(WOMENSENEWS)--In a triumph for the Colombian women's rights movement, a young woman wrongly convicted of strangling her newborn has been released after six years in prison. The Colombian Supreme Court ordered the release of Alba Lucia Rodriguez Cardona from a jail in Abejorral, a small town in the Andes, after deciding that the forensic evidence presented did not support the conviction.
Before she was released on March 8, Rodriguez had been serving a 42-year and six-month sentence, one of the longest sentences in Colombian history. The unprecedented severity of her sentence--in light of considerably shorter sentences being served by those convicted of kidnapping, narcotics trafficking and massacres--outraged women's rights activists.
The doctor who examined Rodriguez's newborn concluded that she had strangled the girl, but Rodriguez testified the baby died after complications during delivery in her home. Rodriguez said she concealed the pregnancy out of shame and fear after being raped by an acquaintance. The doctor and later two lower courts equated her hiding her pregnancy with premeditation of murder.
The case came to symbolize the gender bias that is believed to pervade the Colombian courts, despite the legislative progress of the last decade.
"The case at all levels--the response of the public defender, the response of the male lawyer, the response of the physician that was supposed to take care of Rodriguez when she was bleeding, the response of the forensic physician, the response of the judge--it was all based on bias," said Viviana Krsticevic, executive director of the Center for Justice and International Law.
In December 2000, the center brought Rodriguez's case before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the monitoring body that oversees human rights practices in the Western Hemisphere. That case, separate from the Colombian court system, has not yet been heard.
Colombia Laws Are Progressive; Judges Reflect Culture
Colombian laws governing women's rights are the most progressive in Latin America and among the most progressive in the world, but implementation of those laws has been inconsistent.
"All over Latin America, judges, they reproduce the dominant culture," said Julieta Lemaitre, co-editor of "Cuerpo y Derecho: legislacion y jurisprudencia en America Latina," ("Bodies and Rights: Legislation and Jurisprudence in Latin America") a book that reviewed the rulings of Latin American judges in sexual and reproductive cases from 1989 through 2001.
"Most of the situations where women are vulnerable to human rights violations are related to sexuality and reproduction," she said. For example, one Colombian case ruled that Viagra was covered by health insurance while another case ruled that fertility treatments for women were not covered.
Under treaties governed by the United Nations and the Organization of American States, Colombia is required to implement international conventions governing women's rights. In 1991, Colombia created the Constitutional Court and amended its constitution to incorporate international rights standards.
While the decisions of the higher courts tend to be more progressive, impediments to reproductive freedom exist at all levels, Lemaitre said. The Colombian Constitutional Court has ruled that the right to life begins at conception and is independent of the right to life of the mother. In addition, the court has ruled that a woman's right to determine the number of children she will bear ends at conception.
Rodriguez Appeals Process Last Six Years
After giving birth in her home on April 4, 1996, Rodriguez was rushed to the hospital with life-threatening labor complications. Dr. Jairo Gomez examined Rodriguez and the dead infant and concluded that Rodriguez had strangled her infant daughter, according to Colombia's Supreme Court decision. Rodriguez was sent from the hospital directly to jail.
Rodriguez claimed that she had been drugged and raped by an acquaintance during a trip visiting family in Medellin, a city in the Andes. She had gone out with the man and later found that she could not recall a significant part of the evening. Several weeks after that night, she discovered that that she was pregnant, the decision stated.
But the prosecutor did not investigate Rodriguez's allegations of rape. The criminal court of Abejorral, the first court to hear Rodriguez's case, dismissed her claim, saying that "three hours does not constitute enough time for a woman to be raped." Although Rodriguez maintained her innocence, proof that she had been sexually assaulted would have reduced her sentence once she had been convicted.
In Colombia, 5.3 percent of women of childbearing age claim that they have been sexually assaulted, according to statistics published by the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy. Of those, more than 80 percent knew their attackers. A 1998 study published by the U.S. nonprofit group found that, in cases dealing with sexual violence, ". . . stereotypes continue to prevent equal justice for women in the judicial system."
The public defender appointed to Rodriguez in her first trial only contributed to the biased treatment she received. The lawyer argued that the impoverished girl had panicked and strangled her baby, despite the fact that Rodriguez maintained her innocence. And her attorney failed to object to questions about Rodriguez's boyfriends and the types of sex she had with them, what kind of food she had eaten and what kind of vitamins she had taken, according to the transcript of her original criminal court. In addition, Gomez was allowed to serve as both a witness and as the autopsy expert, a dual role that constituted a conflict of interest, which her lawyer did not question.
On April 2, 1997, the Abejorral court sentenced Rodriguez to 510 months in jail for aggravated homicide. Rodriguez switched to a private lawyer and appealed the case, but the decision was upheld by the court of appeals in Antioquia later that year.
Supreme Court Finds 'Unfortunate' Error
The Supreme Court, deciding the case five years later, overturned the ruling, finding that in "an unfortunate error of fact," the judge, prosecutor and doctor "ignored evidence that the death of the baby was caused by something other than strangulation."
The reassessment of the infant's autopsy found injuries "that could never have as a cause manual strangulation" but were consistent with Rodriguez's account of her concealed pregnancy and her attempt to deliver the baby by herself in the privacy of her family's bathroom. "A traumatic birth can cause injuries to the fetus, but you can not blame the mother for those injuries," the Supreme Court's decision said.
The high court's decision also found that, while the public defender could have pursued other avenues in Rodriguez's defense, his defense was "technically sufficient," and therefore the lawyer was not reprimanded. However, the court did criticize Gomez and the attending nurse for violating patient confidentiality.
Maria Ximena Castilla Jiminez, the lawyer who brought Rodriguez's case before the Supreme Court said, "We never doubted her innocence, but we definitely feared the Supreme Court's ruling."
Rodriguez plans to sue Gomez as well as the original public defender in the case. "We want the state to repair the material damage and the moral damage to Alba Lucia," Castilla said.
The Supreme Court reached its decision on March 7 but did not immediately publish its opinion. The next day, the court notified Castilla that Rodriguez was free to go.
"And then, for once, I thought that justice was possible and that women had a way to act to make justice possible," Castilla said.
Asjylyn Loder is a freelance writer in New York City.
For more information:
Inter-American Commission on Human Rights:
United Nations Development Fund for Women:
The Center for Reproductive Law and Policy
"Report Demonstrates Unequal Application of Reproductive Rights
in Latin America":