The Oregon Innocence Project
New joint venture works to free the wrongly imprisoned and improve the accuracy of the criminal justice system.
Those in the courtroom on October 2, 1986, would later recall Santiago Ventura Morales’ anguished wail as the guilty verdict was delivered. Despite his protestations of innocence and a seriously flawed case, the jury had convicted him of murder. The young Mixtec migrant worker faced the possibility of spending the rest of his life in prison.
Ventura’s troubles had begun on the night of July 26, 1986. A birthday celebration for a young girl was underway at a migrant worker camp in Sandy, Oregon. The atmosphere was festive and raucous, fueled by generous amounts of beer. But as the night wore on the mood soured, a fight broke out, and a chase ensued into the nearby strawberry fields. Accounts of what followed were hazy, but those who gave chase admitted to discovering the abandoned Chevrolet Monte Carlo in which Ramiro Lopez Fidel had fled the party. They slashed the tires, shot out the windows, and set the car on fire. Detectives, responding to the blaze, later stopped the workers, but sent them home after confiscating a gun.
In the early morning hours a field hand stumbled across Lopez’s body not far from the burned-out Monte Carlo. He had been stabbed twice in the chest.
After the body was discovered, detectives went looking for the six migrant workers they had stopped the night before. Eighteen-year-old Ventura had been among them and aroused suspicion when he refused to look the questioning officers in the eye. He was arrested and charged with Lopez’s murder.
At trial, the prosecutor called Epifanio Bautista Lopez, the state’s only eyewitness. Bautista initially said he could not recall witnessing the stabbing, but after a short recess that Bautista spent in the prosecutor’s office, he returned to the stand and asserted that Ventura had stabbed the victim. Still, the state had one problem—the knife belonging to Ventura that was introduced as evidence of his involvement did not contain even a trace of the victim’s blood. In an effort to force the evidence to conform, the state relied on an incomplete and erroneous theory that the victim’s fat tissue had wiped Ventura’s knife clean of blood. The defense did not retain any expert witnesses to rebut this theory or to challenge gaps in the evidence. Ventura, who had not been told he had a right to testify, did not take the stand in his own defense. Thus, although there was no physical evidence tying him to the crime and the testimony of the single eyewitness was questionable, the jury convicted Ventura of murder.
Within days of the trial, three jurors came forward and expressed doubts about the accuracy of the verdict. The defense team’s translator, Elisabeth Linder, related the story to her friend Donna Slepack, who offered to teach Ventura English for a few hours a week while he was in prison. As Slepack came to know Ventura and as he was able to communicate more details about the night of Lopez’s murder, she became convinced that a serious miscarriage of justice had occurred. After a yearlong investigation into Ventura’s case, Slepack formed the Santiago Freedom Committee, which successfully attracted the interest of Oregon’s most respected criminal attorneys as well as widespread media coverage. Numerous appeals followed and finally, on January 9, 1991, Ventura was released from prison.
Oregon has been the only state in the country without a program focusing solely on wrongful convictions and claims of innocence.
In many ways, Ventura was lucky. The right people took an interest in his case and fought tirelessly until he was freed. Others convicted in Oregon have likely not been so fortunate. Oregon has been the only state in the country without a program focusing solely on wrongful convictions and claims of innocence. For those like Ventura, with few resources and unacknowledged language barriers, this lack of focus could translate into years behind bars. To address this need, the Oregon Justice Resource Center—an independent nonprofit based at Lewis & Clark Law School—and the Metropolitan Public Defender have joined forces to create the Oregon Innocence Project (OIP). Launched in April 2014, the OIP is the only organization solely dedicated to securing the release of wrongfully convicted inmates in Oregon.
Janis Puracal, an appellate attorney and OIP founding member, understands the plight of the innocent all too well. In 2010 her brother, Jason Puracal, was arrested at gunpoint in Nicaragua and charged with drug trafficking and money laundering. Despite the absence of a single piece of evidence tying him to the supposed crimes or the other defendants, Puracal was summarily convicted. The case sparked an international fervor, with human rights advocates citing inconsistencies in the process and demanding a hearing. Major news outlets picked up the story and leveled harsh criticism at what appeared to be a sham trial. On appeal, it was revealed that the defense was prevented from introducing evidence and the judge who presided over the case lacked some of the necessary credentials. But even with these glaring errors, all the international support, and the dedication of his sister, who put in countless pro bono hours on his case, Puracal spent almost two years in one of the harshest Nicaraguan prisons. Malnutrition and multiple infections from the unhygienic conditions nearly killed him before he was finally released in September of 2012.
According to the National Registry of Exonerations, more than 1,200 people in the United States have been wrongfully convicted and exonerated since 1989.
Some might be tempted to dismiss Puracal’s case as the product of an inferior justice system, but similar problems plague the U.S. criminal justice system. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, more than 1,200 people in the United States have been wrongfully convicted and exonerated since 1989. “These known and documented exonerations are, unfortunately, just the tip of the iceberg,” says Associate Professor Aliza Kaplan. One of the founding members of OIP, Kaplan brings a wealth of knowledge and experience as the former deputy director of the National Innocence Project and cofounder of the New England Innocence Project. “Oregon, like every other state, is susceptible to the same causes of wrongful convictions, such as mistaken eyewitness identification, false confessions, and invalidated or improper forensic science.”
Lane Borg ’83, executive director of the Metropolitan Public Defender, has worked in the criminal justice system in Oregon for almost 30 years and has personally seen examples of wrongful convictions. In stressing the necessity for the Oregon Innocence Project, Borg points to the failures in the system that are often identified only in hindsight. Later developments in science and psychology often serve to debunk forensic evidence that was once thought valid. Sifting through this evidence can take time and requires both expertise and focus. “Wrongful conviction is a total failure of the system and a result that nobody wants, but if we do not have a comprehensive independent organization to focus on the issue, we are at best merely speculating and at worst ignoring individuals suffering in prison,” Borg said.
Shifting political concerns and social norms also frequently influence how the evidence is evaluated.
Shifting political concerns and social norms also frequently influence how the evidence is evaluated. This was certainly true in Ventura’s case. A news article in the Oregonian shocked readers with revelations of the derogatory and racist comments that pervaded Ventura’s trial. The investigating officer had concluded Ventura must have been guilty because he refused to look him in the eye when questioned. But this assumption ignored the cultural imperative that young Mixtecs never look directly at their elders. At one point in the trial the judge and prosecutor even joked about the diminutive stature of one of the migrant worker witnesses. After the trial, one juror reportedly confessed that he wished Ventura had been sentenced to death, saying, “We don’t need so many of ’em [Mexicans] running around here.” Borg, who remembers the Ventura case well, recalled that the dominant perception at the time was that these migrant workers were dangerous and that the camps were a nuisance.
As an organization devoted exclusively to addressing the claims of the wrongfully convicted, the Oregon Innocence Project will be in a unique position to remedy convictions based on such faulty assumptions and junk science. The OIP will be able to provide legal and investigative services to individuals seeking to prove their innocence at no cost to those individuals or their family members. Student interns and externs from the law school will assist experienced attorneys in reviewing and screening cases, and in all aspects of representing inmates with evidence of actual innocence. This process not only aids the individual inmates, but also will ultimately improve the accuracy of the criminal justice system. By examining what went wrong in cases of actual innocence, the OIP essentially performs a failure analysis, asking why the experts used in a given case were wrong. Borg said that such analysis is an important component of “comprehensive criminal justice reform to improve eyewitness identification, interrogation practices, discovery practices, and other Oregon policies that do not serve to protect the innocent or punish the guilty.”
The OIP launch coincided with the annual national Innocence Network conference in Portland. At the event, more than 500 lawyers, scientists, and exonerees gathered to celebrate innocence work around the country. To learn more and support the work of the Oregon Innocence Project, visit oregoninnocence.org.