In the early morning hours of July 9, 1997, 30-year-old Sandra Ortiz called police in Paterson, New Jersey, and requested an ambulance for her 30-year-old boyfriend, Camel “Diego” Hammad. Police found Hammad partially clothed in a bathtub, dead of a single stab wound to the heart.
Ortiz, who managed a nightclub, said that she and Hammad quarreled as she was making food and that he lunged at her. She said she picked up a knife and when he pulled her toward him, she stabbed him once. The wound was 3/8 of an inch wide, but the blade pierced his heart. She said she didn’t realize he had been stabbed until after he went to take a shower and she heard him fall.
Ortiz was charged with murder and went on trial in Passaic County Superior Court. The prosecution presented a tape of a 911 call in which Ortiz was speaking in a calm tone, using it to suggest that she killed Hammad intentionally. The prosecution contended that a lack of blood found in the bathroom, the discovery of some of Hammad’s blood-soaked clothing in the living room, and cleaning supplies found next to the bathtub were evidence that Ortiz tried to cover up the crime.
Ortiz’s lawyer said that the couple quarreled in the car on the way home from the nightclub and that Hammad got out and walked home. When he came into the apartment, Ortiz was on the telephone. According to Ortiz’s lawyer, Hammad demanded to know who she was talking to, went into a rage and broke a window. When he lunged at Ortiz, Hammad ran into the knife that Ortiz was holding in a posture of self-defense.
On June 5, 2001, Ortiz was convicted of murder by the jury. A juror later said that they did not believe Ortiz’s claim of self-defense. In October, the judge set aside the conviction based on more than a dozen improper comments by the prosecution during closing argument, including a comment about Ortiz’s decision not to testify in her own defense.
Ortiz went on a trial a second time in 2003 with a new attorney, Anthony J. Fusco Jr., who hired a forensic psychologist. The psychologist testified that Hammad was a jealous, controlling and abusive man who had kicked and beaten Ortiz in the past. Hammad had also threatened to kill her or have her deported (Ortiz was a native of Colombia).
Ortiz, the expert testified, was a victim of battered woman’s syndrome and exhibited symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome. The psychologist testified, “I don’t think a battered woman in the midst of an attack can think at all, they are so traumatized. All they can do is hope it ends soon and not too badly.”
Members of Ortiz’s family testified that they either saw or heard of Hammad’s abusive behavior and his problems with alcohol. On April 11, 2003, the jury acquitted Ortiz.
– Maurice Possley
The National Registry of Exonerations is a project of the Newkirk Center for Science & Society at University of California Irvine, the University of Michigan Law School and Michigan State University College of Law. It was founded in 2012 in conjunction with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. The Registry provides detailed information about every known exoneration in the United States since 1989—cases in which a person was wrongly convicted of a crime and later cleared of all the charges based on new evidence of innocence. The Registry also maintains a more limited database of known exonerations prior to 1989.
We welcome new information from any source about exonerations already on our list and about cases not in the Registry that might be exonerations.