MANUEL ORTIZ IS INNOCENT
On death row for more than 20 years…
I'm outraged at the injustice in this case.
– Sister Helen Prejean
When you have a client who is truly innocent...
the more you dig, the more the prosecution’s case falls apart. That’s exactly what has happened with Manuel’s case.
– Susana Herrero, member of Manuel’s post-conviction legal team.
A lethal combination:
prosecutorial misconduct and actual innocence…
1. A conflict of interest
Ronald Bodenheimer, a prosecutor in Manuel’s case, concurrently represented the victim’s family in an insurance action. The outcome of that insurance case – and the payoff to Bodenheimer – hinged on the successful prosecution of Manuel.
2. A corrupt prosecutor
Bodenheimer was later imprisoned on several counts of corruption in unrelated matters. He was a judge at the time of his convictions.
3. A confession by another man
Carlos Saavedra admitted to the crime repeatedly and, on his deathbed, told his wife that he pinned the murders on Manuel as payback for a soured business deal.
4. Evidence withheld
The FBI, which paid Saavedra as an informant, refused to hand over crucial documents for years and, when it did so, redacted almost everything within the documents.
Who is Manuel Ortiz?
Manuel Ortiz has been on death row at Angola, Louisiana’s State Penitentiary, for 22 years. Manuel, originally from El Salvador, was convicted in 1994 of hiring someone to kill his wife, Tracie Williams, and of the murder of Tracie’s friend, Cheryl Mallory.
Manuel’s legal team believes Manuel is innocent of these crimes. The case against him was riddled with inconsistencies, plagued by prosecutorial double dealing and built upon the testimony of a man who later confessed to the crime.
In April 2010, after a long-running hearing before Judge Jerome Winsberg, his lawyers concluded their presentation of evidence of Manuel’s innocence and of prosecutorial misconduct committed in the original trial. That trial culminated in the judge throwing out Manuel’s death sentence while keeping his conviction for murder intact.
The prosecution appealed this decision and in February 2013, the highly conservative Louisiana Supreme Court overturned Judge Winsberg’s decision and reinstated Manuel’s death sentence.
Manuel’s case is now in federal court. This is the jurisdiction where he has a greater chance of getting justice. His federal judge has the power to order the FBI to hand over unredacted copies of the documents the Bureau has withheld for so long. This she has done and his lawyers are working their way through the thousands of pages of documents.
Manuel has always said that all he wants is a new trial. He knows that if he has a chance to present all the evidence in a fair trial a jury will find him not guilty.
Some of the many reasons why
we are convinced of Manuel’s innocence…
- A confession
- Evidence withheld
- A fabrication
- Failure to pursue
- A conflicted prosecutor
- A corrupt prosecutor
Another man confessed
- Shortly after the murders, another man, Carlos Saavedra, confessed to the crimes to his roommate.
- Years later, after Manuel had spent years on death row, Saavedra made another confession – this time on his deathbed – telling his wife he committed the murders and that he had set Manuel up as payback for a business deal gone sour. His wife testified to this in Manuel’s post-conviction evidentiary hearing before Judge Winsberg.
- A number of witnesses testified that Saavedra admitted to the murders himself. These witnesses also gave evidence of Saavedra’s own murderous past as a member of the Honduran secret police (DIN) death squads.
- The same man, Carlos Saavedra, was the lynchpin of the prosecution’s case. Without Saavedra, there was no case against Manuel.
Crucial evidence was withheld from the defense
- The FBI, which paid Saavedra as an informant, refused to hand over crucial documents for many years and, when they did so, redacted almost everything within the documents. It is only recently that the FBI was compelled to give the defense access to unedited versions of at least some of these essential documents. No wonder the FBI didn’t want to hand them over: They contain numerous glaring inconsistencies and inaccuracies.
- The FBI documents also underscore how wildly inconsistent Saavedra’s information was. Saavedra changed his story repeatedly in an attempt to smear Manuel.
- The FBI documents make it clear that Saavedra’s handlers were not impressed with the information they were receiving, as they made no attempt to check whether Saavedra’s claims about Manuel’s supposed “murder for hire” scheme were true.
- The FBI was so unimpressed by Saavedra’s information that they stopped their investigation into his claims about Manuel Ortiz.
The “murder for hire” scheme was a fabrication
- Saavedra’s deathbed confession makes it clear that there was never a murder for hire scheme. This was a fabrication of Saavedra’s, who wanted to harm Manuel after their business deal failed. He invented the murder for hire scheme only after he had tried unsuccessfully to implicate Manuel in several other supposed schemes. When the FBI failed to bite, Saavedra upped the ante with the murder for hire story. When the FBI still failed to bite, Saavedra committed the murders himself while Manuel was out of the country. At that point, the FBI scrambled to help build a case against Manuel in order to cover up their own negligence.
The police failed to pursue the actual murderers
- The actual murders were committed, according to the authorities, by a person or persons “unknown”. Manuel was out of the country at the time and was convicted, not of having committed the murders himself, but of having arranged a murder for hire. (Manuel was convicted of arranging the murder for hire of Tracey Williams Ortiz; he was convicted of the murder of Cheryl Mallory, who had the misfortune to be with Tracey Williams when she was killed.)
- It appears little effort was made to find the actual murderer. From his statements to others at the time of the murders and through his deathbed confession, we know it was Saavedra himself. From the lack of a diligent effort to locate the murderer, one might assume that the FBI and the Kenner police did not care whether Saavedra had committed the murders, because they needed him as their key witness against the “mastermind” of the murders, Manuel Ortiz. Indeed, that’s how Saavedra was presented to the jury: as a citizen acting in good faith, coming forward at risk to his own life in order to testify against a murderer.
- The FBI and Kenner police ignored evidence pointing to Saavedra as the murderer because they needed him as their star witness.
The prosecutor had a conflict of interest
- After getting a guilty verdict against Manuel, the prosecutor in the case, Ronald Bodenheimer, immediately went on to represent the victim’s family members in a civil suit about Tracie Williams Ortiz’s life insurance, a clear conflict of interest. Bodenheimer also took documents from Manuel’s case and kept them in his house for over a decade.
- Bodenheimer provided contradictory arguments in Manuel’s trial and in the insurance case. In the trial, he argued that Manuel, as part of the murder scheme, increased the amount of the life insurance policy on his wife. In the subsequent insurance case, Bodenheimer argued that it was Tracie Williams, not Manuel, who increased the policy amount. As Judge Winsberg found, Bodenheimer’s argument that Manuel increased the life insurance policy “may well have influenced the jury to recommend the death penalty”, but the insurance case “could succeed only if Mr. Ortiz, who was listed as the primary beneficiary of the insurance policies, was convicted and remained so.” Without gaining a conviction for Manuel, Bodenheimer could not have profited from his share of the $900,000 settlement in the civil insurance case. His firm eventually pocketed around $300,000 from that case.
The prosecutor was later convicted of corruption
- Ronald Bodenheimer later became a judge. While he was a judge he was sent to prison on federal charges of corruption and, ironically, of conspiring to frame Eric Boe, a Venetian Isles resident who opposed one of Bodenheimer’s business developments (echoes of Saavedra’s actions). Bodenheimer conspired with another man to plant drugs on Boe in order to discredit him.
- Bodenheimer eventually plead guilty to three separate charges.
How you can help
Manuel’s case is still proceeding through the courts. He is fortunate to have post-conviction lawyers who are good at what they do and have a deep understanding of the complexities of Manuel’s case. Yet he faces the same hurdle that other innocent people face on death row: the courts care far more about procedure than innocence. There’s no way to tell how the judge will rule in his case.
What is very clear is that over two decades on death row have had their inevitable toll. While those of us who visit Manuel are amazed by his dignity and generosity of spirit, at times it is hard for him to maintain hope as the world passes him by. While he has been in prison for a crime he did not commit, his son has grown into a young man with a family, his first grandchild has been born, and the community from which he has been barred has moved on. What Manuel needs most – apart from his release – are voices of support.
You can show your support by writing to Manuel. Letters and cards are always welcome. They help him feel he is not forgotten.
You may enclose a photo or a newspaper clipping with your letter, but please do not enclose anything else. Any other items, even things such as stamps, will be confiscated.
What should you say?
Tell him you’ve heard of his case. Tell him about your own interests and family; ask him about his. Or simply write and say, “Hello, I’m thinking of you and hoping for your release.”
People in prison, and on death row in particular, live in extreme isolation. A caring letter can make a real difference in their day.