Public Safety

Deputy Public Defender Helps Latin American Countries Transform Legal Systems

Like other San Diego County Deputy Public Defenders, Jesus Romero regularly challenges other attorneys in court and makes objections as he defends his clients against criminal charges that may involve drugs, gangs and even murder.

After more than 26 years as a public defender, these skills are almost second nature to him, but in some Latin American countries, these tactics are not common or in practice. So Romero frequently travels to Latin America countries including Argentina, Chile and Mexico to provide his expertise as they transform their penal systems. He advises lawyers, judges and magistrates as they fundamentally change their systems from a guilty until proven innocent model where lawyers present their cases via paper only, to what’s known as an adversarial legal system like in the United States.

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“We are proud of the important work that Jesus Romero is doing in Latin America to help in the transformation of their legal system to one similar to the one we use here. The legal system should be fair and uniform on a global level,” said Primary Public Defender Chief Deputy Randy Mize. “He is truly making an impact globally.”

Previously in these countries, judges would review cases, conduct their own independent investigations and rule from their chambers without ever seeing a single witness. The new systems are dramatically different, and require a lot of training and expert consultation.

“I’m sort of known in Latin America for understanding the Argentinean, Chilean and Mexican legal systems,” Romero said. “I’m considered an expert in adversarial law.”

Most recently in March, he traveled to Chihuahua, a state in Mexico, and the month before to Chile to consult with state and federal judges in each country. All the trips have been paid for by the inviting agency.

“There are not many Americans who are invited into the inner sanctum of the Chilean Court of Appeal, they are very guarded,” said Romero. “But they’ve known me for many years and they know I’m more friend than foe, and they really want to do the best for the Chilean people.”

While Chile adopted the adversarial system 16 years ago, lately challenges and objections are being introduced more frequently in courts as attorneys in Chile are studying criminal procedure in the United States and trying to implement these practices. In addition to the new procedures, lawyers there are also citing U.S. law precedents in their arguments because there are none as yet in the law books of their country, he said.

Romero said he is sympathetic to the judges who are adjusting to a completely new way of doing things. Some of the new procedural methods such as objecting to an opposing attorney’s statement or challenging a court decision would have been considered disrespectful to the judges under the previous system. These are procedures which are very common in the United States court of law, but Latin American judges struggle with how to rule on these kinds of motions, said Romero.

Romero spent five days in Valparaiso, Chile in February, meeting with the judges, magistrates, court staff, and the chief prosecutor and chief public defender. The next month he met for three days with federal judges in Chihuahua, where the adversarial law system is only a few years old. Romero said he spoke about such topics as the standard of proof, the weight of evidence, objections, and court decorum. Previously, he noted, under the old systems, proof simply came in the form of a written affidavit. Now, witnesses appear in court and can be cross-examined to determine if their testimonies are credible.

“There is a benefit to all Latin American people that the adversarial penal system is in place. It is fairer to all,” said Romero.

And his efforts are appreciated. The president of the Chilean Court of Appeals, Mario Repetto Garcia, sent a letter to the San Diego County Public Defender’s Office about the value of Romero’s expertise.

“Experts like Mr. Romero are of great assistance to all our judges and other participants,” said Garcia. “The (San Diego County) Office of the Public Defender has brought the opportunity of judicial transparency, efficiency and equal justice one step closer to Chile. It is very difficult to find U.S. trained lawyers who can effectively teach, in Spanish legalese, our participants trial skills, persuasion skills and techniques which are new and foreign to us.”

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Romero is also helping provide oral argument and adversarial law training for Mexican attorneys as part of Binational Agreement he helped author with the Governor of Baja California in 2015. In return, the governor has instructed the Baja California Public Defender’s Office to assist attorneys with the San Diego County Public Defender, Alternate Public Defender and the Multiple Conflicts Office in obtaining documents and accessing witnesses in Mexico. The Binational Agreement has since been used at least 15 times to help with cases in the past year, and has been extended for another two years by San Diego County Public Defender Henry Coker.

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Yvette Urrea Moe is a communications specialist with the County of San Diego Communications Office. Contact