Closed-door hearings inside a mobile trailer. Suspects held for up to a year while investigators scour for evidence. Allegations of police beatings designed to coerce confessions.
At the center of it all, a country scrambling to find out who wanted to kill a national hero and why.
The high-profile investigation into the plot to kill David Ortiz will test the Dominican Republic’s troubled and under-funded criminal justice system under the harsh glare of the international spotlight.
The US State Department has described the country’s justice system as plagued by human rights violations, improper influence on judicial decisions, and corruption.
In a 2018 report, the department said suspects have been subjected to torture, roundups, lengthy pretrial detentions, and life-threatening prison conditions, despite constitutional protections for defendants. The report said detainees have had their heads covered with plastic bags, been struck with broom handles, and forced to stand overnight.
“It’s a very poor country with a very dysfunctional justice system,” said Eugene O’Donnell, a former New York police officer and current professor of law and police studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who has helped train the Dominican National Police. “The composite picture wouldn’t leave you with a lot of faith.”
Amnesty International, in a 2011 report, found the National Police — who are investigating the plot to kill Ortiz — frequently exploited investigations as opportunities for extortion and bribery, particularly when conducting sweeps of poor, high-crime neighborhoods.
The report, citing statistics from the Dominican Office of the Prosecutor General, found the police were also responsible for 15 percent of all homicides in the country, shooting and killing hundreds of people every year.
While police claimed the vast majority of those were criminals killed in gun battles, the report said many of the shootings appeared to be unlawful and may have been aimed at eliminating repeat offenders or sending a message to others involved in crime.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Dominicans ranked the police ninth when asked about their trust in 10 civic institutions, the report said. Only political parties fared worse.
O’Donnell said Dominican police are poorly paid, even by Latin American standards, with a major making about $10,000 annually and rank-and-file officers earning between $3,000 and $5,000. Equipment and technology are lacking, and “corruption is endemic,” because officers are making “starvation wages,” he said.
“It’s that baked-in corruption,” he said. “It’s expected that a police person will take their opportunities for money and, at the higher levels, there’s very lavish corruption.”
While corruption, police violence, and lack of integrity are not unique to the Dominican Republic, and have plagued the criminal justice system in the United States, as well, they are prompting concerns about the government’s ability to properly investigate Ortiz’s shooting.
Police have so far identified more than 12 suspects and have paraded many of them into the trailer outside a Santo Domingo courthouse, a space that was designed to be temporary when it was installed in 2002. In hearings closed to the press, a judge has ordered the suspects be held for up to a year, deeming their cases “complex.”
Nearby, other suspects, visible from behind an iron gate, wait for their court appearances in a small, dark jail cell that reeks of sweat and urine.
Deivi Solano, a lawyer in Santo Domingo who is representing Eddy Vladimir Feliz Garcia, the motorcycle driver who allegedly drove the gunman to the bar where Ortiz was shot, said Ortiz’s fame makes the case especially challenging.
“We can’t punish someone or blame someone based on the stature of the victim,” Solano said.
He said that while he believes judges will consider the case fairly, he is less certain about the police, saying officers have been known to fabricate evidence.
“Having faith in the judicial system is one thing,” he said. “Having faith in those who interpret the evidence is another. . . . I hope the police don’t pursue a case against someone who truly had nothing to do with this. Don’t accuse someone who didn’t do anything.”
Police have said that the alleged hit men were paid about $7,800 to murder Ortiz, who was shot once in the back June 9. They have not said who ordered the shooting, or why, and have yet to offer a complete narrative connecting all the suspects to the plot. Those arrested so far were charged based on video surveillance, witnesses interviews, and other evidence, according to prosecutors who have vowed to explain the motive and plot in greater detail this week.
Family members and lawyers of some of the accused have argued that the suspects charged so far played no role in the attack or were bit players, at best.
Nassef Perdomo, a constitutional lawyer in Santo Domingo, said it’s hard to judge how much evidence the police have because the court hearings have been closed to the public. He likened the process to a grand jury investigation in the United States, where evidence is also presented behind closed doors.
Perdomo said that the extraordinary public interest in the investigation could ensure the case is investigated professionally.
“This is a very high-profile case and the result of this case is going to have a major impact on the Dominican police’s reputation, so I think they’re going to do their best work,” Perdomo said.
Fabio J. Guzmán Ariza, a Santo Domingo lawyer, author, and lecturer, said that Dominican law guarantees criminal suspects free defense counsel and the right to appeal their detention.
If the suspects’ cases go to trial, those will be held in open court, just as they are in the United States, he said.
He also said the trailer has no bearing on the quality of the hearings held inside.
“I don’t think there’s anything particularly challenging about it, to be honest,” Guzman said of the Ortiz case. “The laws are there and people just have to follow the law. Defendants are very protected here.”