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Julio Ruano

Other Assaults with Mistaken Witness Identification
https://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/PublishingImages/Julio_Ruano%20(1).jpg
At about 4:30 p.m. on April 8, 2010, 37-year-old Terencio Salinas was driving his van eastbound on Interstate 610 in New Orleans, Louisiana when a tire blew out. Salinas pulled over and called home for help because he had no spare tire.

Ruben Suaza, the son of the woman with whom Salinas was living, and Suaza’s friend, Yoni Aguilera, picked up Salinas. They left the van parked on the shoulder, and drove to a tire shop on Chef Mentuer Highway. When they arrived, Salinas commented to an employee that he was glad the shop was open because he had a lot of tools inside and he didn’t want to leave the van parked on the shoulder all night. Salinas later told police that after he made that comment, a Hispanic male who was at the tire shop suddenly left.

They drove back to the van with a repaired tire. While they were on the other side of the highway, Salinas noticed that another vehicle was parked next to his van and a Hispanic man was unloading his tools. When they arrived, Salinas confronted the man, who had climbed into his vehicle. The man said, “If you get close, I will shoot you.”

Salinas ignored the threat and grabbed the steering wheel of the vehicle—a green Jeep Cherokee—and the thief began biting and hitting him. The man bit off a portion of Salinas’s ear. During the fight, Salinas noticed a young child crying in a car seat in the back.

Salinas managed to break off the key in the ignition and tried to hit the thief with a crowbar, but the burglar wrested it away from him and hit Salinas in the head with it. Stunned by the blow, Salinas let go of the steering wheel and the man drove off.

Police were summoned and Salinas was treated for his injuries at a hospital. He had three bite marks on his right arm, a bite mark on his back, and half of his ear was bitten off. Salinas also suffered multiple lacerations and bruises.

Salinas provided a list of the tools taken from his van. Salinas said the man was clean-shaven with his hair in a buzz cut. He was wearing a shirt that appeared to be a uniform, with a patch over the breast pocket that said “Santos.”

Police found a tire shop on Conti Street named Santos, but the owner, Eugenio Santos, said that none of his employees fit the description of the thief and none of his workers drove a Jeep Cherokee. In addition, the owner said that none of his employees had worn uniforms since Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005.

Several days later, Salinas was in a supermarket in Kenner, Louisiana, still wearing bandages for his wounds, when he saw 32-year-old Julio Ruano and believed he recognized Ruano as the man in the green Jeep Cherokee. Salinas wrote down the license plate number on Ruano’s car and called police.

Police traced the plate to Ruano’s home in New Orleans. Questioned by police, Ruano denied that he was involved in the crime. A detective assembled a photographic lineup that consisted of Ruano, who was clean-shaven and had short hair, and five other men—all of whom had facial hair, some had short hair, and some had long hair. In addition, the photograph of Ruano was larger than any of the other photographs.

The police showed the photographic lineup to Suaza, who identified Ruano as the thief. The police also showed the lineup to Aristede Craig, Sr., who also identified Ruano. Craig was a motorist who stopped his car when he saw Salinas and the thief fighting and called police as the thief drove away.

Police arrested Ruano on April 25, 2010 on charges of aggravated battery, second-degree battery, and burglary. A search warrant was executed at his home and although numerous tools were found, none belonged to Salinas.

The defense moved to bar the identifications of Ruano because the photographic lineup was improperly suggestive. That motion was denied, and Ruano went to trial in Orleans Parish District Court in October 2010. He chose to have the case decided by a judge without a jury.

Salinas testified, describing the battle and showing the judge where part of his ear was bitten off. He identified Ruano as his assailant. Suaza and Craig also both identified Ruano as the man in the Jeep Cherokee.

On the second day of the trial, the prosecution called Yoni Aguilera as a witness. The defense objected, saying that the prosecution had not informed the defense that Aguilera was going to be a witness and that Aguilera’s name was not in any police report. The prosecutor told the judge that the defense attorney could interview Aguilera prior to him taking the witness said. But in the hallway outside the courtroom, the prosecutor told Aguilera he didn’t have to talk to the defense attorney. Aguilera, predictably, refused.

Despite the late disclosure, Aguilera was allowed to testify. He said that although he remained in the car during the fight, he saw Ruano bite Salinas’s ear and he noticed the child in the back seat. He said he left the scene before the fight was over.

Santos testified for the defense that he owned Santos Automotive Center and that Ruano never worked there. Thang Hguyenh testified that he owned the tire shop on Chef Mentuer and that he did not know Santos.

Hiep Vo testified that he was Ruano’s next-door neighbor, and that Ruano worked at Vo’s home during the month of April 2010, including the day of the crime. Vo testified that he checked on Ruano at about 5 p.m. on the day of the crime and he was present at Vo’s home. Vo also testified that he never saw Ruano drive a green Jeep Cherokee.

A detective testified that Ruano had no wounds or marks on him when first questioned by police. On October 31, 2011, Ruano was convicted of burglary, aggravated battery, and second-degree battery. He was sentenced to seven years in prison.

Ruano appealed the convictions, primarily on the ground that the photographic lineups were unduly suggestive and that the identifications should have been disallowed. The Louisiana Court of Appeals rejected his appeal.

In October 2016, Ruano was to be released on parole. Before he could walk free, however, federal immigration authorities arrested him and began proceedings to deport him to his native Guatemala. Ruano had come to the U.S. in 1988 on a work visa. He married a U.S. citizen with two children and got permanent resident status in 2008. His convictions were grounds for deportation.

Attorneys Martin Regan and Paul Barker filed a post-conviction petition for relief, seeking to vacate the convictions. The attorneys presented evidence of a man who looked strikingly like Ruano and drove a Green Jeep Cherokee with a child seat in the back. The man had a baby daughter at the time of the crime, the lawyers asserted.

In addition, the lawyers presented evidence that Aguilera—the witness who was not disclosed until the second day of trial—had a prior record of arrests for aggravated battery and second-degree battery, as well as a prior conviction for domestic abuse battery. Moreover, Aguilera had received benefits from the prosecution—none of which was revealed to the defense. Prosecutors helped Aguilera expunge his criminal records after Ruano was convicted. The domestic abuse battery is not eligible to be expunged under Louisiana law, but Aguilera’s arrests for aggravated battery and second-degree battery were expunged. In addition, the defense lawyers said that evidence showed that the prosecution obtained a U Visa for Aguilera—a special visa for victims of crimes.

The defense attorneys also presented evidence that Louisiana State University Dental School professor Robert Barsley had compared photographs of the bite marks on Salinas to photographs of Ruano’s teeth and concluded that Ruano could not have made the bite marks on Salinas.

In March 2017, with a deportation proceeding looming, Judge Karen Herman granted the defense motion and vacated Ruano’s convictions, saying that the new evidence “rises to the level of granting a new trial in this case.”

On June 12, 2017, the prosecution dismissed the charges. The deportation proceedings were ended and Ruano was released.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 6/30/2017
State:Louisiana
County:Orleans
Most Serious Crime:Assault
Additional Convictions:Burglary/Unlawful Entry
Reported Crime Date:2010
Convicted:2011
Exonerated:2017
Sentence:7 years
Race:Hispanic
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:42
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No