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July 6, 2011 2:59 PM

In Texas, Two Freed Men Target Those Who Put Them Away

Posted by Victor Li

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.

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."

McNeil, whose team for the criminal appeal included fellow Haynes and Boone partner Ron Breaux and then-associate, now partner, Sarah Teachout. The trio is also representing Sifuentes and Ramirez on the civil rights suit, though not on a pro bono basis. (The lawyers either declined to comment--including on their fee arrangment--or did not respond to requests for comment.) 

In the civil suit, the Haynes and Boone lawyers cite numerous instances in which law enforcement officials seemed more concerned with securing a conviction in the case than with finding the truth. The two men's complaints include multiple allegations of police and prosecutorial misconduct.

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, saying: "I believe that the two defendants that were released yesterday killed Angie Cruz."

"Defendants willfully ignored and were deliberately indifferent to the overwhelming evidence of their actual innocence," the men say in their complaints.

For their part, all defendants initially claimed qualified immunity and argued that the two mens' claims were barred by the statute of limitations. Judge Sam Cummings, who agreed with the defendants on most of the qualified immunity arguments, dismissed several defendants from the case in May 2010, including the Texas Department of Public Safety, the chief of the Littlefield Police Department, and the assistant district attorney who tried the case. The attorneys for the defendants all either declined to comment or did not respond to requests for comment.

Earlier this month, Cummings also dismissed all malicious prosecution claims against the defendants, but allowed plaintiffs to proceed on claims for wrongful imprisonment, unconstitutional eyewitness identification procedures, and false arrest. The defamation charge against Yarbrough was also allowed to proceed.

Ponce and the City of Littlefield, who are represented by William Wade of Crenshaw, Dupree & Milam, stated in their motion for summary judgment that they were not involved in prosecutorial decisions such as making a deal with the jailhouse informant.

Wade also argued that the city did not know about, and wasn't the primary agency involved in, the constitutional violations alleged by Sifuentes and Ramirez. Additionally, Wade argues, Ponce did not put one picture in front of the witness, as argued by the plaintiffs, but that the witness picked out Sifuentes's photo from a stack.

Abreo, who is represented by the Texas State Attorney General's Office, claimed in his motion for summary judgment that he acted in good faith and that there was more than enough probable cause to arrest Sifuentes and Ramirez. Abreo also denies that he coerced witnesses and claims that any mistakes he made were made in good faith and not as part of any conspiracy.

"Plaintiffs’ mere assertion that it is reasonable to believe that the defendants were part of a conspiracy is insufficient to state a viable conspiracy claim," stated Karen Matlock, assistant attorney general for the state of Texas, in her motion for summary judgment.

Yarbrough and Lamb County, represented by William Helfand of Chamberlain, Hrdlicka, White, Williams & Martin, make similar arguments but go a step further, given the claims against Yarbrough in his role as district attorney.

Helfand argued in his motion for summary judgment that the Yarbrough interview that is the subject of the defamatory claim was not in fact defamatory become Sifuentes and Ramirez had become limited-purpose public figures as a result of their notoriety. In addition, Helfand argues, Yarbrough's statement was made without actual malice, or knowing that it was false or with reckless disregard as to its falsity.

"Plaintiffs were not mere suspects; they were indicted and subsequently convicted of murder by two separate juries, which convictions were upheld on appeal," Helfand wrote in his motion for summary judgment. "Yarbrough's stated belief was quite reasonable, appropriate, and consistent with his duty to keep the public informed."

Additionally, Helfand argues that Ramirez and Sifuentes were never actually exonerated. Instead, he maintains, their convictions were vacated because of ineffective assistance of counsel, and then a grand jury refused to reindict them.

Whether or not that qualifies as exoneration is not precisely the question before the jury hearing the civil suit. At the same time, it's hard to imagine that it won't factor into jurors' deliberations.

 

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