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Juan Matta Ballesteros

Other federal exonerations from California
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On February 7, 1985, Enrique “Kiki” Camarena, a 37-year-old U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent, was kidnapped in Guadalajara, Mexico. His body, which had been beaten and tortured, was found on March 5, 1985, buried on a ranch along with the body of Alfredo Zavala, a Mexican pilot who worked with Camarena.

Buried with the bodies were rope bindings, some of their clothing, a light blue sheet with a floral pattern, and an adhesive blindfold.

Not long after, an informant told Mexican authorities that Camarena had been held and tortured at a residence at 881 Lope de Vega in Guadalajara owned by Rafael Caro Quintero, one of the leaders of a Guadalajara drug cartel.

Several months later, Mexican authorities said they had recovered tape recordings of the interrogation of Camarena following his abduction. DEA agents listened to the recordings and recognized Camarena’s voice as well as the voice of Caro Quintero and others.

At the time, Camarena was one of four DEA agents in the Guadalajara office. His abduction and murder followed his aggressive efforts to curtail marijuana growing and smuggling, and triggered a massive investigation. Ultimately, numerous individuals were convicted of the abduction and murder, including Juan Matta Ballesteros.

At the time of Camarena’s murder, Matta Ballesteros, a native of Honduras, was 40 years old and a major link between Colombia’s Medellin cartel and members of Mexican drug cartels. He was particularly linked to a cartel in Guadalajara that specialized in marijuana. Matta Ballesteros would later be convicted in two separate drug smuggling cases that involved the shipping and distribution of cocaine and marijuana in California and Arizona worth millions of dollars.

According to prosecutors, Camarena was targeted after the DEA made several significant seizures of marijuana and cocaine in 1984 that cost the cartel millions of dollars. The case against Matta Ballesteros was built largely on the testimony of Hector Cervantes Santos, who was in charge of security at the home of Javier Barba Hernandez, an attorney involved in the cartel, and forensic hair and fiber analysis by FBI special agent Michael Malone.

On February 12, 1985, five days after Camarena disappeared, Matta Ballesteros was seen checking out of a hotel in Guadalajara. On April 29, 1985, Colombian police detained him in Cartagena, Colombia on unrelated drug charges. He was taken to Bogota where DEA agents questioned him. He denied involvement in Camarena’s murder. Agents reported, however, that he admitted some knowledge of the abduction, but declined to say anything further because he feared he would be killed if he talked. An attempt to extradite him to the U.S. on an old escape charge was unsuccessful, and Matta Ballesteros returned to Honduras.

Nearly four years later, on April 5, 1988, he was abducted from his home in Tegucigalpa, Honduras by Honduras Special Troops and four deputy U.S. Marshalls. They bound his hands, put a black hood over his head, and drove him to a U.S. Air Force Base in Honduras. He was brought to the U.S. and within 24 hours of his abduction, Matta Ballesteros was in the federal prison in Marion, Illinois.

Ultimately, he was indicted and went to trial with three other men in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles. Matta Ballesteros was charged with committing crimes of violence in furtherance of a racketeering enterprise, conspiring to kidnap a federal agent, kidnapping a federal agent, and murdering a federal agent.

Cervantes Santos described four meetings at Barba Hernandez’s home, the first being during a celebration following the baptism of Barba Hernandez’s daughter. He said that Matta Ballesteros was present at two of the meetings. At one of those two meetings, a Mexican police officer delivered police files and said that he would “soon have the identification of the person causing the trouble who’s a DEA agent.” In response, Matta Ballesteros said, “Silence is golden.”

Special agent Malone testified that microscopic hair examination in the FBI lab could be used to determine whether a hair whose origin was unknown was forcibly removed, cut off, or shed naturally. Malone testified, according to a federal judge's ruling, that if he could isolate 15 identifying characteristics on such an unknown hair, he could determine whether that unknown hair "matched" another known hair.

Malone told the jury that in 10,000 evaluations of whether different hair samples matched, he had only had “two occasions out of those 10,000 where I’ve had hairs from two different people that I could not tell apart.” Malone also testified that the “matches” made in this case were based on 20 characteristics, rather than the 15 that he normally applied to make a positive identification.

Malone also testified that he could use microscopic analysis of fibers to determine the nature of the source fabric. He did so by “comparing an unknown fiber back to a particular source of a fiber, such as a carpet or a blanket or whatever.” Malone said he could obtain a “spectral fingerprint of the fibers dyed” using a “machine called a microspectrophotometer.”

Malone said that he identified hairs in the guest house at the residence at Lope de Vega that matched the hair of Camarena. Malone also testified that he found another hair in the guest house that was a match to Matta Ballesteros. Malone testified that the hair that matched Matta Ballesteros was from the same quadrant of the guest house where the hair of Camarena was found.

Malone also testified that a hair from a bathroom adjacent to the bedroom in the guest house matched Matta Ballesteros’s hair, and that another hair in the bedroom matched Camarena’s. Malone also presented a diagram of the Lope de Vega residence, labeling by name all three men placed in the area of the guest house.

Malone testified that fibers found on the sweatshirt of Zavala, whose body was found buried with Camarena’s body, matched the carpets at Lope de Vega. Malone also said that fibers on the bedsheet found with Camarena’s body matched the downstairs carpets in the home on Lope de Vega.

In addition, Malone said that fibers on the adhesive blindfold found with the bodies came from the downstairs bedrooms and a rose-colored carpet at the residence on Lope de Vega.

Malone also testified that fibers from a cord that Mexican authorities found in the home on Lope de Vega matched the fibers on the binding cord found with the bodies.

The defense called Skip Palenick as an expert witness on hair comparison. He testified that hair comparison ordinarily could not be used “absolutely” to identify a person with the same confidence that would arise from a fingerprint comparison. Palenick also testified that he had not conducted a comparison of the hair evidence in the case.

On July 26, 1990, the jury convicted Matta Ballesteros of committing crimes of violence in furtherance of a racketeering enterprise, conspiring to abduct a federal agent, and abducting a federal agent. He was acquitted of murdering a federal agent. Subsequently, he was sentenced to life in prison.

In 1998, lawyers for Matta Ballesteros filed a motion for a new trial citing a recantation in 1997 by Cervantes Santos. In a recorded interview, Cervantes Santos said that the lead DEA agent and a prosecutor in the case told him to manufacture his testimony regarding the four meetings. He also signed a sworn statement saying that he fabricated his trial testimony. However, over subsequent months, Cervantes Santos repeatedly reversed himself, recanting and then reaffirming his trial testimony. The prosecution presented a video of Cervantes Santos recanting his recantation, and saying that he recanted because lawyers for one of Matta Ballesteros’s co-defendants offered him money to recant. Cervantes Santos also said that he recanted because he was angry at the DEA for failing to provide him with money and immigration benefits. Following an evidentiary hearing, the motion for new trial was denied when the judge found the recantation was not credible and was motivated by “personal greed and feelings that the DEA had abandoned him and his family.”

In 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice informed Matta Ballesteros’s lawyers that the credibility of Malone’s testimony had been called into question by a July 2014 report issued by the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General. The report said that scientists hired to assess the work of FBI examiners in 312 cases looked at 162 cases involving Malone.

The independent review identified “egregious errors” in Malone’s analyses including:

--Malone repeatedly testified that by using microscopic analysis, he could match an unknown hair to a known hair, and the probability of the unknown hair belonging to somebody other than the known hair’s contributor was one in 5,000. These claims lacked a scientific basis.

--Malone’s notes regarding his examinations were often inadequate or unreadable, making it impossible to verify his results. The notes that were readable were inadequate to support his testimony. The reviewers found that “Malone’s testimony was consistently overstated,” and was “misleading and inaccurate.”

--Malone repeatedly testified that he had personally done tests and examinations, but no exhibits were presented that reflected or constituted such tests.

--Malone repeatedly testified that “at least 15 characteristics are needed for a hair comparison.” This claim lacked scientific support.

--Regarding fiber analysis, the reviewers wrote that “they did not believe Malone understood the appropriate use and limitations of an instrument known as a microspectrophotometer, and therefore, that he often reached scientifically inaccurate conclusions in his reports and testimony.” As a result, Malone, as he did in Matta Ballesteros’s case, sometimes testified that he could use the microspectrophotometer to identify a specific dye that was used to color a fiber. However, the report said, the device only allowed for the determination of the fiber’s color, not the specific dye used.

Based on the findings, the report concluded that Malone had “repeatedly created scientifically unsupportable lab reports and provided false, misleading, or inaccurate testimony at criminal trials.”

Based on the report, Matta Ballesteros’s attorneys sought to vacate his convictions. The defense noted that in the opening statement to the jury, the prosecution said that in “a bathroom adjoining a bedroom of the main house at Lope de Vega was found a hair which matches in every comparable respect” the hair of [Matta Ballesteros]. In addition, the prosecution said that “a hair was found in the adjoining bedroom, ladies and gentlemen, which matches in every comparable respect the known hair of agent Camarena.”

In the closing argument to the jury, the prosecution declared, “[Malone] went on at great length – and I won’t repeat it – but he has incredible training, has examined thousands and thousands of hairs. He takes final exams, and every time he passes exams with flying colors. He has taught, he has published. This man knows his stuff. That is unequivocal. And his conclusion to you after perhaps a full day of testimony, was that Camarena was at the Lope de Vega house and particularly in the guest house. And Camarena had hair forcibly removed from him in the guest house.”

The prosecutor, the defense noted, told the jury that a hair found in the guest house was “absolutely indistinguishable” from Matta Ballesteros’s hair.

On May 22, 2017, U.S. District Judge John Kronstadt vacated the convictions and ordered a new trial because of the faults with Malone’s testimony identified in the Justice Department report.

In a 27-page decision, the judge said that Malone’s testimony directly linked Matta Ballesteros “to the very serious and gruesome conduct that resulted from the alleged conspiracy.”

“Malone testified that [Matta Ballesteros’s] hair was located in the room where the interrogation of Camarena allegedly occurred,” the judge said. “This nexus is significant because it was the only evidence that [Matta Ballesteros] was at the location. Further, it substantially bolstered the testimony of [Cervantes Santos] concerning [Matta Ballesteros’s] presence on two occasions when the alleged conspiracy was discussed.”

Judge Kronstadt noted that Cervantes Santos’s testimony was offered to support the allegation that [Matta Ballesteros] “knew of, and agreed to participate in, the alleged conspiracy to kidnap and interrogate Camarena.”

Judge Kronstadt also noted that because the testimony of Cervantes Santos “was hearsay, and was challenged on cross examination,” the decision of the jury that Matta Ballesteros “was a member of the conspiracy may have been affected by the discredited testimony of Malone.”

The judge also said, “Malone’s testimony about hair analysis was also significant to another factual issue -- whether Camarena was detained and interrogated at Lope de Vega. He testified that Camarena’s hair was found there. He also testified that this conclusion was supported by his analysis that compared, and found common, the fibers from the ‘adhesive blindfold’ on the body of Camarena and those at Lope de Vega.”

On December 7, 2018, the prosecution dismissed the charges against Matta Ballesteros, who remained in prison serving a life sentence for the drug smuggling convictions.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 4/20/2020
Last Updated: 4/20/2020
State:Fed-CA
County:(Central)
Most Serious Crime:Kidnapping
Additional Convictions:Other Violent Felony, Conspiracy
Reported Crime Date:1984
Convicted:1990
Exonerated:2018
Sentence:Life without parole
Race:Hispanic
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:40
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No