PORTLAND, ORE. -- The jury was unanimous: Santiago Ventura Morales was guilty of murder. He had stabbed a fellow migrant farmworker in the chest, leaving the man to die in a strawberry field.
But as jurors Patricia Lee and David Ralls stepped from the courthouse that day in October 1986, they knew something was very wrong. It took 4 1/2 years of work by the two and a support group that sprang up to free Ventura, now 23. But on Jan. 9, he walked out of the prison where he had been serving a life sentence, weeping and saying "The nightmare is over." He is free on $100,000 bail.
The Clackamas County district attorney will decide whether Ventura should be tried again in the death of Ramiro Lopez Fidel, whose body was found near the town of Sandy in the foothills of Mount Hood east of Portland.
The day before the July 13, 1986, killing, a birthday party at the labor camp where both men worked had gotten out of hand. Later, a car carrying Lopez was chased by a pickup into the berry field. The car was vandalized and Lopez was killed.
Public defender Michael Curtis had not allowed Ventura to testify and had not disputed the contention that Ventura's knife was the murder weapon. Curtis said later he regretted how he had handled the trial.
New lawyers uncovered evidence that another migrant worker had confessed in Mexico to the killing. Marion County Circuit Judge Duane Ertsgaard ordered Ventura freed, saying his rights were violated because he was not given an opportunity to testify.