Murder Conviction Dropped, Attorneys Explain Why
Domingo Bustos Anaya on Monday pleaded no contest to voluntary manslaughter for a murder he says he did not commit. He’s spent the past 21 years in prison for that crime, but another man has come forward and claimed responsibility for the shooting that killed Luz Ortiz in Stanislaus County.
Anaya, 43, agreed to a compromise with prosecutors so he could be set free and return to Mexico. Paige Kaneb, Anaya’s attorney, said it’s not the kind of justice her client deserves, but the plea deal was the only guarantee Anaya wouldn’t spend the rest of his life behind bars.
“It maybe isn’t perfect justice, but he’s more familiar than most of us with the fact that life is not perfect,” said Kaneb of the Northern California Innocence Project, which sought a new trial for Anaya.
Deputy District Attorney John R. Mayne, who worked closely with Anaya’s attorneys on the deal, said the prosecution still believes Anaya lied on the witness stand about his alibi. So, Anaya pleaded guilty to two counts of perjury for lying about being treated for influenza in Mexico when the deadly shooting occurred.
“He did not receive an exoneration,” Mayne said about the defendant. “It was the universal view that this resolution was correct for justice.”
Anaya, Hector David Ruiz, was convicted of murder and was sentenced to 29 years to life in prison for Ortiz’s slaying. On Jan. 20, 1996, the 41-year-old Modesto man’s body was found dumped along Grimes Avenue, just west of Modesto.
Four men were in a car when the front passenger turned around and shot Ortiz, who was sitting directly behind the shooter. Ortiz was a native of El Salvador, who had lived in Modesto for five years working in landscaping. He had a wife and two daughters.
Anaya’s first trial in October 1996 ended with a hung jury. The jury’s final vote was 8 to 4 in favor of acquittal. A Mexican physician and nurse who said they treated Anaya both testified in the first trial and presented documentation of treatment.
Only the doctor testified in the second trial, which also included testimony from Yriel Valenzuela, a jailhouse informant who claimed Anaya made incriminating statements while both were locked up in the Stanislaus County Jail.
Valenzuela was facing life in prison himself because of a third-strike allegation until he cut a deal with the District Attorney’s Office. Valenzuela agreed to testify and prosecutors agreed to drop charges against Valenzuela and release him from jail. The informant also said in court that Anaya had bragged that the doctor had been paid $5,000 for his testimony.
Jose Luis Zepeda claimed he was driving the car when Ortiz was shot and Anaya had nothing to do with the killing. Zepeda left the country after the shooting and never was charged. Zepeda refused to leave his home in the Sierra Madre in Mexico to give a sworn affidavit.
Guy Brooks, Anaya’s trial attorney, presented audio and video recordings of Zepeda’s statements and asked the court for a new trial. At the September 1997 hearing, Anaya told the judge “I don't understand... I wasn't even here. I was in Mexico when this happened.”
Stanislaus Superior Court Judge John G. Whiteside said at the time he was not given a strong enough legal reason to overturn the jury’s April 1997 guilty verdict and order a new trial.
Brooks has said Anaya was the victim of mistaken identity, since a key witness told authorities the man who killed Ortiz was in his mid-40s, some 20 years older than Anaya, and described a different complexion and type of hair. The defense attorney also has said the jailhouse informant’s testimony lacked credibility.
Prosecutor Doug Fontan said at the time that “Justice was served.” Fontan has said Valenzuela’s story was thoroughly checked and determined to be very credible. The jury that convicted Anaya was aware of Valenzuela’s deal with prosecutors.
Anaya spent the next 21 years while in prison trying to get the court system to reconsider his case. The attorneys at the Northern California Innocence Project agreed to review Anaya’s case. His new defense team says the prosecutor in the trial made sure present in court any evidence pointing to Anaya’s innocence, giving him his chance at an acquittal.
Private Investigator Grant Fine, working for the Innocence Project, tracked down Angel Rosales, the man believed to have shot Ortiz 21 years ago. Fine said he questioned Rosales, who admitted to killing Ortiz. The investigator recorded the interview on video and handed it over to Anaya’s attorneys.
Zepeda, at the time of the second trial, also identified Rosales as the shooter. But the jurors in each trial never heard Zepeda’s statements, because the court considered them hearsay without his testimony.
“The court system has failed him from the very beginning,” Kaneb said. “Then, there’s the jailhouse snitch; there were problems with his statements but the jury never heard those. I don’t think anyone did anything deliberately wrong, I think everyone just missed them.”
Kaneb filed a writ of habeas corpus in Stanislaus Superior Court, asking the judge to overturn the murder conviction. A hearing to decide the matter was scheduled Nov. 13. She said the defense and the prosecution agrees there’s plenty of doubt about Anaya’s guilt.
“There’s enough evidence of Domingo’s innocence that he should go home,” Kaneb said after Monday’s hearing.
She said District Attorney Birgit Fladager and Mayne made sure to fairly consider all exculpatory evidence and agreed to file an amended criminal complaint that would drop the murder charge against Anaya. The prosecutors charged Anaya with voluntary manslaughter, an enhancement for using a gun and two counts of perjury.
The prosecutors agreed to a resolution after evaluating the difficulties of re-prosecuting a decades-old murder case if the judge ruled in favor of the defense and ordered a third trial for Anaya, according to a news release form the District Attorney’s Office.
Rosales has never been made available to Fladager’s prosecutors. The private investigator who met with Rosales at hotel in the state of Guerrero in Mexico said Rosales, now in his 60s, is suffering from an illness and made it clear he was not returning to Stanislaus County to testify. Rosales and Zepeda both left the area shortly after the fatal shooting.
“The court system has failed (Anaya) from the very beginning,” Kaneb said. “Then, there’s the jailhouse snitch; there were problems with his statements but the jury never heard those. I don’t think anyone did anything deliberately wrong, I think everyone just missed them.”
Superior Court Judge Linda McFadden sentenced Anaya to 21 years in prison, which means he will be released for time already served behind bars. Kaneb said Anaya will likely be handed over to federal immigration officials to be deported immediately after his prison release.
When Judge McFadden asked Anaya to enter his plea Monday afternoon, the defendant said “I’m innocent but no contest.”
Kaneb said Anaya was willing to plead guilty to the perjury charges, because he knew it was part of a package deal with prosecutors. She doesn’t think that Anaya feels like he admitted to something he did not do.
“It was really important to him that he’d be able to maintain his innocence while taking this deal,” Kaneb said. “That was really his only concern when we told him he had this option to go home.”
Anaya, who was 25 at the time of the shooting, is a Mexican citizen who had been living in Ceres. He still has some relatives who live in Stanislaus County. His adult children attended Monday’s hearing but declined to comment for this report.
Kaneb said Anaya’s children will make the trip to Mexico to visit their father. Anaya’s parents and his 96-year-old grandmother are waiting for him in Mexico for his return.
Anya, who remains in custody, could not speak to The Bee on Monday. His statements about the outcome of his case were included in a news release from the Northern California Innocence Project. He said “Whatever days God has left for my grandmother, I want to spend them with her.”
“He’s really happy,” Kaneb said about Anaya after Monday’s hearing. “He can’t wait to see his family.”