Jeannette Carrillo, director of the National Institute for Women (INAMU). She praised “the seriousness and swiftness with which the case was dealt.”
The decision was the icing on the cake for women’s rights activists, who just recently finished celebrating the entering into effect of the controversial Law to Penalize Violence against Women, which establishes tougher punishments for abusive men (TT, June 1).
Even Libertarian Movement legislator Luis Barrantes, an outspoken opponent of the violence against women legislation, called the Burgos sentencing “very good.”
‘Excessive Lack of Evidence’
Judges based their decision on the testimonies of Rojas and other witnesses who testified Burgos had confessed the murder to them and sought help moving his wife’s body out of their apartment. Supporting testimonies and phone records revealing who Burgos called before and after the murder were also key factors, said judge Linda Casas.
A slew of witness testimonies that Burgos was abusive weighed heavily in the judges’ decisions to convict the 50-year-old lawyer despite a complete lack of physical evidence.
Among those witnesses were Hidalgo’s mother and Hidalgo’s friend, who claimed that Hidalgo’s marriage to Burgos was postponed several times due to incidents of abuse. Burgos’ motive, prosecutors said, was to get revenge upon his wife, whom he suspected was unfaithful.
“It’s true as the defense says that this isn’t a trial for domestic violence,” said prosecutor Miguel Abarca “but (the testimonies) serve to affirm that don Luis Fernando has come to court to lie.”
Carrillo applauded that the judges had the training and knowledge to factor Burgos’ abusive history into their decision. In the verdict reading, head judge Ana Patricia Araya referred to the “cycle of violence” in the couple’s relationship as a cause for the murder.
“The use of that information played into the sentencing, something that has been historically difficult for the Judicial Branch to do,” Carrillo said.
Carmen Ulate, domestic violence specialist at the NationalUniversity’s Women’s Studies Institute, called the “novel” decision a “break” from the Judicial Branch’s tendency to side with the accused in domestic violence cases without physical evidence. The judicial concept is known in Latin as in dubio pro reo, or “when in doubt, favor the accused.”
It was a triumph for state prosecutors who faced a case with virtually no physical evidence and an inconclusive autopsy, since Burgos apparently covered up his tracks after the murder and left no clues in their Zapote apartment, where he kept his wife’s body for two days before having it dumped off the highway near Atenas, a coffee town about an hour west of San José. It’s still not clear who, if anyone, helped him remove the body.
The defense’s alternative scenario that Hidalgo was kidnapped was undeveloped, and the defense failed to discredit the testimonies of the prosecution’s key witnesses, judge Casas said.
“There was nothing about the characteristics of (the prosecution’s) witnesses that showed they were interested in harming Burgos,” she said.
According to Rojas’ testimony, Burgos strangled Hidalgo the morning of July 11, 2006, then came and visited Rojas at her home, where he confessed the murder. In her damning and emotional declaration Sept. 21 following a week of hospitalization for acute stress, Rojas stood up at the defense table and faced Burgos: “You won’t destroy me, Mr. Burgos … We all know the plain truth, you killed Maureen.”
According to the testimonies of Burgos’ former client Guillermo Hutt and car salesman Anthony Calderón, Burgos contacted both of them on different occasions, confessed to the murder and asked for help to move the body.
Burgos’ odd behavior after his wife’s disappearance also gave clues that Casas said factored into the verdict. Among them:
-Burgos waited two days from when his wife disappeared to file a missing person report with police. According to prosecutors, he was trying to figure out how to remove his wife’s body from the apartment during this time.No one entered his apartment during those two days.
–Burgos called former client and businessman Ernesto Ruiz the night of the murder and asked him to lend him a “comfortable-sized car” which prosecutors said would have been used to move Hidalgo’s body.
–Before he filed the police report, Burgos handed over the cell phone he used to make calls before and after the murder to Ruiz. When it was entered as evidence, the phone’s chip was missing. Nonetheless, state investigators were able to get a hold of phone records that showed he had called Rojas and Calderón in the two days after the murder.
–Burgos never called Hidalgo’s parents – even though Hidalgo stayed at her mother’s house the night before the murder – to ask about Hidalgo’s possible whereabouts before reporting her missing.
During his closing arguments last week, Burgos’ lawyer Jorge Rojas argued there was “an excessive lack of evidence” in the case. “How do we explain there was no physical evidence found in the apartment of the accused that links him to the murder?” Rojas asked during his closing arguments. Hidalgo’s body would have been in the apartment for two days before it was removed.
Juan Diego Castro, former president of Costa Rica’s Lawyers’ Association, didn’t want to comment on the specifics of the case, but said, “the only necessary physical evidence in a murder case is a body.”
Burgos reported the disappearance of his wife July 13, 2006, two days after she was last seen (TT, July 21, 2006). Two hours after Burgos made his report, Chief Prosecutor Francisco Dall’Anese received an anonymous call from someone (later revealed to have been judge Elizabeth Tossi) who had received a tip from Burgos’ former client Hutt that Burgos was the murderer.
Dall’Anese sent an investigator to bring in Rojas for questioning, which is when she failed to mention Burgos’ confession. Hidalgo’s rotting body was found five days after the murder when a man riding his bike noticed some low-flying vultures circling the body off the highway in Atenas.
At this week’s sentencing, judges ordered Burgos to pay $350,000 in damages to Hidalgo’s family, whom he “tortured” for days after the murder by leading them on to believe that Hidalgo could still be alive, said judge Ana Patricia Araya. Burgos, who has spent the last year in preventive prison, was sentenced to six more months while the defense is given a chance to file appeals.
The San José court is cordoned off with yellow caution tape; a line snakes out into the street. It is 10 minutes before the verdict of the most high-profile case in Costa Rica’s recent history. In the hallway outside the courtroom, onlookers stand on tiptoes waiting for the judges.
For the past several months, the trial of public defender Luis Fernando Burgos has received more intense coverage from the press than any other trial in recent history.
Inside the courtroom, three measly oscillating fans fail to cool off a sweaty mass of humanity. Standing room only. In the back, a cavalry of about a dozen video cameras eye their target: Burgos.
The three judges walk into the room, inciting a chatter that soon dies away as they sit down. They read Burgos’ sentence. Guilty. 35 years. The hallway explodes with a cacophony of gasps.
“Silence!” snaps Fabian Barrantes, the Judicial Branch spokesman squished between a video cameraman and two onlookers squirming to get a view over Barrantes’ shoulder.
As the hour-long reading carries on, audience members trickle out and cameramen pack it up. The suspense of one of the biggest court cases in recent Costa Rican history had reached is climax.