A federal judge looked at Josue Ortiz Monday and saw a victim, not a murderer.
He also spared Ortiz more prison time and, at the end of his court appearance, walked off the bench and shook his hand.
“This is an extraordinary case,” said U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. Vilardo. “It really is.”
Ortiz, who had already spent a decade behind bars for a double murder he didn’t commit, walked out of court a free man, spared more prison time on an unrelated weapons conviction.
The judge pointed to Ortiz’s history of mental illness and 10 years of wrongful imprisonment, and instead gave him three years of probation.
“It’s not been easy,” Ortiz said afterward. “Thank God, it ended well.”
Ortiz’s case made headlines when it became clear he was wrongfully convicted of the murders of Nelson and Miguel Camacho 12 years ago. His conviction stemmed from a false confession to Buffalo police.
Years later, the FBI’s Safe Streets Task Force reopened the murder investigation, and prosecutors eventually charged three other men – Brandon Jonas, Efrain “Cheko” Hidalgo and Misael Montalvo – with the two murders. Jonas and Hidalgo have admitted taking part in the killings.
Finally vindicated of the two murders, Ortiz was released in late 2014, but soon found himself in trouble again.
“I’m so sorry about the whole situation,” he told Vilardo Monday. “I made a terrible mistake.”
Now 34, Ortiz pleaded guilty earlier this year to being a felon in possession of a firearm. As part of his plea deal with prosecutors, he admitted buying a 12-gauge shotgun shortly after his release from prison even though he had a felony conviction from his teenage years in Puerto Rico.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Adler said Ortiz was found with the shotgun when Niagara Falls police responded to a 911 call at his home last year. Ortiz says he bought the gun for safety.
“On the day of this incident, he was off his medications,” said John Humann, an assistant federal public defender. “He’s done everything right since then.”
During Monday’s court appearance, Vilardo asked Ortiz about his mental illness and stressed the need for him to stay on his medication. Ortiz says he has been diagnosed at various times with bipolar disorder, manic depressive disorder and schizophrenia.
“You need to take that medication,” the judge said. “You’re clearly a wonderful person when you take that medication.”
Shortly after his arrest last year, Ortiz filed a lawsuit over his 2004 wrongful confession and conviction.
In the suit, Ortiz claims Buffalo police detectives coerced him into signing the confession that sent him to prison for up to 25 years. He also claims the Erie County District Attorney’s Office waited too long to support his release from prison.