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New Legal System in Venezuela

July 2, 1999

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) _ Venezuela’s new American-style legal system officially went into action Thursday, but the new courtrooms remained locked and judges were still dictating briefs the old-fashioned way _ to secretaries typing furiously.

By bringing an end to secretive written trials and adding a citizen jury, the new system is supposed to replace the paperwork-laden legal system Venezuela inherited from Spanish rule.

But Congress had not appointed all the members of the national Judiciary Council, which oversees the courts, by the first day of the new system Thursday.

``None of the judges in the country are applying the new system today,″ Caracas criminal court judge Marisela Godoy Estaba said Thursday. ``We are still waiting for orders from the Judiciary Council.″

The problem should be resolved in two weeks, Judiciary Council spokeswoman Janett Escalona said. Still, experts expect more snags.

Officials hope the new system will ease an astounding backlog. Only one in three prisoners has actually been convicted, and the rest have been waiting for trial, some for years.

For the first time, victims, suspects, witnesses, prosecutors, defenders, judges and jurors will face each other in open trials. Previously, one judge would rule on cases in private after reviewing written arguments submitted by both sides.

The old system often gave rise to scandals such as the arrest in early May of a Caracas judge and three others charged with taking bribes from a drug gang in exchange for acquittal.

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