In December 2002, 39-year-old Maria Hernandez and her husband, Rutilio, were indicted by a federal grand jury in Texas on charges of participating in a multi-million dollar marijuana smuggling operation while living on a pecan and olive farm in Orosi, California.
The investigation was opened in 2001 when federal law enforcement learned that Robert Fansler, who would later be described as a “crafty septuagenarian and family patriarch,” had purchased several vehicles for cash at approximately $30,000 each.
In January 2002, federal agents detained a trailer registered to Fansler as it crossed into Arizona from Mexico. They found 1,000 pounds of marijuana concealed in the vehicle. The driver, Modesta Balderas, who was accompanied by his mother, immediately cooperated with agents in return for immunity from prosecution for his mother. Balderas outlined a drug, money and gun-smuggling operation run by Fansler from his ranch in Camp Wood, Texas.
A raid turned up guns, nearly $500,000 in cash, a wide variety of ledgers, address books and correspondence and a key to a safety deposit box in Calexico, California that contained an additional $600,000 in cash. Fansler, his daughter and her husband, and Fansler’s grandson and the grandson’s wife were indicted along with Maria and Rutilio Hernandez.
Maria and Rutilio Hernandez went on trial in U.S. District Court in Del Rio, Texas in January 2004. The prosecution claimed that between 1998 and 2001, Fansler and his family repeatedly went to Guadalajara, Mexico with thousands of dollars in cash and with guns for protection. There, they purchased thousands of kilograms of marijuana and smuggled it into the United States in multiple RV trailers that Fansler owned. The marijuana was delivered to two people in Orosi, California: Rutilio Hernandez and Francisco Topete.
The bulk of the prosecution’s evidence against Maria Hernandez emerged from notebooks and address books which contained her name as well as her husband’s. Rutilio was listed in some documents as owing large amounts of money to Fansler, presumably for the payment of marijuana shipped by Fansler.
Also seized during the initial raid was a U.S. Postal Service claim form filed by Fansler on July 18, 2001 for a lost package containing $125,000 in cash addressed to “Maria” at 41721 Road 168, Orosi, California—the address of the farm where Maria and Rutilio had once lived.
The prosecution contended that Rutilio and Maria hired Fansler and his family to smuggle guns and money into Mexico and marijuana back into the U.S.
Evidence showed that in 1990, Rutilio and Maria, who had lived in California for nearly 30 years, purchased the 20-acre farm in Orosi and moved into one of two homes on the property where they lived with their three children.
A year later, in 1991, Maria’s older brother, Francisco Topete, moved into the other home with his wife, Maria Trinidad Pena Topete and their children. They lived next door to each other until March 2000 when Rutilio and Maria Hernandez purchased property less than 10 miles away in Dinuba, California and moved there.
They sold the farm to Francisco and Maria Trinidad Pena Topete in September 2000 and were living in Dinuba in July 2001 when Fansler mailed the package containing $125,000 in cash to “Maria” at the farm in Orosi. The prosecution contended that Maria Trinidad Pena Topete and Maria Hernandez were the same person.
Hernandez’s attorney failed to introduce any evidence to distinguish the two women and failed to show that Maria Hernandez moved off the farm in March 2000—more than a year before Fansler mailed the package.
On January 26, 2004, a jury convicted Maria and Rutilio of multiple counts of conspiring to smuggle guns into Mexico, to smuggle drugs out of Mexico, to distribute drugs in the U.S. and to launder money. Rutilio was sentenced to 20 years in prison and Maria was sentenced to 17 years in prison.
After their convictions were upheld on appeal, the couple obtained new lawyers who sought to overturn the convictions on the ground that the trial lawyers had failed to investigate the case and turn up evidence that Maria Hernandez was not the Maria referred to in Fansler’s claim form and that she had no involvement in any criminal activity.
At a hearing before U.S. Magistrate Judge Collis White in 2011, evidence was presented showing that Maria Hernandez was no longer on the property when the package was mailed, that Maria Trinidad Pena Topete had a romantic relationship with Fansler and that Maria Trinidad Pena Topete was the sole owner of the farm in Orosi when the package was mailed. White declined to recommend that Rutilio’s conviction be overturned, but recommended that Maria’s conviction be vacated. The magistrate concluded that Maria Hernandez was not the intended recipient of the package—that it was destined for Maria Trinidad Pena Topete.
On March 31, 2014, U.S. District Court Judge Alia Moses accepted White’s recommendation. Moses denied Rutilio’s motion for a new trial but vacated Maria Hernandez’s conviction and ordered a new trial for her. Moses said that Maria’s trial lawyer’s performance was “attorney laziness” and also criticized the trial judge. Moses said the judge attempted to clear up his own confusion over the name but instead made the matter worse “in true Abbott and Costello fashion.”
At Moses’ direction, Maria Hernandez was released on a no-cash bond on April 4, 2014. On April 8, 2014, the prosecution dismissed the charges. Hernandez later filed a petition in federal court for a Certificate of Innocence, but her petition was denied, and the denial was affirmed on appeal.
– 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.