On November 16, 1994, Ramon Morales, his wife, Martha, and her brother, Fernando Martinez were robbed and shot to death in Salinas, California. The Morales’ 11-month-old daughter also was shot, but survived.
Lorenzo Nunez, 23, was charged with the murders two days later, although police conceded he was not among the three gunmen who committed the crime.
Police began questioning Nunez because he had lived with the Morales family for about three months prior to the crimes, but did not stay there for two nights before the crime occurred.
During two sessions of interrogation, Nunez admitted that he had stolen two rifles from the home and had given them to three men he knew who had come up to Salinas from Mexico a few days before the murders. Nunez told police that he believed the guns were going to be sold in Mexico to repay a debt.
Instead, police said, the guns were used to commit the murders. Nunez was charged with conspiracy, murder, attempted murder, assault with a firearm, residential burglary, residential robbery, unlawful assault weapon activity and grand theft of a firearm.
The three gunmen, who were named by Nunez, fled to Mexico.
At trial in July 1995, Nunez’s lawyers sought to suppress the videotape of the interrogation of Nunez by police. The trial judge granted the motion, except for one portion during which Nunez’s interrogators claimed they had “numerous, numerous people” who said that Nunez participated in planning the murders. The judge did not tell the jurors that what the detectives said was false.
Nunez was convicted by a jury. At his sentencing, the trial judge, John Phillips said, “I can’t recall a murder case where a conviction’s been obtained or supported by any weaker evidence…If I had heard it as a court trial, I might well have come to a different conclusion than the jurors did.” He then sentenced Nunez to 40 years to life in prison.
Not long after, police received a videotape from Daniel Covarrubias, one of the gunman who was Nunez’s cousin. On the tape Covarrubias said that Nunez had no knowledge that the crime was going to happen.
The California Supreme Court upheld Nunez’s conviction and Nunez filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus. On August 15, 2001, U.S. District Judge Susan Illston ordered the conviction set aside, ruling that the portion of the videotape played at the trial should have been suppressed.
The judge said that the interrogation was “highly coercive” and that the statements of the detectives about other evidence linking Nunez to the crime undoubtedly had an influence on jurors who did not know that the detectives’ claims were false.
On october 27, 2001, Nunez agreed to the reinstatement of the convictions relating to the theft of the rifles and was sentenced to six years in prison. Monterey County prosecutors then dismissed the murder charges against Nunez.
Covarrubias was captured by a bounty hunter in Mexico in 1995. He was returned for trial, was convicted in 1998 and was sentenced to death. Another of the gunman, Jose Luis Ramirez, pleaded guilty and testified against Covarrubias, received 12 years in prison. The alleged ringleader, Antonio Sanchez, was convicted in Mexico and sentenced to 40 years in prison.
– Maurice Possley