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          Front Page

Man Confessed To Murder He Didn't Commit

By Scott Sandlin
Copyright © 2010 Albuquerque Journal
Journal Staff Writer

          Robert Jacob Gonzales was visiting his former special education teacher at West Mesa High School when Albuquerque Police Department detectives caught up with him in November 2005.
        By the time they had completed their interview, Gonzales, who has significant intellectual disability, had falsely "confessed" to the violent rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl he didn't know in a trailer park he had never visited, court documents state.
        Gonzales, who was 20 when he was arrested, spent 968 days in jail before charges were dismissed and a man whose DNA matched that found at the crime scene was charged.
        Much of the time was spent in administrative segregation, frequently in the infirmary. He tried suicide more than once.
        Now, the city is paying $1.3 million for what his attorney Brad Hall alleged in a lawsuit was malicious prosecution after an arrest without probable cause. Bernalillo County, sued over Gonzales' treatment in jail, is paying $30,000 and the state paid $45,000 for the District Attorney's Office, which Hall alleged violated national standards of care.
        City Attorney Rob Perry said attorneys in his office reviewed similar cases from around the country where someone was wrongfully incarcerated for an extended period.
        "We felt we had significant exposure both to compensatory damages, punitive damages and attorney fees," he said. "Nobody has a crystal ball and can tell what a jury would do."
        Perry said the settlement was "the right business and legal decision for the city of Albuquerque.
        Gonzales, whose IQ has consistently tested between 51 and 65, won't have direct access to the money from the settlement, in which none of the defendants, including the city, admit any wrongdoing. A guardian and a conservator will oversee Gonzales' living expenses, to be paid out of a special needs trust.
        "We're happy the city cooperated in setting up a financial future and structured payments for Robert Gonzales," Hall said.
        Hall said Gonzales wasn't aware he was being "vilified" while the criminal case against him was pending because he doesn't read newspapers or watch TV news.
        But he was placed in protective custody after guards abused him, Hall said.
        "He was roughed up right away for being an accused child molester," Hall said. "After that, the jail put him in the infirmary to keep him (safe). An infirmary with no windows, 23 hours a day."
        Hall says none of it had to happen that way.
        "Nobody did any investigation once they had the 'confession,' " he said.
        He said police never spoke with Gonzales' aunt and uncle, who had reared him. And police lab tests a month after the girl's murder "indicated some other individual (not Robert Gonzales) was responsible for all the DNA and physical evidence at the crime scene," court documents state.
        "They knew within three weeks they had the wrong guy," Hall said in an interview. "They're just adamant that if somebody 'confesses,' then you did it."
        Prosecutors defended the case even after it was dismissed by saying Gonzales knew details of the crime.
        Answers supplied
        But Hall said police supplied the answers.
        Hall tapped the expertise of an expert in false confessions, who said they often occur during coercive questioning where the questioner supplies key facts to the suspect, who then repeats them. Suspects with mental retardation, such as Gonzales, are particularly susceptible to pressure from authority figures, Hall argued in documents.
        As the judge in the criminal case eventually found, Gonzales' mental retardation prevented him from making a knowing, intelligent and voluntary waiver of his Miranda rights before speaking to officers. A state District Court judge in May 2008 threw out the statements Gonzales had given police while noting the "apparent paucity of evidence in support of the indictment."
        The state appealed.
        Gonzales remained in custody.
        But five weeks later, the case against Gonzales was dismissed, and Israel Diaz was charged with the murder of Victoria Sandoval. In the transcript of a police interview, Diaz said he was "all drugged up" when he broke in through a window at the West Side trailer park where the girl lived.
        Diaz, who lived in the same trailer park, said he didn't know the girl. And he said he was "surprised" when he saw on the news that Gonzales had been charged.
        Diaz still has not gone to trial for the homicide.
        "It was a very troubling case," Perry said.
        It was a very high-profile case, he said, in which a suspect made admissions, and there was an arrest based on the information provided to police. Almost three years later, another individual confessed, and the confession was corroborated.
        "It's not pretty, and I know that no one really likes it," he said. "But it's a fair valuation as it relates to trying to limit the exposure of the city."

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