In January 2002, two armed men robbed a convenience store in Reedley, California. The owner of the store and his pregnant daughter were present. During the robbery, one of the assailants shot and killed the owner’s daughter as she tried to flee. The next day, the godfather of 16-year-old Armando Rodriguez Ortiz called the police and reported that Ortiz had told him that he had shot a girl in the back of the head. According to his godfather, Ortiz had gone to his mother’s house after the robbery and apologized for what he had done, saying that he thought he had killed someone during a robbery. His mother had then called Ortiz’s godfather. A week later, Ortiz turned himself into the police. He was charged and tried as an adult.
Prior to the robbery, the victim’s husband had threatened to get a gun and kill her. Ortiz’s defense attorney initially informed the court that he did not intend to present evidence about the husband as a possible suspect, but later sought to introduce the husband’s past threats. The trial judge ruled that such evidence was inadmissible because the defense had not produced a sufficient link between the husband and the crime. At trial, Ortiz testified that he had never been to Reedley, and he was drunk on the day of the robbery, as he usually was. He said that he did not remember making the statements that his godfather and his mother attributed to him. Ortiz’s godfather and mother testified against him. No other evidence connected Ortiz to the crime. In November 2003, a jury found Ortiz guilty of first-degree murder and armed robbery, and he was sentenced to life without parole.
Following Ortiz’s conviction, the Northern California Innocence Project took on his case. Investigators discovered that Ortiz’s trial attorney had failed to call several alibi witnesses, even though he had been told about them. Ortiz’s attorneys filed a state habeas petition and, in November 2007, Fresno County Superior Court Judge Gary D. Hoff overturned Ortiz’s conviction and granted him a new trial based on the inadequate defense by his trial lawyer. The prosecution dropped the charges in June 2008, but Ortiz remained in prison for an unrelated assault conviction.
- Stephanie Denzel