Jose Morales, innocent, served 13 years in prison
========================= http://www.nytimes.com/2001/07/25/nyregion/25PRIE.html ========================= NEW YORK TIMES July 25, 2001
Testimony of Priest and Lawyer Frees Man Jailed for '87 Murder
By JIM DWYER
A Bronx man was freed from prison yesterday by a federal judge who said he never would have been convicted of murder if the jury had known 13 years ago that a guilt- racked teenager had admitted committing the crime to a priest, a lawyer and others.
In his ruling, Judge Denny Chin of United States District Court in Manhattan noted that federal courts rarely freed prisoners convicted in state criminal cases. But the judge said the New York courts had mistakenly barred testimony about the teenager's admissions.
The result of that error, Judge Chin said, was that the man, Jose Morales, and another inmate, Ruben Montalvo, were imprisoned in 1988 for a crime they did not commit.
Mr. Morales, 30, rushed from the courthouse to a family reunion at his grandmother's apartment in the South Bronx. There, he visited with his 12-year-old son, who was born shortly after he was jailed. It was their first meeting outside a prison visiting room. "He's going back to school next week in Puerto Rico, and I was afraid I wouldn't be home in time to see him," Mr. Morales said.
In making his decision, Judge Chin noted that he had the advantage of testimony from two extraordinary sources who came forward recently a Roman Catholic priest and a former public defender. They said they had been told by the teenager, Jesus Fornes, that he had committed the crime and that Mr. Morales and Mr. Montalvo had not been involved.
Even so, Judge Chin said, the state courts rejected testimony from two other witnesses who had told essentially the same story. If evidence from those first witnesses had been available at the trial in 1988, "surely the jury would have found reasonable doubt," the judge ruled.
He said the new witnesses the priest, the Rev. Joseph Towle, and the lawyer, Stanley Cohen completely sealed the matter. "If Fornes's statements to Father Towle and Cohen are included," the judge said, "it is difficult to imagine that any reasonable jury could find Morales guilty beyond a reasonable doubt."
After Mr. Fornes died in 1997, the priest and the lawyer independently decided that they could reveal what he had told them about the case.
The judge rejected arguments from a Bronx prosecutor, Allen P. W. Karen, that Mr. Morales not be released, saying that the prosecutor had misstated parts of the evidence. He ordered Mr. Morales's immediate release and invited lawyers for Mr. Montalvo to submit papers making a similar request.
Later, speaking by phone, Mr. Morales said that as he was driven to the Bronx by his brother-in-law Scott Fowler, he looked out at a city transformed since he last saw it in late 1988: "A lot of new scenery, new buildings, the Bronx is totally different. I don't see abandoned buildings. No graffiti on the wall anymore."
The landscape of his own life had changed as well. His son had grown. His sister Maria, a nurse, is expecting her first child. Mr. Morales entered prison shortly after he turned 18. Since then, he has earned two associate's degrees in prison education programs. He said he was about 14 credits short of a bachelor's degree in psychology, and intended to continue his studies.
He had no regrets, he said, over turning down an attractive plea deal. In 1988, the Bronx district attorney's office offered to drop the charge of second-degree murder if Mr. Morales pleaded guilty to reckless endangerment.
"I would only have had to serve one and a half to three years," Mr. Morales said. "If I had to do it all over again, I still would not take the plea. I had nothing to do with this."
The same prosecutor who made the plea offer in 1988 yesterday urged Judge Chin to keep Mr. Morales behind bars until the end of his 15-year term.
Mr. Morales was represented yesterday by Jeffrey Pittell and Randa Maher. Apart from his family, Mr. Morales said he had been supported in his appeals by a social worker, Joel Freedman of Canandaigua, N.Y.
The case began with the murder of Jose Antonio Rivera, late on the evening of Sept. 28, 1987. Mr. Rivera was chased through Kelly Park in the Bronx by a group of teenagers he had been feuding with. He was stabbed and hit with a baseball bat and sticks.
His girlfriend, who had been drinking with Mr. Rivera, was the sole witness against Mr. Morales. In the chaos of a mob attack at night, Judge Chin noted, "it would hardly be surprising if the witness made a mistake when she identified Morales in a lineup a few days later."
After hearing Judge Chin's decision yesterday, Mr. Rivera's daughter Wanda Rivera-Mora sobbed on a bench outside the courtroom. She said Mr. Morales and Mr. Montalvo had been positively identified by the girlfriend.
"Now they're the victims?" Mrs. Rivera said. "We were the victims. My father was brutally murdered by them."
She said that while she accepted that Mr. Fornes was involved in the killing, she did not believe that his admission exonerated Mr. Morales and Mr. Montalvo. She also was angry at Father Towle, and said it had taken him two days last week to respond to messages from her family requesting a meeting. "What kind of priest is this?" she asked.
Father Towle said he understood the Rivera family's anger, and would pray for them in hopes of reconciliation. He noted that he had not broken the seal of the confession, a point Judge Chin also made in his decision. "I was repeating not revealing what Jesus Fornes had stated," the priest said. "It was the most redeeming moment of this boy's life."
Mr. Morales also said he was sorry for the Riveras' anguish. "I feel sympathy to them," he said. "They lost a loved one. I don't believe that he deserved to die."
In his ruling, Judge Chin said Mr. Fornes had told at least four people that he was tormented with guilt over the convictions.
"The driving force behind Fornes's decision to come forward and to place himself at risk was the guilt he felt because two innocent young men had been convicted of, and were in prison for, the crime that he had committed," the judge wrote. "It is precisely this motivation that gives his statements the ring of truth, even so many years later."
In January 1989, shortly before Mr. Morales and Mr. Montalvo were to be sentenced, Mr. Fornes asked Father Towle to visit him at home. With his parents in another room, the priest said, Mr. Fornes admitted that he had been part of the group that had killed Mr. Rivera, but he insisted that Mr. Morales and Mr. Montalvo were innocent.
Father Towle said he urged him to go to court and tell the truth about what happened, and Mr. Fornes did, on the scheduled day of the sentencing. He spoke with one of the defense lawyers, and the sentencing was postponed. In the meantime, Mr. Fornes found a lawyer of his own, who advised him not to talk.
As a result, only secondhand accounts of Mr. Fornes's admissions were presented to the court, and at the urging of prosecutors, these were rejected as legally inadequate.
Through multiple appeals, the state courts upheld that ruling, "basically rubber-stamping what the trial court did," Mr. Morales said.
Judge Chin had turned down an earlier version of the petition by Mr. Morales for a writ of habeas corpus, the federal courts' civil authority to release prisoners who are held on state charges. Judge Chin was instructed by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit to hold a hearing on Father Towle's testimony. The case will automatically be reviewed by the appeals court, and the judge has not yet ruled on whether Mr. Morales can be tried again.
Although thousands of prisoners come to the federal court with such last-hope petitions, only a handful are granted. "This case," said Judge Chin, "is the needle in the haystack." ========================