Sometime on the evening of October 31, 2005 – Halloween night – 11 year old Victoria Sandoval was found strangled in her room in a small mobile home where she lived with her grandparents in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Victoria had been strangled and sexually assaulted. Her grandparents, who were in the home at the time of the assault, apparently heard or saw nothing related to the attack. The window outside of Victoria’s bedroom had been disturbed, prompting investigators to believe that it was the point of entry into the home.
On November 3, 2005,Albuquerque police officers arrest Robert Gonzales, a 20 year old mentally retarded man with an I.Q. of 62, at a local high school which Gonzales had visited to talk with a former counselor. Although the police did not have probable cause to arrest Gonzales, they believed he might have had a prior relationship with Sandoval as they had developed information that he had met the girl at a local swimming pool. After taking him back to a police station and interrogating him for nearly three hours, police emerged with a confession from Gonzales. Gonzales told police that he met Sandoval at the pool during the summer and began dating her. He claimed that Sandoval told him she was 15. He killed her – his “girlfriend” -- during sex when she revealed to him that she was only 11 years old.
Gonzales’ competency to stand trial was a hotly debated issue during pre-trial hearings. A defense expert testified that Gonzales has tremendous difficulty processing information and that he did not understand many of the fundamental issues necessary to stand trial. Prosecutors countered with an expert who testified that Gonzales is competent, particularly with “coaching” and that his ability to make “novel adjustments” to situations demonstrates his competence. With conflicting opinions, Bernalillo County District Judge Carl Butkus, concerned that Gonzales may not be competent, took the unusual step of submitting the case to a jury. Under New Mexico law, only 10 of the 12 jurors would have to find Gonzales “competent” and only by a “preponderance of the evidence,” not “beyond a reasonable doubt.” The jury found Gonzales competent.
The next arrow in the defense’s quiver was to file a motion to suppress Gonzales’s statements. Gonzales had been placed under arrest when the police handcuffed him at the school, transported him to the police station in a police car, and then handcuffed him to a pole in the interrogation room before interrogating him. Because they lacked probable cause to arrest Gonzales – a legal conclusion conceded by the State – the defense argued that his arrest was illegal and his confession must be suppressed as the “fruit of the poisonous tree.” The State argued that Gonzales was not “under arrest” but that even if he was, the statement should be admitted because intervening events – the passage of time, the reading of Miranda warnings, the lack of coercion during the interrogation – dissipated the taint of the illegal arrest. The defense countered by saying that giving Gonzales Miranda warnings was futile because he could not understand them and did not “knowingly and intelligently” waive them. Last week, Judge Butkus, in a well-reasoned opinion, granted the defense motion to suppress, tossing out the only evidence against Gonzales. The State plans an appeal.
The backdrop for all of this legal activity is that in all likelihood the confession is false. After police arrived at the scene of the murder, they secured the crime scene and collected some 70 pieces of evidence – fibers, fingerprints, blood, hair, semen -- to submit to the crime lab. None of these pieces of evidence could be linked to Gonzales. More importantly, DNA taken from semen found in two places on Sandoval’s body matched each other and a hair left on her thigh. These redundant DNA hits almost certainly belonged to the killer. A search of CODIS, the national database of DNA profiles has not found a match. “One thing we know: Either the DNA is wrong or the confession is wrong,” defense attorney Jeffrey Buckels, Chief of the New Mexico Public Defender’s capital crimes unit, told the court in the context of a motion to modify Gonzales's release conditions.
When confronted with the DNA evidence, Assistant District Attorney Bryan McKay stated that the fact that the DNA does not match Gonzales does not mean much given “Gonzales self-admitted use of condoms.” (Maybe, but what about the hair found on the victim's leg -- a condom is not going to prevent a rapist from shedding hair) “The lack of his DNA does not mean that Robert wasn’ t there and wasn’t a participant … The girl may have been sexually active with someone else.” To McKay, the videotaped confession, during which Gonzales demonstrated how he strangled the girl, was more powerful than the DNA evidence.
The Gonzales case is yet one more example of how low law enforcement may sink in order to preserve an arrest and prosecution. Although it is techincally possible that 11 year old Sandoval was sexually active, prosecutors have put forth no evidence to support this theory. It seems to me that prosecutors owe it to victims and their families to thoroughly investigate such claims before publicly smearing the victim's reputation. If she was sexually active, at the very least prosecutors and police should have been investigating her supposed sexual partners with a vengeance to try to arrest them for having sex with a minor. This is not the first time that such theories have been recklessly advanced by law enforcement -- in the Jeffrey Deskovic case, prosecutors suggested that the 15 year old victim may have been sexually active after DNA excluded Deskovic, and in the Juan Rivera case, law enforcement officials suggested that the 11 year old Holly Staker may have had consensual sex. It remains to be seen whether they will argue this theory to the jury in Rivera's third trial this Fall.
The Gonzales case also underscores the need for a procedure where a trial court can evaluate the reliability of confession evidence before the confession is admitted into evidence at trial. In this case, the usual pre-trial challenges to the confession evidence worked – but in most cases, Fourth and Fifth Amendment-based motions to suppress will fail. Had these motions failed, Gonzales would have had to take his chance with a jury. Given the power of confession evidence, it is quite possible he would have been convicted despite the DNA evidence. The case also illustrates how confession evidence can corrupt the judgment of law enforcement officers, including police and prosecutors.
Finally, Jeff Buckels is to be commended for realizing that courts may be more likely to grant motions to suppress in the context of a weak case by prosecutors than a strong one. Although the DNA evidence is largely irrelevant to the motion to suppress, repeatedly raising the results in the press and in court, creates an environment where a judge can feel more comfortable in applying the law and suppressing a confession. Although judges do not like to toss out confessions on what the public perceives to be a “technicality,” there is one thing they may be even more reluctant to be associated with – a wrongful conviction.