There was widespread surprise and condemnation Monday when a court in Limón acquitted seven men in the murder of environmentalist Jairo Mora Sandoval.
The Poder Judicial quickly noted the verdict is subject to appeal and that the president of the Corte Suprema de Justicia, Zarela Villanueva Monge, said the law gives judges independence.
The trial panel said that there were errors in the investigation of the case and the safeguarding of evidence. Some lawmakers are calling for an appearance by Jorge Chavarría, the fiscal general de la República, Carmen Zúñiga, the fiscal of the Tribunal de Juicio in Limón, and Francisco Segura, director of the Judicial Investigating Organization.
Marcela Guerrero Campos of the Partido Acción Ciudadana said the acquittal on technical grounds damages the image of Costa Rica.
Perhaps the most outspoken was Paul Watson, the founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. He called the verdict a sad, sad day for justice in Costa Rica.
“It is not surprising that the seven men charged with the murder of Jairo Mora Sandoval have been acquitted,” Watson said on a Facebook page. “Evidence was conveniently lost, and the court made numerous errors, and although these men clearly are responsible for killing Jairo, they get to walk, although four of them will serve time for rape and robbery of tourists on the same beach. All seven were acquitted of murder, kidnapping, sexual …assault and robbery involving Jairo Mora Sandoval and the volunteer women turtle conservationists working with him.”
He called Jairo Mora a martyr and added “he is in my opinion the greatest conservation hero in the history of Costa Rica, and the system has failed him, and it did so because of corruption and politics. The narco-poachers have won again, not surprising — they have the money, the power and the ruthless determination to advance their greed at all costs.”
The case began May 31, 2013 when Mora and volunteers were traveling to a Caribbean beach, Playa Moín, on a mission to protect turtles. They were confronted by men who took Mora away and held the volunteers hostage for a time in a nearby dwelling.
The judges said that both the prosecution and investigators lacked rigor in handling evidence including breaks in the chain of custody. Problems also existed in the presentation of the case of the three U.S. volunteers and a Spanish woman who were held hostage while Mora was dragged to his death at the nearby beach.
The judges cited errors in the handling of wiretap results including a lack of attributing ownership of certain cell phones to the accused.
Three of the accused are free, but four others were convicted of robbery and holding people against their will. They will serve terms ranging up to 27 years.