Omar Released: 19 Years to Vindication

This week, after a 15 year fight, Attorney Wood finally achieved victory in the single most gut-wrenching case of his 25 year career. The Hampden Superior Court vacated the murder conviction of his client Omar and immediately released him into the loving arms of his family.

This case illustrates that there are still monstrous injustices in our criminal justice system. Omar was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison when he was just 19 years old. He had no criminal record. He had never been arrested. The Commonwealth's only evidence was Omar's confession. A team of homicide detectives interrogated him for somewhere between four and seven hours without a lawyer, a parent or anyone else to support him. The police confronted him with false evidence that his 15 year old friend Carlito had claimed to see him shoot the victim. When he heard this evidence, Omar broke down and sobbed for 15 minutes. The police then typed out a confession in English despite the fact that everyone knew Omar only spoke Spanish. They made clear that they would not let him leave the interrogation room until he signed the document - which he could not read. After several hours, Omar signed the document. A jury convicted him of murder.

Omar has spent the past 19 years - half his life - in prison. Attorney Wood has represented him for the past 15 years. When Attorney Wood started representing him in 2004, he wanted to interview Carlito because he had never testified and the defense had never spoken to him. He also wanted to interview another eye-witness named Wilbert who had given a statement to police that suggested Omar was innocent but had not testified at trial. But Attorney Wood did not know how to contact them. He filed a motion asking the trial court to provide a small amount of money so I could hire a private investigator and locate them ($500). The court denied the motion. Attorney Wood appealed. In 2006, the Massachusetts Appeals Court affirmed the decision denying the funds.

Despite the setback, Attorney Wood was convinced Omar was innocent. So when the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS) - the state public defender's office - created an Innocence Program, he immediately contacted them and suggested this would be a worthwhile case to investigate.

In 2015, with funds from CPCS, Attorney Wood hired a Spanish speaking private investigator. Within a few months, he had located both Carlito and Diaz. Both provided shocking evidence of innocence. Carlito explained that he was only 15 years old, and had been in the U.S. for only about a month, when the victim was killed. He spoke only Spanish at that time. Omar had befriended Carlito and they were hanging out on the night of the killing. Carlito explained that they were together at the time of the killing and were not present for the shooting. But a couple of days later, homicide detectives came knocking on Carlito's door, hand-cuffed him and dragged him to the police station, alone. They interrogated him in English, which he did not understand. Eventually a Spanish speaking officer came in, and told him to sign a document written in English or he could not go home. He signed the document. He then immediately returned to his native Puerto Rico. Omar's jury never heard from him and his alleged statement to police was not mentioned at trial. But when Attorney Wood's investigator found him, he signed an affidavit under the pains and penalties of perjury attesting to what he shared with defense team. He had not seen Omar for nearly 20 years, had had no contact with him, and so had no apparent reason to lie.

Diaz explained to the investigator that he knew both Omar and the victim. In fact, he spent part of the evening of the shooting with Omar. He lived next door to the victim in an apartment above the bodega where they both worked. He was sitting in his apartment, when he heard someone approach the victim's apartment, knock and ask if he was Eddie. The victim said yes. The intruder asked if he knew a Lucy and Eddie said yes. This person then shot him. Terrified, Diaz immediately called 911 and the police arrived shortly thereafter and took a statement from him documenting what he had heard. As noted, Diaz knew Omar and so was familiar with his voice. But because Omar was not a suspect when the police took his statement, they never asked him if the shooter was Omar. Diaz told Attorney Wood's investigator he was sure that the shooter was not Omar. Moreover, despite the fact that the police had interviewed Diaz on the night of the shooting and knew he had been with Omar shortly before the shooting, they did not reinterview him after they came to suspect Omar. And prosecutors never called him to testify at trial. Again, Diaz agreed to sign an affidavit under the pains and penalties of perjury attesting to all of this. Again, he had had no connection to Omar for nearly 20 years and had no apparent reason to lie.

Armed with these statements, Attorney Wood made contact with the Boston College Law School Innocence Clinic for more help. He, Professor Charlotte Whitmore, and her students began outlining a plan to draft a new trial motion. They quickly recognized that despite the new evidence the investigator had uncovered, they still faced a large problem - Omar's signed confession. They knew they needed to hire experts: a psychologist to test Omar's vulnerability to coercion and an expert on how and why the interrogation tactics present in this case undermined the reliability of Omar's confession.

They got support from two different sources. First, the CPCS Innocence Program had miraculously secured grant funding from President Obama's DOJ for expert witnesses in innocence cases like this. Second, a special grass-roots fund, known as Running for Innocence (RFI) provided funding for the same thing. With money from both funds, they hired two spectacular experts.

First Dr. Catherine Ayoub, a bilingual professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts General Hospital and Children's Hospital, spent dozens of hours interviewing Omar in Spanish and determined that due to a constellation of factors, he was highly vulnerable to making a false confession.

Second, James Trainum, a former homicide detective in the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department, and now one of the nation's leading experts on the relationship between interrogation tactics and false confessions, and the author of the book, How Police Generate False Confessions:an inside look in the interrogation room, reviewed the entire police investigation in this case, the new evidence, and Dr. Ayoub's report and concluded that a constellation of factors supported a conclusion that Omar's confession was unreliable. Most importantly, he noted that several pieces of evidence contradicted Omar's confession and the police had been unable to corroborate any major details of the confession with independent evidence.

Armed with all of this evidence and more, Attorney Wood, Prof. Whitmore and her students drafted and filed a new trial motion, 19 years after Omar was arrested.

Then over a three day evidentiary hearing, Carlito and Wilbert testified to exactly what they had said in their affidavits. And the Commonwealth stipulated to the admission of Mr. Trainum's report. At the end of the hearing, the judge simply granted the motion from the bench and immediately set Omar free - causing bedlam in the courtroom filled with Omar's family and supporters and students from the BC Innocence Clinic.

While the new trial motion was being litigated, the BC Innocence Clinic had prepared a detailed reentry plan for Omar. As a result, when the judge granted the new trial motion from the bench without any warning, and immediately invited his attorneys to address bail, they were able to cite the reentry plan. The judge in turn agreed to release Omar immediately, without any cash bail, pursuant to the BC reentry plan.

We are delighted for Omar and his family. Justice was slow, but justice arrived.

Prof. Charlotte Whitmore, Omar Ortiz, Attorney Chauncey Wood

Prof. Charlotte Whitmore, Omar Ortiz, Attorney Chauncey Wood