Victims of the State

13 Cases

Clackamas County, OR

Santiago Ventura Morales

July 13, 1986

Santiago Ventura Morales was convicted of murdering Ramiro Lopez Fidel, a fellow farm worker. Fidel had been stabbed twice in the chest and left to die in a strawberry field near Sandy. The conviction was due to the prosecution's use of fabricated evidence, including the use of a fake murder weapon. Only one witness, an illegal immigrant from Mexico, testified that Morales was the killer. The witness, Epifanio Bautista Lopez, initially testified that he saw nothing, but changed his testimony after he was taken into the district attorney's office during a recess. Under cross-examination, Lopez said that he was afraid of what might happen to him if he did not testify the way the prosecutor wanted him to testify.

Several days after the trial, four jurors, Patricia Lee, Glorya Oppitz, David Ralls, and Sherien Jaeger, told the defense co-counsel, Lane Borg, that they had changed their minds about their jury votes and asked if they could do anything about it. They were told that a verdict cannot be thrown out simply because jurors change their minds. Three of these jurors formed a support group for Morales. They visited him in jail, sent him money, and wrote letters to the parole board asking for his release.

Morales's defense was hampered because Morales, a Mexican immigrant, did not speak English or Spanish, but spoke Mixtec, an indigenous language. The judge assigned him a Spanish interpreter. The interpreter tried to tell the judge that he could not communicate with Morales, but the judge refused to accept the idea that a Mexican defendant could not speak Spanish. Portland Oregonian newspaper columnist Phil Stanford wrote many columns outlining Morales's innocence. The Oregon Attorney General opposed Morales's petition for relief on the grounds that his innocence was not a legal basis to overturn his conviction and release him. Four years after Morales's conviction, his lawyer established that another farm worker, Herminio Luna Hernandez, was the actual killer and Morales was released.  (NY Times)  [5/08]

Columbia County, OR

Arthur Pender

Sept 3, 1911

John Arthur Pender was convicted of the murders of Mrs. Daisy Wehrman and her four-year-old son, Harold. The murders happened at a rural hamlet known as Schnitzerville, which was five or six miles west of Scappoose, OR. Suspicion may have been placed on Pender by a neighbor, G. H. Sierkes, who had disputes with Pender and whose wife had reported the murders. Evidence indicated the Sierkes family had a good idea who the actual culprit was. The jury at Pender's first trial could not agree on a verdict, but he was convicted at his second trial. The evidence against him consisted of speculation about how he could have committed the murders. Pender was initially sentenced to death.

The Sierkes had a son, John G. H. Sierkes, age 20 at the time of the murders, who was a mental defective with homicidal tendencies. He had made attempts to kill his father and different members of his family when he was thwarted or angry. John Sierkes later confessed to the murders, then repudiated his confession after his family threatened to disown him. He then reconfessed and there is much evidence to indicate that he did, in fact, commit the murders. Oregon Governor Olcott pardoned Pender in 1920.  (Why Some Men Kill or Murder Mysteries Revealed) (MOJ) (Photos)  [8/09]

Deschutes County, OR 

Robert  Hernandez


Robert Hernandez was convicted in 2009 of child abuse charges against a 6-year-old girl and sentenced to 31 years in prison. Hernandez lived with his girlfriend Tamara Denetclaw. The alleged victim was Denetclaw's cousin whom the couple had been raising since the child was 2. The couple raised the child because her mother lived on the streets and couldn't take care of her. The mother was also legally married to a registered sex offender and there are two registered sex offenders on her side of the family. When the child was 6 the mother decided she wanted her back. Since Hernandez and Denetclaw did not have custody, they had to comply. Many weeks later the mother brought back the child back saying she couldn't take care of her.

At an interview at the Kids Center, a child abuse organization, the child reportedly gave a taped statement that she was abused. The Center sent the child home with Hernandez. They later claimed they did not know what else to do. The Center also told the child's mother what was said, but never mentioned Hernandez. They later claimed that they did not tell her Hernandez was the abuser because they were afraid the mother would beat Hernandez up.

The Kids Center told the mother they taped a medical evaluation of her child. They had her sign a paper saying they would not use their child's statement for teaching purposes and that the reason they taped her child was so that her child would not have to testify in court. However, at Hernandez's trial, the Kids Center claimed that they did not tape the child; that it is not their policy to tape medical evaluations; and that they took notes. But when asked to see the notes, they said they did not keep them; they shredded them. The child testified for two days, but never mentioned Hernandez.

The medical examiner said he could not diagnose or confirm any abuse. Hernandez gave a confession to the alleged charges which he contends was coerced. A psychologist testified that Hernandez tested in the 95 percentile of being a person who says what people want to hear. The psychologist was the only trial witness the defense was allowed to call. The District Attorney, Mike Dugan, was one of the founders of the Kids Center. Dugan was voted out of office in 2010 and the new DA fired the original prosecutor in the case.  (Source: Relative of Hernandez)  [2/11]

Jefferson County, OR

David Lee Simmons

Sept 2005

David Lee Simmons was charged with four counts of felony third-degree rape and two counts of felony sodomy for having consensual sex with his girlfriend dating back to Sept. 2005 when he was 17 and she was 14. Under a plea deal, Simmons pled guilty to two counts of the charges rather than risk many years in prison if convicted by a jury on all counts. He served 30 days in jail.

However, James Greer, the foreman of the grand jury that was asked to indict Simmons, happened to read a newspaper account of the plea deal. Since the grand jury specifically declined to indict Simmons, Greer was shocked and he confronted prosecutor Steven Leriche, who in turn contacted Simmons's defense attorney. The prosecutor may have mistakenly failed to read Simmons's paperwork and thought he was indicted. However, since the refusal to indict individuals are rare events which receive notice, some observers do not believe it likely the prosecutor made this mistake. Instead they believe he simply proceeded as though Simmons was indicted. Simmons's defense attorney failed to catch this error. In Oct. 2006, Simmons's convictions were vacated.  (Popehat) (FJDB)  [8/09]

Josephine County, OR

Jasper Jennings

Sept 7, 1905

Jasper Jennings was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of his father, Newton M. Jennings. In 1906 the state supreme court overturned the conviction because of improper testimony by trial witnesses. Charges against Jasper were dropped following a motion at retrial. According to some witnesses, Jasper's sister, Dora, had told them she had committed the crime.  (State v. Jennings) (MOJ)  [1/10]

Lane County, OR

Boots & Proctor

June 7, 1983 (Springfield)

Christopher Boots and Eric Proctor were initially charged with the murder of 19-year-old 7-Eleven clerk Raymond John Oliver, but charges were dropped and they were released. They then filed a wrongful imprisonment suit. In retaliation for filing the suit, Springfield, OR police recharged them with the same offense and framed them for the murder. They were both convicted of committing the murder in 1986. They were cleared in 1994, after DNA tests excluded them as the killers, and the real killer confessed in a recorded conversation with a police informant. Both men were awarded $1 million each in 1998.  (Justice: Denied)  [10/05]

Lane County, OR 

Karlyn Eklof

Mar 21, 1993

Karlyn Eklof was convicted of the murder of James Salmu. After eight to ten hours of daily interrogation for nine days, Eklof recited on videotape a police invented scenario in which she stabbed Salmu with a plastic knife. Eklof was prosecuted for Salmu's murder based on this “confession.” Following Eklof's indictment, Salmu's body was found. At trial, testimony was presented indicating that Salmu had been stabbed. The prosecution then presented Eklof's confession, which appeared to agree with the cause of death as she confessed to stabbing Salmu. The prosecution also presented the testimony of two witnesses who made incriminatory statements against Eklof.

On appeal it was discovered that DA Fred Hugi had engaged in multiple Brady violations involving the withholding of exculpatory evidence. Salmu's cause of death was bullet wounds and there was no evidence that he had been stabbed. It was also not revealed that the two witnesses who testified did so in order to avoid prosecution themselves. One of these witnesses was under indictment for molesting his daughter, and the DA went to extraordinary efforts to conceal this fact. As of 2007, Eklof is using the Brady violations to appeal her conviction. Eklof's complete story is written in Improper Submission: Records of a Wrongful Conviction by Erma Armstrong.  (JD)  [7/07]

Multnomah County, OR

Sosnovske & Pavilac

Jan 21, 1990

John Sosnovske and Laverne Pavilac were convicted of the murder of Taunja Bennett. Bennett's body was found off the old Columbia Gorge Scenic Highway. Pavilac confessed that she and her boyfriend, Sosnovske, strangled Bennett and disposed of her body. Pavilac later retracted her confession, claiming she made it to escape an abusive relationship with Sosnovske. Pavilac was convicted, and following the conviction Sosnovske pleaded no contest to the murder. Later the “Happy Face Killer,” Keith Hunter Jesperson, confessed to the murder and gave details that only the actual murderer would know. After Jesperson was convicted, a judge ordered Sosnovske's and Pavilac's release in 1995, stating, “There's no longer any doubt that these two individuals are innocent. The evidence is compelling.”  [10/05]

Multnomah County, OR

Edward Westerdahl

Mar 12, 1987 (Portland)

(Federal Case)  Edward Gordon Westerdahl, III, was convicted of robbing the First Interstate Bank in Portland, Oregon. The robbery was committed by two men, one of whom was found dead in the getaway vehicle after being shot by a sheriff's deputy. To convict Westerdahl, prosecutors granted plea/immunity agreements to three witnesses who gave incriminating testimony against him. However, the prosecution refused to offer a similar immunity agreement to a fourth witness who was willing to testify that Westerdahl had nothing to do with the robbery. As a result of the fourth witness's failure to secure an agreement, he refused to testify at trial based on his fifth amendment right against self-incrimination. On appeal the Ninth Circuit Court found that the prosecution distorted the fact finding process by its partiality in “purchasing” testimony. The Court vacated Westerdahl's conviction in 1991.  (Appeals)  [11/09]

Multnomah County, OR

Nieskins & Cole

1991 (Portland)

In 1995, police extracted confessions from Rick Nieskins and Christopher Cole to the 1991 murder of John Sewell. Both men were charged with homicide, and both spent thirteen months in jail awaiting trial—even though two other men had been convicted of Sewell's murder in 1991 and had always maintained that they acted alone. Prosecutors eventually dropped charges against Nieskins after records showed that he could not have committed the crime because he was at a homeless shelter in Seattle at the time of the killing. Once they acknowledged Nieskins' false confession, prosecutors admitted that Cole also could not have been involved in the crime and dropped charges against him.  (CFC)  [9/05]

Washington County, OR

Brandon Mayfield

Mar 11, 2004

(Federal Case)  On March 11, 2004, a number of bombs were detonated on trains in Madrid, Spain, which killed 191 people and injured about 2000 others, including American citizens. A bag containing detonation caps was found outside a train station through which all the bombed trains had left or had passed through. On March 17, digital images of fingerprints found on the bag were transmitted to the FBI and run through their AFIS database of fingerprints. When latent print #17 was run, the database produced 20 possible matches. FBI Senior Print Examiner Terry Green then manually compared the potential matches and found a 100% match with the fourth ranked print on the AFIS list. The FBI has long claimed that fingerprint identification is infallible. A top FBI fingerprint official had testified to a “zero error rate.”
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Yamhill County, OR

William Branson

Oct 8, 1915

William Branson was convicted of the murder of William Booth. It was alleged that Branson, 23, was improperly intimate with Mrs. Anna Booth, 32, the victim's wife. Branson had been seen on numerous occasions some months before the murder talking to Mrs. Booth as she stood on the front porch of her house in Willamina while he was on the sidewalk outside of her yard. There were several witnesses who claimed they saw Branson and Mrs. Booth going in the direction of the murder location separately (not together) before the time of the murder.

The victim was killed with .38 caliber gun and Branson had borrowed a .38 caliber gun from his uncle for a fishing trip two months before the murder. Branson said the gun later went missing from his house along with some jewelry. Witnesses testified the killer wore a black or dark blue jersey with a black hat, while evidence indicated Branson wore a red sweater and no hat on the day of the murder. The soil near the victim's body showed the killer wore hob-nailed shoes while Branson reportedly wore smooth shoes.

In May 1917, another man, William Riggin, gave a confession to the crime, a confession that was later fully corroborated. In 1920, Oregon Governor Olcott granted Branson an unconditional pardon.  (Why Some Men Kill or Murder Mysteries Revealed) (MOJ)  [8/09]

Yamhill County, OR 

Pamela Sue Reser

1998 (McMinnville)

Pamela Sue Reser was convicted of raping her four small children and sentenced to 116 years in jail. Her children alleged that she forced them to have sex with her, each other, and her boyfriends. Apparently, their foster mother put them up to this, because they all later recanted. Reser was incarcerated for more than three years before release.  (Justice: Denied)  [7/05]