THE UNMAKING OF A MURDERER – Part 2

We find the trial court committed reversible error by failing
to allow the defendant to place into evidence the statements of George Moreno. We thereby order that the case be reversed,the conviction vacated and the case remanded to Pima County Superior Court.

State versus Mejias
Arizona Supreme Court

We are elated, but know the state will retry Manny. The Pima County Attorneys office will never dismiss a high profile first degree murder case unless they have no chance of victory.

When a conviction is reversed the state has 60 days to retry the defendant, unless he agrees to a continuance. Defense attorneys believe later is better than sooner, like good wine. Might as well waive time. Nothing has changed.

That is until we drive thirty minutes to the Wilmot Prison and visit Inmate No. 17390. A prison visit is more difficult than the county jail where all you need is your bar card. You don’t need an appointment and visiting hours are 24/7. At Wilmot you need to make an appointment and wait till a security clearance is completed. Not always top on their agenda. Inmate 17390 is brought to the small conference room dressed in blue shirt and jeans. He barely resembles 15 year old Manny. He is clear-eyed and focused. The vagueness is gone. He has begun to educate himself. He takes any class that’s available. He’s already read every book in the prison library. Manny finds out musical instruments are available to inmates. Manny teaches himself to play several. He starts a band.

Where an inmate is housed is critically important. In minimum security facilities inmates are given more opportunities to go to classes and work. They have more freedom to move about, exercise and mix with other inmates. In maximum security inmates spend the majority of their time in a small cell. Today Arizona prisons have much fewer opportunities for education, job training, and drug rehabilitation regardless of custody level. Money is short and if it’s a choice between schools or prison, schools win. Unfortunately now it’s a choice between school funding and tax cuts. As the prison population continues to grow and all are overcrowded instead of building more facilities, Arizona contracted with private prisons where inmates are treated horribly. The US Justice Department has decided to stop using private prisons for federal prisoners and other states are following suit. Not Arizona.

Wilmot has several different custody yards. Manny was placed in minimum security with other juvenile inmates. No adults. No gangs. But it’s still prison. The ‘chow’ is poor, all decisions from clothing to who can visit are made by the prison administration. Rules are strictly enforced.

Time passes. We get ready for trial. Send an offer to the state that is rejected. We hear nothing else. The trial date gets closer. A week before trial, the prosecutor calls with an offer, “Plead to second,” sentencing up to the judge. At that time second degree murder means 15 to 20 years with no time off for good behavior. He will serve every day of the sentence he receives.

Manny has to take the plea. Evidence against him is overwhelming even with George’s statements. At worst he’d serve 5 years less. We’d concentrate our energies on sentencing. I subpoena Manny’s prison records and find out he scored only a few points below genius on the Weschler Adult Intelligent Scale (IQ test). A counselor tells me that Manny had the highest recorded score in the prison’s history. We contact prison guards who agreed to testify on Manny’s behalf. A first I never saw repeated.

On the date of sentencing, we return to the same courtroom presided over by the same judge. (I don’t take the bailiff’s chair.) Manny’s family is present. They never waver in their support. The victim’s family is present. The courtroom is full. A presentence report was prepared by probation. Letters were sent to the judge from Manny’s supporters. The guards testified as to Manny’s good behavior and exemplary attitude. I argue for the minimum 15. Manny has taken responsibility for his crime. He’s taken advantage of educational opportunities. He has no disciplinary write-ups. He’s on his way to rehabilitation. The state reads a letter from the victim’s family. Their 17 year old son is dead. He’ll never be there for holidays. He’ll never go to Stanford. The prosecutor argues for the maximum 20.

The judge looks at Manny.

It is the order of the Court that the defendant be sentenced to 20 years in the Arizona State prison. He must serve 100% of his sentence before he is released.

State versus Mejias
Judge, Pima County Superior Court

 

(To be continued.  Barbara Sattler is the author of Dog Days (2013), Anne Levy’s Last Case (2014 See book above or go to Amazon.)