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Slaying Suspect Freed

By Scott Sandlin
Journal Staff Writer
       A mentally retarded man who falsely confessed to the slaying of an 11-year-old girl in 2005 was released from jail Friday after a national database matched DNA in the case to another man in custody for another crime.
    Attorneys for Robert Gonzales, now 22, had long argued for his release, saying none of the more than 60 scientific tests of items seized as evidence connected him to the victim, Victoria Sandoval.
    Sandoval was raped and strangled on Halloween night 2005 in the West Side mobile home where she lived with her grandparents.
    “There’s a reason we have a presumption of innocence,” said Gonzales’ lawyer Jeff Buckels, director of the capital crimes unit of the New Mexico Public Defender office. “This is what it’s all about. Sometimes people confess to things they didn’t do. And people with vulnerabilities, like people with mental retardation, are more likely to confess.”
    Authorities charged Israel Diaz, 20, a Mexican national arrested for residential burglary in April, with Sandoval’s slaying on June 16.
    Diaz’s arrest warrant was sealed by the court at the request of prosecutors, who said its public release could jeopardize an ongoing investigation.
    District Attorney Kari Brandenburg said the warrant would likely not become public until Diaz is moved from federal to state custody and the case goes before a grand jury for indictment, possibly two weeks away. Meanwhile, Diaz is on immigration detainer for illegal entry into the United States.
    Buckels said he learned a week ago from state prosecutors that the CODIS system, which tracks DNA profiles of arrestees, had hit on someone other than Gonzales and that the case would be dismissed.
    Gonzales has been at the Metropolitan Detention Center since Nov. 1, 2005 — the day after his arrest by Albuquerque police — except for the period when he was undergoing a competency evaluation at the state psychiatric hospital in Las Vegas, N.M.
    Sandoval was strangled in her bed, the autopsy report states. Gonzales, in his statement to police, said he crawled into the girl’s bedroom window of her grandparents’ West Side trailer, and the two had sex.
    Gonzales said he became angry when the girl told him she was 13 and not 15 — although she was 11 — and he wanted to “teach her a lesson” for lying by choking her.
    Detectives had targeted Gonzales because they believed he was the male nicknamed “Old School” whom Sandoval’s friend identified as the male the girls had met at a West Side pool that summer.
    Police reports indicate that Gonzales and Sandoval began dating after that.
    But two police officers recently testified that they clearly told the detective that Sandoval was not the girl at the pool that day.
    Despite his mental retardation, which puts his IQ between 51 and 65, defense and prosecution psychologists differed on his competency to stand trial. District Judge Carl Butkus put the question to a jury, which found him competent for trial. Buckels then sought to have Gonzales released based on the results of tests.
    “All they had was the confession — and the fact that Robert was seen in a clinch with her,” Buckels said Friday.
    Earlier this month, Butkus granted a defense request to suppress Gonzales’ statement, saying it was given after he was arrested without probable cause in violation of the Fourth Amendment.
    Prosecutors filed notice they would appeal Butkus’ suppression order to the New Mexico Supreme Court.
    Then the DNA identified Diaz as the likely perpetrator.
    Brandenburg said Gonzales’ confession seemed credible.
    “We still believe there are many credible parts of that confession, but we can’t find anything linking Gonzales to Diaz ... It’s a situation where everyone was doing the best job they could with the information they had,” she said.
    “What we’re saying now is we have insufficient evidence in light of the recent DNA hit, the CODIS hit, and from what we know at this point there is no indication Diaz knew Gonzales. So we’re not closing the door 100 percent.”
    Steve Drizin, legal director of the Northwestern University Center on Wrongful Convictions, said The Innocence Project believes false confessions were the primary factor in 25 percent of 218 convictions subsequently overturned based on DNA evidence exonerating the defendant.
    False confessions are generally the product of sophisticated psychological interrogation techniques and vulnerabilities on the part of suspects, particularly juveniles and people with mental retardation. Those groups are more highly suggestible and eager to please, he said.
    “You have a classic double whammy in the case of Robert Gonzales,” he said. “Police officers aren’t trained to interrogate juveniles or people with mental retardation any differently from the rest of the population.”
    Drizin wrote about the Gonzales case on a Web site dealing with false confessions even before charges were dropped Friday.
    Richard Leo, a University of San Francisco School of Law professor who reviewed the transcript of Gonzales’ interrogations — one lasting 36 minutes and the other two hours and nine minutes — said he noted at the time that Gonzales was “hypersuggestible and incredibly compliant.”
    “I just thought something really stood out here. This was like leading a child, the person was so suggestible. I had in my notes that it looked like he was confabulating a little bit — in other words, easily led ... into accepting responsibility because he was eager to please.”
    Journal Staff Writer T.J. Wilham contributed to this report.