(CN) – A Puerto Rican man who spent nearly two decades in prison before being cleared of murder charges claims in court that prosecutors and police paid off witnesses to testify against him to frame him for the rape and murder of a 21-year-old woman.
In a federal lawsuit filed in Puerto Rico on Sept. 23, Nelson Ruiz Colon claims prosecutors engaged in an elaborate scheme to coax witnesses into testifying that he murdered 21-year-old Glorimar Perez.
Perez’s body was found on Jobos Beach in Isabela, Puerto Rico in July 1988. Ruiz and a pair of alleged conspirators were arrested for the murder in 1993. When Ruiz was first incarcerated on the bogus murder charge, the lawsuit claims, he had a newborn baby and was living a content life, helping his father with a family hardware business.
Ruiz says that even after the coerced witnesses recanted their testimony about his involvement in the gruesome killing, he remained behind bars for years on end.
One of the witnesses, Luis Martinez Rivera, purportedly admitted his testimony was a total fabrication shortly after Ruiz was convicted in 1994. Martinez had been a key element in the prosecution’s case, as he had testified that he was at the scene of the murder with Ruiz and was paid to help conceal the crime.
According to the National Registry of Exonerations, Martinez admitted that his account of the attack — in which he claimed to have seen Ruiz and the criminal co-defendants punching, biting and raping the victim — was a lie.
The lawsuit says Martinez recanted his testimony under oath, as did another witness for the prosecution, Heriberto Guzman. Guzman had contributed to the prosecution’s case by testifying second-hand that after the murder, Martinez told him about the crime and Ruiz’s participation.
Prosecutors placed Guzman in a hotel and authorized a $1,500 payment to him “as part of the amenities he received in exchange for his testimony,” the lawsuit alleges.
A head investigator for the Puerto Rican police — identified as defendant Ramon Perez Crespo — “offered witness Heriberto Guzman $25,000” in exchange for his false testimony, the complaint claims.
It goes on to assert Perez also offered Luis money to travel to the U.S. mainland when he suggested he would tell the public that the criminal case was fabricated.
Allegedly, the two witnesses were pliable to pressure from prosecutors, as they had been arrested on unrelated theft charges prior to their participation in the murder case.
The lawsuit states: “Although both witnesses indicated that they had no knowledge of the facts surrounding the murder, they both agreed to cooperate not only because of the pressure being exercised by several of the defendants herein but also due to the offers of immunity that extended to their criminal responsibility in other cases.”
Defendant Andres Rodriguez Elias — a chief prosecutor in the criminal case — intimated that he could put Guzman and his wife in jail and deliver his children to the Department of Social Services if Guzman did not provide testimony against Ruiz and the other suspects in the criminal case, the lawsuit claims.
The lawsuit claims Rodriguez and his fellow prosecutors took the coerced witnesses to the crime scene and coached them on the details of the murder since they had no real knowledge of the crime.
After Martinez recanted his testimony in 1995, the trial judge who presided over the murder case vacated Ruiz’s and the other criminal defendants’ convictions. They were released from prison, only to be jailed again in 1998, when a Puerto Rican appellate court tossed out the trial judge’s decision.
Ruiz then battled unsuccessfully for the next 17 years for a new trial. He was denied another trial even after Guzman recanted his testimony under oath in 2004, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. As Ruiz’s attorney has been quick to point out, a judge who denied one retrial motion, Superior Court Judge Manuel Acevedo, later ended up in prison himself on corruption charges.
Ruiz finally gained traction in June 2015 when he submitted a demand in federal court for new DNA testing.
The Department of Justice agreed to the tests, and according to the Registry, new forensic analysis was conducted on semen, hair, blood and fingernail scrapings, as well as a pair of male underwear that had been found at the crime scene. The resulting report showed that no genetic material was found from Ruiz or the other two criminal defendants, journalist Maurice Possley wrote in the Registry.
Following an evidentiary hearing, the Superior Court finally ordered a new trial, and Ruiz along with the criminal case co-defendants — Nelson Ortiz and Jose Caro — were freed in June 2016. Prosecutors ultimately declined to try the case again, due to lack of evidence.
Ruiz is demanding damages from prosecutors and putative Department of Justice agents who allegedly pursued and/or authorized the pursuit the criminal case: Andres Rodriguez Elias, Antonio Maldonado Trinidad, Pedro Goyco Amador and Ernesto Fernandez. Police officers who were allegedly involved in the criminal case are likewise named as defendants: Ramon Perez Crespo, Francisco Carbo Marti, Victor Burgos Barroso and Elba Gonzalez.
The lawsuit demands damages for wrongful incarceration, conspiracy to deprive Ruiz of his Constitutional rights, denial of access to courts and malicious prosecution, among other counts. It includes claims for violations of federal Section 1983 civil rights law.
Ruiz first went to prison for the murder when he was 25 years old. He had been working for a medical emergency service agency in Puerto Rico and had no prior history of criminal violence, the lawsuit says. He was convicted despite a complete lack of forensic evidence linking him to the crime, according to the complaint.
Last year, at the time of his release, he was 49 years old, and his daughter was in her mid-twenties.
“He missed out on the ability to share holidays, births, funerals, and other life events with loved ones, the opportunity to fall in love and marry or to pursue a career, and the fundamental freedom to live one’s life as an autonomous human being,” the lawsuit says.
In pleadings filed in response to Ruiz’s past demands for recompense, Department of Justice prosecutors have asserted qualified immunity, which can shield government agents from liability in the event that they are sued for acts carried out in an official capacity, so long as the acts do not represent certain clear constitutional violations.
In one past responsive pleading submitted while Ruiz was still incarcerated, the Department of Justice (now a non-party to Ruiz’s civil case) wrote: “The plaintiff is imprisoned after being found guilty by a jury of his peers, and remains imprisoned because of the denials of State Courts to his three motions for new trial.”
Notably, that pleading from the Department was submitted before the detailed allegations of witness tampering were presented in the current litigation.
Investigator Ramon Perez Crespo has told local media in Puerto Rico that he has no reason to repent over his actions in the case. According to a report from WOLE 12 in Puerto Rico, Perez claims a private investigator for the criminal case defendants was the one bribing witnesses. Perez indicated the private investigator was involved in compensating witnesses to reverse their testimony following the 1994 trial, according to the WOLE 12 report.
Rodriguez, who is currently in private practice, has not responded to a request for comment.