Court finds that police coerced murder confession

Public safety – standing graphic

UPDATE: This story has been updated with comment from the public defender involved in the case.

SALEM – A Woodburn man’s murder conviction has been overturned after the Oregon Court of Appeals determined that police coerced his confession, telling him members of his family, including his infant son, wouldn’t be released from custody unless he admitted to the crime.

The court’s 7-6 decision, issued Dec. 4, centers on Eloy Vasquez-Santiago, a 37-year-old illiterate migrant worker with an IQ of 53. In 2012, Vasquez-Santiago became a suspect in the murder of Maria Bolanos-Rivera, who had worked with him at a berry farm in Hillsboro.

After Bolanos-Rivera went missing in August, Vasquez-Santiago abruptly left Woodburn with his common-law wife, infant, father and brother. His brother and father were later arrested in California on unrelated charges.

While in custody, they were contacted by Hillsboro police detectives investigating the murder. They told detectives that Vasquez-Santiago had admitted to killing Bolanos-Rivera, according to the court ruling. They also told detectives there was blood on Vasquez-Santiago’s hands and on his father’s van that he was using the day she went missing.

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Vasquez-Santiago continued alone to Mexico after leaving his family in California. After learning his father and brother were in police custody, he contacted the detectives to secure their release. Vasquez-Santiago also mistakenly thought his infant son was in custody.

After turning himself in at the border, he was interrogated by the detectives who repeatedly told him prosecutors would look favorably on his case and his family would be more likely to be released if he confessed. The detectives never corrected his misunderstanding that his infant son was in custody and, instead, perpetuated it, the court ruling said.

“Defendant’s family earned their living as migrant farmworkers, making the incapacitation of defendant’s father and brother as workers a significant economic stressor for the family,” the court decision said. “Defendant’s son was still breastfeeding, increasing the need for him to be reunited with his mother. At the time of the interview, defendant had barely slept for three days. Time and again, defendant was told that his family members’ freedom – something essential for the family’s economic well-being – turned on defendant confessing.”

The court’s decision also took into account Vasquez-Santiago’s low IQ, which it noted that courts have associated with “subaverage intellectual functioning.” The court found that the trial court was wrong in denying a motion by Vasquez-Santiago’s attorney to throw out the confession. The appeals court reversed Vasquez-Santiago’s conviction and remanded the case back to a lower court. Mary Reese, his public defender, said in an email that Vasquez-Santiago is currently in prison. She said that she anticipates Vasquez-Santiago being returned to the Washington County jail for a new trial.

Kristina Edmunson, spokeswoman for the state Justice Department, in a statement that the office is reviewing whether to appeal the court’s decision in consultation with the Washington County District Attorney’s Office, which prosecuted the case.

The Washington County District Attorney’s Office responded with a statement that Vasquez-Santiago’s confession was given “freely and voluntarily.”

“This office is hopeful that the Oregon Supreme Court will review this case and provide further guidance in this area of the law,” the statement said.

Ryan O’Connor, a Portland defense attorney, said in an email that the court “correctly recognizes the impact that coercive interrogation techniques have on suspects, particularly people with intellectual disabilities or mental illness.” He also noted that the opinion is supported by state and federal court cases that’ve found that using threats or promises regarding a suspect’s family are particularly coercive.

But not everyone on the appeals court agreed. A dissent authored by Christopher Garrett (an appeals court judge who has since been appointed to the state Supreme Court) pointed out that Vasquez-Santiago voluntarily contacted police detectives, turned himself in, broached the idea of cooperating and waived his Miranda rights.

“It was thus defendant who first introduced his fear for his family into the conversation with the detectives,” he wrote.

His dissent was signed by Judges Rex Armstrong, Joel DeVore, Douglas Tookey, Steven Powers, Erika Hadlock (who has retired and worked on the case on a temporary basis.).

Contact reporter Jake Thomas at 503-575-1251 or [email protected] or @jakethomas2009.