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Attorney Investigating Soldier's Death Gets Window Into Mexico's Justice System
The Connecticut Law Tribune
Family members were suspicious when they were told that a former U.S. Marine's fatal fall from a balcony in Cancun, Mexico, was ruled to be accidental. And so about 15 months ago, they reached out to Stamford, Conn., defense attorney Stephan Seeger.
What Seeger has learned since then has raised doubts about exactly how Sergeant Joe Bitet died. At the same time, Seeger has received a crash course in the Mexican legal system, learning that private lawyers can, at times, work closely with prosecutors.
"My criminal lawyer colleagues poke fun at me now, saying I crossed over to the other side," said Seeger. "I have to admit it seems like that, but I qualify it, and say, 'Yes, but only in Mexico.'"
Joseph Paul Bitet was a Long Island, N.Y., resident who had served two tours of Iraq as a Marine. He had then joined the Army Reserve and was scheduled for a Kuwait deployment. His mother told a television program that, when her son was overseas, she used to worry every time a car came down the road it might stop in front of her home and bring word of her son's death.
But Bitet would survive the war, only to die thousands of miles from Iraq under more mysterious circumstances.
Bitet and his girlfriend, Allyson Jo Parla, had been at Cancun's Hotel Riu for only a few days in January 2012 when Parla got a call from hotel staff telling her that he had fallen from a fifth-floor ledge. "She was waiting for him in the hotel room when the front desk called," Seeger said.
Parla and Bitet's family did not believe that someone as strong as he could be involved in an accident like that, Seeger said.
"The family was concerned mostly in finding out what happened and bringing some closure to a scenario that didn't make any sense to them," Seeger said. "They contacted local Mexican counsel, but were told that nothing could be done."
Bitet's mother had heard about Seeger from a television anchor person.
"I was shocked when I first became involved, to find out the alarming number of 'balcony' deaths in Mexico, particularly involving Americans," Seeger said, referring to instances where American tourists -- often students on spring break -- get drunk and topple from balconies of high-rise hotels. "The Bitet case was written off as a typical balcony case, but this family did not believe this was an accident. This was a strong, level-headed Marine; a fall as originally explained to his family by Mexican authorities just didn't make sense."
Seeger agreed to help the family further investigate the matter, and to bring a civil suit against the hotel. At first, however, he wasn't sure what rights a Connecticut lawyer and his clients would have in Mexico.
'INFLUENCE THE PROSECUTION'
After some time spent spinning his wheels, Seeger found his answer: He would have more rights than in a similar case in the U.S.
Seeger's investigation into Bitet's death is being aided by a provision in Mexican law that allows lawyers to apply for a special status, known as coadyuvante. "It's a status that allows direct input and communication by the victim's counsel to the prosecution," Seeger said. "It places the victim's family's lawyer in the inner circle. It gives them more rights."
He continued: "You can to some extent, with this status, influence the prosecution. It's an interesting, not often used procedure," Seeger said, and one not well known even among U.S. lawyers who handle cases in Mexico.
A Houston-based lawyer with expertise in Mexican law confirmed Seeger's explanation. Ignacio Pinto-Leon, an attorney licensed in Mexico and the United States, said that either victims in non-lethal crimes or family members can be coadyuvantes of the Ministerio Publico. The closest translation into English would be "adjutant," said Pinto-Leon.
"Such status allows them to assist the prosecution, offer evidence, have a saying in the proceedings," Pinto-Leon said.
The federal constitution in Mexico has provided for the status at least since the 1990s, said Pinto-Leon, who is director of the Houston-based JurisMex Corp., which is a consulting firm that provides advice on Mexican law.
To apply for the coadyuvante status, the Bitet family had to fill out forms, confirming that Seeger would be the liaison between them and Mexican authorities. He hasn't formally been granted the status, but Seeger said just applying for it has opened a lot of doors for him and his investigators. "This made things a lot smoother," Seeger said. "The original stonewalling and cultural disparity I encountered would explain why most Americans who lose loved ones in Mexico don't see things through. It's exhausting, and at times disheartening."
Bitet died just after 3 a.m. on January 7, 2012. There is evidence that the ex-Marine had been drinking with another man that evening. The girlfriend, Parla, has told a New York television station she was shown a hotel surveillance video that showed Bitet getting on and off the elevator with a man she did not know.
Seeger and his investigators tracked the man to London and questioned him there. The attorney said the man "contradicted himself" about the events of that night. "It appears there was a continuing cover-up," Seeger said.
Seeger has already traveled to Mexico once to meet with prosecutors and investigators. He plans to return in May, and be formally granted coadyuvante status. At that point, he plans to press Mexican authorities to further investigate the man from London.
"To get to the point we are at now, we had to unearth evidence that wasn't gathered or was overlooked. This takes a great deal of time and patience. When you gain credibility, the channels of communication are opened up," Seeger said.
Seeger said he found that Mexican authorities want justice in the case, and in general, as much as he does.
"Everything is globalized nowadays, and in the future, with increased travel, business abroad, and instant communications, our own lawyers will encounter foreign issues affecting their clients," he said. "Knowing how to help them doesn't require you to pass a world bar exam. If you look into the local law and custom, and affiliate yourself with the right people, you might find that you may be able to serve your clients at home, even though their issue has its roots in other lands."