After the Oregon Supreme Court threw out their aggravated murder convictions, two men pleaded guilty Friday afternoon to first-degree manslaughter in the 2005 death of Jessie Mary Valero, fatally stabbed in her Hillsboro apartment.
Jorge Reyes-Sanchez, 29, and Leonardo Cruz-Casarez, 38, were convicted of aggravated murder, murder, first-degree robbery and first-degree burglary in 2007.
On appeal, the state Court of Appeals and Supreme Court said the trial judge should have allowed hearsay evidence that a woman had confessed to the murder on several occasions.
The men returned to Washington County for new trials in 2011 and have remained in the county jail since then.
In their Friday pleas, the men agreed to serve the 10-year Measure 11 sentence for first-degree manslaughter. With credit for time served, their release date will likely be set for 2015.
In March 2005, Jessie Mary Valero, 48, had just started a new job at Little Caesar's.
When she didn't show up to work March 16, 2005, her coworker stopped by to check on her. No one answered the door. The next day, Valero's victim's adult son, Ray Valero, walked into his mother's apartment and found her body on the living room floor beneath a pile of sheets and blankets. She had been stabbed 29 times with a screwdriver.
Prosecutors said jewelry was strewn about the apartment, and Valero’s gold pendant of the Virgin Mary was missing. They argued Valero was killed during a burglary, in which the defendants planned to steal jewelry to exchange for methamphetamine.
Three men were charged in Jessie Valero's death: Leonardo Cruz-Casarez, Jorge Reyes-Sanchez and Jose Luis Lugardo-Madero. The first two were found guilty of aggravated murder. The third testified against the other two and pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of manslaughter.
Cruz-Casarez and Reyes-Sanchez, both eligible for the death penalty, were sentenced to life in prison without the chance of parole. Lugardo-Madero was sentenced to 15 years.
At trial, defense attorney Ray Bassel, who represented Cruz-Casarez, said an independent investigation turned up another potential suspect in the case.
He offered testimony from four witnesses, who told the court a woman had admitted to each of them that she stabbed a woman. Details in their testimony matched those in Valero's death.
But Circuit Judge Mark Gardner, now retired, wouldn't allow the testimony, saying it didn't meet the standards of an Oregon Evidence Code exception that allows hearsay evidence at trial.
Brought up outside the presence of the jury, jurors never heard about the evidence.
Cruz-Casarez and Reyes-Sanchez appealed their convictions, arguing the excluded testimony should have been allowed.
On appeal, the Oregon Court of Appeals reversed the guilty findings and the Oregon Supreme Court upheld that ruling.
In Washington County Circuit Court Friday, Ray Valero and about a dozen family members watched the court hearing in frustration.
The victim's daughter, Anita Valero, wore a white T-shirt with words printed in black:
"We need justice
She and other family members pleaded with the judge not to accept the plea deal.
"Your honor, that was my mom," Anita said through tears, "that was brutally murdered three days before my birthday.
"I don't understand the court systems, I don't understand why it's ending this way," she said. "I don't think that it's justice at all, I honestly don't. I'm leaving it up to my God to finish whatever."
Jessie Valero's son, David, addressed the court by phone.
"I feel like right now, the justice system in Oregon isn't doing anything," he said. "I need you to reconsider this, judge.
"My mom basically died for a high," he said. "She did everything right in her life. Please reconsider this, judge."
After Judge Kohl accepted the plea deals, Ray Valero and another family member left the courtroom uttering profanities.
The victim's family and defense attorneys agreed on at least one point: Both wanted all the evidence presented at trial in 2007.
The appellate court rulings said jurors should have heard testimony that a person not charged in the death had confessed to the crime.
Defense attorney Greg Scholl, who represented Reyes-Sanchez, indicated in his statements Friday that the prosecution's efforts to win trials had led to this case's reversal.
"There a strategy of what attorneys do in trial work," he said, and the strategy plays out in objections.
In this case, a defense lawyer offered evidence of a confession, but prosecutors objected, Scholl said.
"When an attorney objects, it case send them down a path that takes 10 years to recover from," he said, referring to the appellate process.
"Sometimes (prosecutors) get what they want at their peril," he said.
Bassel, representing Cruz-Casarez, told the court there was a still a possibility that his client was innocent.
After the hearing Friday, the victim's family members said prosecutors should have let the excluded defense witnesses testify in 2007.
"Then we wouldn't be here," Anita Valero said.
The crime scene turned up no forensic evidence, Deputy District Attorney Dan Hesson told Circuit Judge Thomas Kohl on Friday.
The state's case relied heavily on several key witnesses, including Lugardo-Madero, who has since changed his story.
Hesson said some witnesses could not be found, others have recanted their testimony and some told authorities they no longer remember the events.
Though the district attorney's office accepted the defendants' pleas, prosecutors' theory for how the homicide occurred has not changed, Hesson said.
"We're forced to swallow a bitter pill," Hesson said. "We do so reluctantly. We're not saying she wasn't murdered; she was murdered.
"She was murdered," he said, "and the acceptance of this plea does not change that fact."
The judge acknowledged that the state's evidence, weakened or lost over time, led to this resolution.
Kohl said he'd read all of the letters sent to him by the victim's family.
"Most of you had asked that I not accept this plea," he told them. "That wouldn't help."
But he suggested he wasn't pleased with the outcome.
"This is unfortunate, the way this case is going to be resolved," he said.
ICE HOLD - CAZARES-MENDEZ, JOSE GUADALUPE (aka Leonardo Cruz-Casarez)
ICE HOLD - REYES-SANCHEZ, JORGE
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