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10 years after wrongful murder convictions, inmate set free

After 10 years in prison, Josue Ortiz thought Tuesday was going to be just another day.

It wasn’t until his lawyer sat down with him minutes before his court appearance that he suddenly realized this was the day he had been waiting a decade for.

He was finally being set free, vindicated of the double murder that first sent him to jail.

“Do you know why you’re here today?” defense lawyer Jeremy D. Schwartz asked him.

“Another witness,” Ortiz said.

“No, you’re going home,” Schwartz said.

“I’m going home?” he asked.

“Yeah, you’re going home,” Schwartz said.

It was, Schwartz would later acknowledge, news so jarring, it was difficult for Ortiz to grasp.

“He’s still processing it,” Schwartz said Tuesday. “He literally found out about it this morning. Obviously, it’s a very happy day for Josue.”

For many, including the local, state and federal investigators who uncovered evidence of Ortiz’s innocence two years ago, it was a day long overdue.

Ortiz’s wrongful conviction stemmed from a false confession in 2004, when he first claimed responsibility for the killings of brothers Nelson and Miguel Camacho. He repeated those admissions when he pleaded guilty to two counts of manslaughter and was sentenced to up to 25 years in prison.

“I’m happy an innocent man is going to be home for the holidays,” said Steven Drizin, a staff attorney for the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University.

Groups such as the Center for Wrongful Convictions and the Innocence Project track false confessions and say statistics show they happen more often than people think.

In about 30 percent of the cases where a defendant is cleared because of new DNA evidence, those same defendants made confessions or incriminating statements, or pleaded guilty, experts say.

And often, the reason is a mental illness or impairment, the very reason cited by Ortiz’s defense lawyers, Schwartz and James Q. Auricchio.

“Most people don’t think innocent people confess,” said Richard Leo, a law professor at the University of San Francisco and an expert about false confessions. “But it doesn’t surprise me. We know people who are mentally ill are more vulnerable.”

Drizin and Leo have watched the Ortiz case unfold over the past two years and believe it should have been resolved long before now. They think Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita’s initial opposition to Ortiz’s release was misplaced and ultimately resulted in the West Side man spending even more time in prison.

They also wonder why Sedita took the position he did given the widespread belief among law enforcement – the FBI, State Police and Buffalo Police – that Ortiz was innocent.

“I’m glad the district attorney finally saw the light,” Drizin said. “It shouldn’t have taken two years. The wheels of justice sometimes move incredibly slow.”

Like Drizin, Leo said he was surprised that Sedita waited as long as he did to drop his opposition to Ortiz’s release.

“Even the police saw the light before the prosecutor,” he said.

Sedita challenged those comments Tuesday, calling the Ortiz case “extraordinarily unusual.”

“I’ve never seen a case like this,” he said. “What’s so unusual is that he pleaded guilty after numerous pretrial hearings and with the assistance of counsel.”

Sedita also pointed to the number of confessions made by Ortiz – he says there were six – and said it was his “legal obligation” to challenge his release. He dropped his opposition in a letter Monday to Erie County Judge Thomas P. Franczyk.

While lamenting the time Ortiz spent wrongfully convicted, Franczyk reminded people that it was his own confessions that landed him in prison.

“In many respects, he’s a victim of his own words,” the judge said. “I think we all know that sometimes people with mental illness do things that are irrational.”

Franczyk, in a statement from the bench, described the Ortiz case as an unusual one with lots of “twists and turns.”

He mentioned the defendant’s apparent eagerness to talk with police about the double murder in 2004, and how that quickly turned into a formal confession.

“This defendant came out of the blue and jumped into the lap of law enforcement,” he said of Ortiz.

Like Sedita, Franczyk said he was perplexed by Ortiz’s numerous confessions over the past 10 years.

“The people have not been quick to jump on the innocence bandwagon,” he said of the district attorney. “In some respects, I can understand why the people have been very deliberative.”

Ortiz’s lawyers would not comment Tuesday on his mental health, except to say that he was initially declared incompetent to stand trial. He ultimately was declared competent and eventually took a plea deal that sent him to prison.

When it became evident that others might have committed the Camacho murders, an FBI task force that includes the State Police and Buffalo Police reopened the investigation.

“The members of the FBI’s Safe Streets Task Force worked tenaciously to uncover the truth, and Buffalo Police Department Detective Mary Evans’ efforts were instrumental to the process,” said Special Agent in Charge Brian P. Boetig of the FBI.

Federal prosecutors later charged three other men – Brandon Jonas, Efrain “Cheko” Hidalgo and Misael Montalvo – with the two murders. Hidalgo, former leader of the 7th Street Gang, has allegedly admitted his role in the murders to local and federal prosecutors.

Schwartz said Ortiz, who did not want to comment on his release at this time, will spend the next few weeks with family members and ultimately plans to stay in Buffalo.

He also has hired Wayne C. Felle, a Williamsville lawyer, to represent him in a civil suit against the state, county and city.

“He’s been wronged by the criminal justice system,” said Elizabeth A. Bruce, a lawyer with the Felle firm. “We intend to represent him and right that wrong.”

email: pfairbanks@buffnews.com