On July 13, 1986, about 100 migrant farm-workers gathered for a birthday celebration near the strawberry fields of Sandy, Oregon. Drinking led to a fistfight and then Ramiro Lopez Fidel and another man jumped into a Monte Carlo sedan and hurtled toward the strawberry fields pursued by a pickup truck carrying six workers, including Santiago Ventura Morales.
In the field, Morales and the others found the Monte Carlo and destroyed it, shooting out the windows with a pistol, slashing the tires and stealing the battery. They set the car afire and left. On their way back to their shacks, police responding to a call about the burning car stopped them, confiscated the gun and sent them home.
The following morning, a field hand discovered the body of Fidel, stabbed twice in the heart. Police rounded up seven men, including Morales, and took them to the Clackamas County sheriff’s office.
Later, Tim Skipper, an officer from the nearby town of who spoke Spanish, would testify that he believed Morales was guilty because of his demeanor—he would not look Skipper in the eye, was shaking and turned pale.
Morales, 18, a Mixtec Indian from Oaxaca, Mexico who had been working in the fields of California and Oregon since he was 14, was charged with murder.
The case went to trial in September 1986, and Morales was furnished a Spanish translator. Two witnesses from the pickup truck were the prosecution’s chief witnesses. Juan Remigio Estrada said he saw Morales looking down at a “white bundle” in the strawberry field. Epifanio Bautista Lopez was called to the stand and first said he only saw a burning car. But after a lunch recess in the trial, he resumed the stand and said he saw Morales stab Fidel.
Despite considerable blood that spurted from the wounds, a laboratory examination found no traces of blood on Morales’ knife. State deputy medical examiner Dr. Karen Gunson testified that as Morales pulled out the knife, Fidel’s fat tissue wiped it clean.
Morales’ attorney did not hire an expert to determine whether Gunson’s testimony was accurate.
Morales, who did not testify, was convicted on October 2, 1986, and sentenced to life in prison.
Even before he was sentenced, three of the jurors who voted to convict Morales began talking with each other about their doubts that he committed the murder.
One juror was so passionate that a friend, Donna Slepack, visited Morales in prison, befriended him, taught him English and began investigating the case. Ultimately she learned that Mixtec Indians don’t speak Spanish, which meant that the translator in the courtroom was largely ineffective not only for Morales, but for the witnesses who testified. Further, the interpretation of Morales’ demeanor during his questioning was wrong—Mixtec Indians never look their elders in the eye.
The case for establishing Morales innocence began to snowball and pick up wide support. Morales spoke from prison on the Oprah Winfrey television show. Eventually, an expert hired by a lawyer who took Morales post-conviction case pro bono said that the idea of a knife coming out clean from a wound because of fat tissue was “contradictory, misleading, incomplete and incorrect.”
Significantly, the defense located a witness who had not testified at the trial—Pedro Guzman—a Mixtec migrant worker who said he had been in a third vehicle that night in the strawberry field. Guzman said that before Morales even arrived, a man named Herminio Luna Hernandez chased Fidel and they disappeared.
When Hernandez returned, he said, “I killed him.” Hernandez left the farm workers’ encampment that night, leaving behind his wife, child and mother-in-law.
In August, 1990, a hearing was held on a post-conviction motion for new trial filed on Morales’ behalf. Included in the testimony was that of Morales, who said he had wanted to testify at his trial, but was not told he had the right to do so.
On January 4, 1991, the conviction was set aside due to the testimony of the new witnesses and the debunking of the forensic testimony, and because Morales had been denied his constitutional right to testify.
Morales was released from prison on January 9, 1991. Oregon Gov. Neil Goldschmidt pardoned Morales shortly thereafter and the charges were dismissed.
– Maurice Possley