At about 11 p.m., on September 28, 1987, Jose Rivera was walking in Kelly Park in the Bronx, New York, with his girlfriend and her 11-year-old son when he was confronted by a group of teenagers who chased and caught him, then beat and stabbed him to death.
About three days later, police asked Jose Morales, 17, to come to the precinct station where he asserted his innocence, but when he was put in a lineup, the victim’s girlfriend, Jennifer Ramirez, identified him.
Shortly thereafter, Morales was indicted along with Ruben Montalvo
, 16, and Peter Ramirez. Morales rejected a plea bargain that carried a sentence of one to three years and went to trial in December 1988 along with Montalvo. Peter Ramirez committed suicide before the trial.
At the trial, the prosecution’s case relied solely on the identification of Morales and Montalvo by Jennifer Ramirez. Ten defense witnesses said Morales was not at the park.
On December 22, 1988, Morales and Montalvo were convicted in New York Superior Court.
While they were awaiting sentencing, an acquaintance named Jesus Fornes, 17, began telling people that he and two others, including Peter Ramirez, had killed Rivera and that Montalvo and Morales were innocent. He told a Catholic priest, Morales’s lawyer and Montalvo’s mother, Maria Montalvo.
A post-trial hearing was held on a motion for new trial based on Fornes’ admission, but the priest, Rev. Joseph Towle, declined to testify, saying the admission came in an “informal confession.” Fornes, now accompanied by a lawyer, asserted his Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination and did not testify. The judge then denied the motion for a new trial, saying the remaining testimony from Maria Montalvo and Morales’s lawyer were inadmissible hearsay.
Morales and Montalvo were sentenced to 15 years to life in prison. Their appeals to the New York state appellate courts were denied.
In 1997, Fornes was was abducted by opposing gang members in a dispute over control of narcotics territory in the Bronx and shot to death.
Three years later, the priest reconsidered his silence and determined that Fornes admission to him had not been a formal confession as is recognized in the Catholic Church and so therefore he would not be violating the priest-penitent privilege if he revealed what Fornes told him. So, Father Towle executed a sworn affadavit recounting Fornes admission that he and two others—not Montalvo or Morales—killed Rivera.
Morales filed a habeas corpus petition in U.S. District Court, and after a hearing in July 2001 at which Towle and others testified about Fornes’s admissions, District Judge Denny Chin vacated the convictions of Montalvo and Morales and ordered them released.
Two months later, Judge Chin ordered both men unconditionally discharged—barring them from being retried in the case. In his ruling, Chin criticized the prosecution for withholding impeachment evidence from defense lawyers for Montalvo and Morales—evidence that Jennifer Ramirez had been arrested for a drug offense three months before the trial.
– Maurice Possley