It seems virtually indisputable that Josue Ortiz of Buffalo is serving time in prison for two murders of which he is innocent. Ortiz has entire police agencies making that case for him, but District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III is moving cautiously. That’s probably appropriate, but caution must not beget unnecessary delay. If Ortiz is innocent, he must be released and exonerated – in that order – as soon as possible.
The case looked like a slam-dunk. Ortiz twice confessed to killing two brothers, Miguel and Nelson Camacho, who were gunned down in their Niagara Street home in November 2004. He pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter and has served eight years of a 25-year sentence.
But Ortiz is reportedly being treated for schizophrenia in prison and authorities, including the Buffalo police, now believe his condition and pressure from police caused him to make a false confession. It’s an odd phenomenon, but more common than most people realize.
Federal authorities are also weighing in. “We believe he had zero role in this offense,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph M. Tripi said in federal court recently.
The case against Ortiz came under question last fall when a West Side gang leader and two others were charged in federal court with the Camacho murders. In addition, no physical evidence or witnesses link Ortiz to the murders. Indeed, a brother of the victims who saw suspects running from the scene of the homicides also knows Ortiz, Tripi said, and will say that Ortiz was not one of those people.
The matter is expected to come before Erie County Judge Michael L. D’Amico, who sentenced Ortiz in 2006. His ruling is likely to be influenced by Sedita’s take on the case. Sedita, in turn, says he is waiting for information from Ortiz’s lawyer, John Nuchereno.
If Ortiz is exonerated, he will be the third Buffalo convict cleared of charges in the past six years. Anthony Capozzi served almost 22 years in prison for rapes he did not commit. Lynn DeJac, now Lynn DeJac Peters, served almost 14 years, wrongfully convicted of murdering her own daughter, Crystallyn Girard.
Capozzi was convicted because victims misidentified him. DeJac was done in by a former family friend – himself in trouble with the law – who, out of the blue, told authorities that DeJac had confessed the crime to him.
False confession is harder to understand, but plays a role in about 25 percent of DNA-based exonerations, according to the Innocence Project. Twelve such exonerations have occurred in New York, including members of the “Central Park Five,” teenagers who were wrongfully convicted of brutally attacking a jogger in New York City in 1989.
Suspects, sometimes mentally ill or addicted to drugs, and under severe pressure from police, may confess thinking it is their way out. Sometimes, police inadvertently feed them crime details that only the perpetrator would know. Recording interrogations would diminish the chances of this happening. Albany needs to act.