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Video: Young man's fight to prove innocence

TODAY
updated 3/26/2007 11:39:05 AM ET 2007-03-26T15:39:05

The anguished mother of Eric Volz, a young American businessman convicted of a brutal murder he — and at least 10 witnesses — say he didn’t commit, is fighting to free him from the Nicaraguan prison to which he has been sentenced for 30 years.

“This is absolutely unbelievable what’s happening,” his mother, Maggie Anthony, told TODAY’s Meredith Vieira. “I don’t understand why this has happened this way.”

To his attorney, Jacqueline Becerra, it’s simple. A popular businesswoman in the sleepy seaside town of San Juan del Sur on Nicaragua's Pacific coast was murdered, and somebody had to pay. “This crime rocked it to its core and the people of San Juan needed an answer,” she told Vieira. “The people in the town sent a message to the judge.”

They sent it while wielding machetes and confronting squadrons of riot  police called out to protect Volz during the trial. The local tabloid newspapers helped, referring to Volz as the “gringo” who killed his ex-girlfriend.

Despite Volz’s lightning-quick trial and conviction, Becerra believes that his chances of acquittal in the Nicaraguan appellate courts are good. “We’re looking forward to the appellate process,” Becerra told TODAY. “This case is now going to be looked at by a panel of three judges who aren’t connected to San Juan. They’re going to be looking at the facts. The facts are clear. Eric was in Managua.”

‘The gringo’
“My son was tried in the press, and there’s a lot of people who are angry at him,” his mother told Vieira. Since Volz was charged, she has spent much of her time in Nicaragua, as has Volz’s father, Jan Volz, seeking justice for their son. There is “no DNA, no physical evidence. It’s preposterous,” Anthony said.

The ordeal began on Nov. 23, when the 27-year-old Volz was arrested for the rape and murder of his former girlfriend, Doris Ivania Jimenez. She owned a dress shop in San Juan del Sur, about two hours from the capital of Managua, where Volz lived and published EP Magazine, a bilingual publication that promoted sustainable ecotourism in the Central American republic.

According to NBC’s Kelly Sanders, reporting from Nicaragua, Jimenez was raped and found hogtied and strangled in her dress shop on Nov. 21. According to a Web site, friendsofericvolz.com, initially, three others, including Jimenez’ current boyfriend and two local small-time criminals, were also charged in the killing. Only Volz — the “gringo” — was brought to trial, even though no physical evidence linked him to the crime and witnesses and cell phone records confirmed that he was in Managua at the time the murder was committed.

He was convicted by Judge Ivette Toruno Blanco on Feb. 21, one week after his trial began, and sentenced to 30 years in prison; Nicaragua does not have the death penalty. During the trial, angry crowds armed with machetes tried to get to Volz, who was escorted by squads of heavily armed police.

“It was a big angry mob, and they got a guilty verdict,” said American journalist Tony D’Souza, who was also interviewed by Sanders. When news of the guilty verdict was relayed to the mob in the street outside the courtroom, he said, “They acted as if they’d been to the Super Bowl — and they won.”

On the Internet, D’Souza writes that he had gone to Nicaragua to do a surfing story, and ended up staying there, wrapped up in Volz’s case. He wrote a lengthy news feature story on it that will appear in the June issue of Outside Magazine.

D’Souza told Sanders that Jimenez’s mother said Volz committed the crime out of jealousy, a claim Volz’s mother says is absurd. “Eric’s not a violent man,” she said.

Becerra chose to downplay the role of anti-American sentiment in the case. “Right now, what we’re focused on is that the judicial system in Nicaragua will respond,” she said.

— Mike Celizic, contributor for TODAY

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