On August 10, 1981, Manuel Torres was found stabbed to death in the kitchen of his Las Vegas, Nevada apartment. His home had been burglarized and his truck was stolen. The next day, following a tip, police found Torres’s truck in an alley off the city’s main casino strip. A man named Fernando Cabrera was nearby, and was taken into custody. He had Torres’s ring and watch in his pocket, and what appeared to be bloodstains on his pants. His fingerprints were also found inside the truck. Cabrera at first denied knowledge of Torres’s murder, but then said that he went to Torres’s apartment with an acquaintance, Roberto Miranda, where Miranda killed Torres during a drug deal. In a search of Torres’s apartment, police found a shard of glass with Miranda’s fingerprint on it. They arrested Miranda shortly thereafter.
Miranda’s defense attorney recommended that he accept a plea bargain that would have carried a 10-year sentence, but Miranda refused, insisting that he was innocent. His attorney was a novice who put very little work into the case. Miranda had named six witnesses whose testimony he said would prove his innocence, but his attorney did not make contact with any of them, and he discouraged Miranda from testifying in his own defense. He also failed to object to several improper statements made by the prosecutor. Cabrera was the key witness for the prosecution, and the shard of glass from Torres’s sink was introduced as physical evidence.
On August 19, 1982, Miranda was convicted of first-degree murder, robbery, and grand larceny. Two weeks later, he was sentenced to death. Over the next several years, he filed three appeals, all of which were rejected.
In 1991, attorney Laura Fitzsimmons took over the defense, and uncovered new evidence of Miranda’s innocence. Fitzsimmons interviewed five of the six witnesses originally named by Miranda, including a former girlfriend of Cabrera’s who said that Cabrera and Miranda had fought for her affections, and that Cabrera had threatened Miranda. Fitzsimmons filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus with the Clark County District Court, and in a ruling issued in January 1996, the judge granted the writ, stating that “the lack of pretrial investigation and preparation by trial counsel cannot be justified.” On September 3, 1996, the district attorney announced that he would not retry the case. The case was dismissed, and Miranda was released. He later sued the county, two homicide detectives, and the public defender's office, and received a $5 million settlement.
- Alexandra Gross