Fresno Bee (California)
BYLINE: Pablo Lopez / The Fresno Bee
Fresno County, CA
Fifteen years after two men were gunned down in Parlier, the man accused of killing them is off the hook -- because authorities destroyed much of the evidence.
Jaime Morales, 45, was supposed to go on trial this week in Fresno County Superior Court on charges of murdering the two men at a 1995 cock-fighting party. But on Tuesday, Judge Edward Sarkisian Jr. dismissed the charges after learning that 300 pieces of evidence -- including guns, bullets and shell casings -- had been destroyed.
In court, prosecutors were at a loss to explain how that happened. And it's still not clear. District Attorney Elizabeth Egan did not respond to requests for comment.
The evidence originally was part of an earlier murder trial involving a different defendant, Santiago Sanchez. After a jury found him not guilty in 1996, the evidence went into storage.
State law allows courts to destroy evidence after an acquittal or when appeals are exhausted, although they will keep it longer at the request of prosecutors. District attorneys around the state routinely make these requests -- especially in murder cases, which are not subject to any statute of limitations.
In 1998, court staff sent the District Attorney's Office a notice that the evidence in the Parlier case would be destroyed.
No one from the prosecutor's office asked for it to be preserved, according to a trial brief filed by deputy district attorney Midori Howo. She didn't explain the lapse but noted it was not a matter of "bad faith."
The omission might never have come to light had authorities not tracked down Morales and charged him years later with the crime. His attorney, Bonnie Bitter, said she didn't learn the evidence was missing until June 10, after making several requests to see it and then sitting down with prosecutors to go over a pretrial checklist.
When she learned of the missing evidence, she asked Sarkisian to dismiss the murder charges.
"They knew the evidence was gone, so why waste taxpayers' money?" Bitter said Wednesday. "How were they going to present a case to a jury without key evidence?"
A party gone bad
On Super Bowl Sunday in January 1995, Morales and Sanchez were among about 50 people who gathered at a ranch near Parlier and gambled on cock fights.
Amid the drinking and wagering, an argument erupted, prosecutors said during Sanchez's trial in 1996. There was a fistfight. Then shots were fired. Afterward, based on interviews with more than 30 witnesses, sheriff's detectives determined that at least four guns were fired.
Porfirio Silva Gutierrez, 23, of Selma and Rodimiro Quiroz, 27, of Parlier were killed.
A third man also was killed, and another man at the party was charged in that death and sentenced to prison.
Sanchez and his brother-in-law, Gabriel Alvarez, initially were charged in the deaths of Gutierrez and Quiroz. Alvarez spent eight months in jail before charges were dismissed after a witness said he had mistaken Alvarez for a different man.
"The DA doesn't have a clue who did the shooting," attorney Earnest Kinney said as he defended Sanchez in his 1996 trial. "They've played musical chairs and kept an innocent man in jail for eight months. Now it's our turn to prove him wrong again."
The jury found Sanchez not guilty in May 1996.
Meanwhile, sheriff's deputies were seeking Morales. A warrant for his arrest had been issued in July 1995.
It would take them 14 years. Morales wasn't arrested until a year ago in Arizona. He was transferred to the Fresno County Jail in October.
Bitter said her client would have been exonerated if the lost evidence had been presented at trial.
Keeping the evidence
Legal experts say it is rare for evidence to be destroyed in a murder case, but it does happen.
"There's going to be mistakes, considering the volume of evidence that gets collected," said Jeff Rose, a chief deputy district attorney in Sacramento County.
In Sacramento County, Rose said, prosecutors don't get rid of evidence in a murder case, because there is no statute of limitation in such cases. He also said advancement in crime-fighting techniques -- such as DNA analysis -- is another reason evidence shouldn't be discarded in old murder cases. Evidence that might have been useless a decade ago can yield new clues when analyzed with new technology.
Whenever evidence is destroyed, it makes prosecutors look bad, Rose said. They have no motive for getting rid of it, he said.
"We need evidence, because our job is to convict the guilty and make sure the innocent aren't wrapped up in it," he said.
It's unclear who was responsible for what happened with the Sanchez evidence. At the time of the Sanchez trial, Ed Hunt was Fresno County's district attorney.
On Wednesday, Hunt -- now retired -- said that if anyone is to blame, it would be the deputy district attorney and the supervisor in charge of the case when the prosecutor's office received the notification letter in 1998 that the evidence would be destroyed.
"I would have a serious discussion with them," if he were still in charge of the office, Hunt said. But it's no longer clear who that was. Hunt said he doesn't remember, and some of the attorneys who may have been involved have since retired.
Prosecutors apparently intended to move forward with their case against Morales on the basis of witness testimony.
They argued in court papers that the destroyed evidence contained nothing that would help the defendant.
Morales, meanwhile, is not out of jail. He's still in custody on an immigration hold.
Regardless of who is to blame, Egan's office can learn from the mistake, said Rose, the Sacramento prosecutor.
"Everybody's human. These things can happen," he said. "Unfortunately, justice was denied."
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