MANAGUA, Nicaragua- Maggie Anthony is hoping for a Mother's Day victory party, but she doesn't expect one.
It was 3:56 p.m. in Nashville on Feb. 16-minutes after a verdict was read-when Maggie Anthony got a call that was supposed to end the nightmare she'd lived for 84 days. On the other end was Miami-based attorney Jacqueline Becerra, whose call was supposed to affirm that justice had prevailed in a Nicaragua courtroom. Maggie had been preparing a homecoming for her son, Eric Volz, imprisoned in Nicaragua for a crime he says he didn't commit.
But Becerra's call brought the one piece of news it wasn't supposed to: "It's a guilty verdict." Volz, 27, an American resident of Nicaragua who ran a bilingual magazine called El Puente-"The Bridge"-was first convicted on Thanksgiving Day of raping and murdering his ex-girlfriend, Doris Ivania Jiménez, 25. He would soon be sent to La Modelo, a max-security prison outside the capital city of Managua, to begin serving a sentence of 30 years.
Maggie Anthony and her husband Dane, Volz's stepfather, took up temporary residence in a Managua hotel to tangle with Volz-fixated media that had formed a verbal lynch mob. Dane quit his job as an associate dean at Belmont University, and Maggie expressed her outrage about a verdict that she says resulted from emotions, anger, fear of the mobs, a vicious media agenda, and a few firebrand gringo haters.
The evidence should have made the Volz trial a defense lawyer's dream. Ten witnesses submitted sworn statements that Volz was in Managua when the murder occurred in the beach community of San Juan del Sur, 90 miles away on a narrow, undulating road complete with dangerous potholes and locals who push carts right down the middle. The trip normally takes three hours.
Phone records corroborate Volz's claim that he learned of Jiménez's murder when a friend called at 2:43 p.m. A Hertz rental car printout that reads 3:11 p.m. corroborates his story that he drove to San Juan del Sur only after he heard of the murder. None of the 103 hair, blood, and fluid samples found at the scene of the crime match Volz's.
The prosecution trumped all of that evidence with its only eyewitness, Nelson López Danglas, who began the case as a co-defendant but was released, despite having scratches on his back and penis, in return for his testimony against Volz. He said Volz was inside Jiménez's store at 1 p.m., which fits her time of death between 11:45 a.m. and 1 p.m. If true, his testimony gives Volz less than two hours to return to Managua before the call at 2:43 p.m. (The caller testified that she spoke to him, and phone records verify that it took place in Managua.)
Judge Ivette Toruño's guilty verdict-which came without a jury trial at Volz's request-relied heavily on two parallel scratch marks on Volz's right shoulder. Volz was arrested the day of Jiménez's funeral, after serving as a pallbearer. He said he got the marks from bearing the brunt of her coffin's weight at an angle, since he was slightly taller than the others. Toruño disagreed: "Carrying a coffin is never, ever going to leave those scratches on anyone." Video footage from the funeral shows Volz indeed bearing the brunt-on his right shoulder.
Ricardo Castillo, a prominent Nicaraguan journalist who testified he was meeting with Volz in Managua when the murder occurred, says that Nicaraguans labeled Volz (falsely, he says) as the rich, unlawful, irresponsible gringo living it up in Nicaragua who, guilty or not, got what he had coming. The trial was in a tiny courtroom as crowds of 300 waited outside (sometimes with machetes and clubs). During the first hearing, an angry mob chased Volz and a U.S. Embassy worker into a nearby building that the two barricaded to taunts of "Come out, gringo, because we are going to kill you!"
"You can see what enormous pressure the judge was under," Dane says. "It doesn't excuse it, but she has to live with these people."
Mercedes Alvarado, mother of the slain woman, expresses a different view of the trial results. She sees Volz's attorney, Ramón Rojas, as the lawyer who orchestrated Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega's acquittal in a 2001 sexual abuse case that his stepdaughter brought against him. (Lots of Nicaraguans resent the tactics that Rojas employed; many are sure bribery took place.) She thinks he used similar tactics in the Volz case: She argues that Rojas paid off witnesses and experts, like the forensic examiner who admitted the blood-sample error. She claims that the Volz defense tried to give her $1 million before the trial to drop the charges.
To this, the Volz camp wonders: From where and why? The family says money was always scarce, plus Alvarado wouldn't have had authority to drop criminal charges. Alvarado says that it might have been a ploy to see if her scruples had a buyout price. She didn't want money. "What I need is my daughter," she told El Nuevo Diario.
Volz's parents largely view that paper as the great antagonist. "Before the trial even began," Maggie says, "he was tried in the papers . . . with headlines like 'What crown does Volz wear?'" She says she contacted El Nuevo Diario directly to request an interview: The paper declined. The defense team offered up its trial arguments for publication: No again. The Volz family ultimately bought an ad in the paper and listed them.
American media like The Wall Street Journal and The Today Show have covered the battle, but Volz told WORLD that he's frustrated with coverage that exaggerates his predicament into a murder mystery suffused with romantic intrigue. Some headlines have sounded like Agatha Christie books ("Romance, a murder and an American in Nicaraguan jail"). At the time of Jiménez's death, Volz says, he was "not dating or romantically involved with her." For a rare moment, his words echo Alvarado: "The media keep trying to make this into something it was not, therefore missing what it really is."
Nor have the authorities made things easy. Their inconveniences include barring a U.S. Embassy official from the courtroom and delaying the release of trial transcripts the defense needed for its appeal. The Volz family has tried to put pressure on the Nicaraguan government by reaching audiences directly through a website, a MySpace page, and YouTube video that now has 78,000 views and urges at the end, "Write your senator and congressman and demand justice." (An anti-Volz group also has a YouTube video, titled "The Other Side of the Story.")
Letters and emails pour in each week. Eric Volz's dad Jan, a tour director in Nashville and former member of the Christian rock band The 77s, has stayed stateside and made enviable headway in the corridors of power. Presidential candidates John Edwards and John McCain became Volz's MySpace "friends," though Jan is loath to let this "become political football." He's had fruitful meetings with State Department officials, although the situation's diplomatic delicateness confines their efforts largely to "monitoring."
The Anthonys and Jan Volz say they daily see God's redemption. As they've depleted their life savings, new donations have flowed in. Through the trial, both legal and spiritual, they've seen Eric's faith renewed and his story inspire many worldwide, prompting Jan to compare his son's imprisonment loosely to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Jan prays for liberation, but says, "I've prepared myself for whatever."
Last month the Toruño court finally sent Volz's file to the Court of Appeals. Upon its receipt, the court has six days to hold a hearing and five to rule on the matter. It's an 11-day turnaround, but those familiar with the system counsel the pragmatism of staying stoic; they've seen the process stall arbitrarily at this point for innumerable trivial reasons. A guilty verdict here can be appealed once more to the Supreme Court, though everyone is hoping for closure.
Jan Volz says he'll continue "screaming for justice"-but so will many in the Nicaraguan populace who have a different idea of what it means in this case.