Thirteen years after being convicted of a killing they say they didn't commit--and three years after the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals vacated their convictions--Jesus Ramirez and Alberto Sifuentes are back before a jury this week. This time around, though, the two men are on the offensive.
Ramirez and Sifuentes are plaintiffs in a civil rights case filed against a variety of individuals and entities that they blame for their wrongful convictions. The two men are represented in the matter, which went to trial Monday in Lubbock federal district court, by the same Haynes and Boone lawyers who helped free them from prison after 12 years.
The defendants in the case include Lamb County, Tx., prosecutor Mark Yarbrough, Lamb County, the City of Littlefield, Tx., a Littlefield police officer, and a Texas Ranger.
At issue are claims by Ramirez and Sifuentes--who were charged in the 1996 killing of a woman at a Littlefield convenience store--that their convictions and incarceration did not come simply as the result of a flawed investigation or incompetent prosecution, but were the products of a conspiracy hatched by authorities to secure a courtroom victory at the expense of justice.
In addition to seeking compensation and damages, the Mexican nationals state in their complaints that they aim to "prevent such misconduct from ever happening again."
The men are back in a Texas courtroom this week thanks in large part to the efforts of a Haynes and Boone team led by partner Barry McNeil, who agreed to represent the pair on appeal pro bono beginning in 2001.
McNeil and his team wound up devoting nearly 7,500 hours to the effort. Along the way, the lawyers found several significant inconsistencies in the case. McNeil told sibling publication Texas Lawyer in 2008 that he was especially troubled that the dying victim's description of her assailants did not match those of Sifuentes and Ramirez.As to the specific allegations:
Ultimately, the appeal filed by the two men's lawyers claimed ineffective assistance of trial counsel. The Haynes and Boone attorneys specifically cited the failure of the two men's original defense attorneys to turn up any alibi witnesses to testify on their behalf, even though they had been given the name of a waitress who served the accused at a Lubbock club around the time of the murder.
The appellate effort paid off in when the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals vacated the convictions in 2008 and a Lamb County grand jury refused to reindict the men. "How tragic it is that Alberto and Jesus have been deprived of their freedom for more than a decade," McNeil said in a 2008 statement. "Our state and our country cannot afford mistakes like this. Each one is a horrible tragedy for both the victim’s family and the wrongly accused."
The two men's complaints include multiple allegations of police and prosecutorial misconduct.From the description, it sounds like these men are ineligible for compensation from the state for the same reason Anthony Graves was before the state law was changed. Their convictions were vacated instead of overturned by a habeas writ on actual innnocence grounds. But to qualify under the exception created for
For instance, the complaints (click here for Ramirez's complaint; click here for part 1 of Sifuentes's complaint, and here for part 2) allege that Littlefield police officer Leonel Ponce, despite knowing that the descriptions of the assailants did not match Sifuentes and Ramirez, used a highly suggestive single-photo identification procedure to induce a witness to identify Sifuentes as one of the gunmen.
The plaintiffs also claim that police officers, particularly Texas Ranger Salvador Abreo, the lead investigator on the case, pressured witnesses to alter their statements in order to strengthen the case against Sifuentes and Ramirez.
McNeil and his team also allege that Yarbrough, who is still the Lamb County district attorney, knew the case was based on a lie, but went all out for a conviction anyway, ignoring exculpatory evidence and even manufacturing false evidence against Sifuentes and Ramirez in the form of a jailhouse informant.
Finally, the plaintiffs allege that Yarbrough defamed them when he gave an interview in 2008 the day after the grand jury refused to reindict them.
Graves, the prosecutor's office must agree and that appears unlikely in this instance. What's left, then, is civil litigation, which is a lot messier and more public but which also does a better job of exposing lingering problems and bringing them out of the shadows in a public venue.