Noe Moreno has been in prison for murder since 2007. Hed pleaded guilty. But he probably didnt commit the crime.
Mecklenburg prosecutors obtained new evidence that casts significant doubt on Morenos guilt. Two independent reconstructions of the fatal drunk driving accident showed that Moreno could not have been the driver.
On Friday, with prosecutors consent, Superior Court Judge Richard Boner set aside Morenos convictions and dismissed the charges against him.
Moreno, an undocumented immigrant, was sent back to prison while officials decide when or if he will be freed.
He was crying, he was thrilled with the dismissal, said Theresa Newman, a Duke University law professor who defended Moreno. I just wish he couldve spent a moment with his family before he was sent off. But he was thrilled.
Moreno, who entered the courtroom in an orange jumpsuit and shackles, smiled at his mother, two sisters and two friends. He later broke into a big smile when an interpreter told him the charges had been dropped.
Obviously, were elated, said David Pishko, a defense lawyer for Moreno. Were very grateful that the District Attorneys office was willing to take a look and do their own investigation. It speaks very highly of them and their own integrity.
Prosecutors told the Observer that had the new evidence been available five years ago, Moreno would not have pleaded guilty and the state would not have proceeded with its prosecution of him.
As prosecutors, it is our responsibility to seek justice in every case, District Attorney Andrew Murray told the Observer.
In this case, where new evidence casts such a strong doubt on the defendants guilt, justice requires us to inform the court of the new evidence and to dismiss the charges despite the fact that the defendant pleaded guilty.
In a document released to the Observer, prosecutors outlined what happened in Morenos case.
Morenos case had been set for trial in 2007. But several weeks before the trial, prosecutors said, Moreno decided to plead guilty. Moreno was represented by a lawyer hired by his family, prosecutors said.
Moreno pleaded guilty in May 2007 to second-degree murder, assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury and driving while impaired. At the hearing, Moreno, under oath, told the judge he was guilty of the crimes. He was sentenced to prison for a minimum of 17 years and a maximum of 22 years.
At the time of Morenos guilty pleas, prosecutors said their evidence showed that Moreno was the driver of an Isuzu Rodeo involved in a two-car collision on Beatties Ford Road on Jan. 21, 2006.
At the scene of the wreck, Moreno was located with his upper body in the drivers seat and his legs on the passenger side of the Rodeo. Prosecutors said it was apparent that Moreno was impaired.
Morenos brother, Jorge Moreno, was also in the car. His body was on the passengers side with his legs on the drivers side. The injured brothers were transported to the hospital.
A third passenger, Juan Paulo Martinez, was in the back seat. Prosecutors say Martinez told investigating officers that Noe Moreno was the driver.
The fourth passenger in the Rodeo, Roberto Casillas, was killed in the collision. Two occupants of the second vehicle were also injured.
Noe Moreno pleaded guilty on May 3, 2007. Four days later, he was sentenced to prison. At both hearings, prosecutors said, he was represented by an attorney and accompanied by an interpreter.
At the plea hearing, the judge asked Moreno if he was, in fact, guilty. He answered yes, prosecutors said. When asked if he was satisfied with his lawyer, he again answered yes.
At the sentencing hearing, prosecutors said, Jorge Moreno implied while testifying that Noe Moreno was the driver at the time of the fatal wreck.
But shortly after pleading guilty, Noe Moreno began proclaiming his innocence.
The Duke law schools Wrongful Convictions Clinic began investigating Morenos case in 2009, prosecutors said. In 2010, the clinic presented the results of its investigation to the District Attorneys homicide team. An accident reconstruction expert hired by the clinic had concluded that Noe Moreno could not have been the driver.
The DAs office requested and received special funding to hire an accident reconstruction expert. The expert determined that based on the forces involved in the collision and the injuries sustained by each occupant of the Rodeo, Noe Moreno was not the driver.
But Morenos release from prison is uncertain: Pishko said he is an undocumented immigrant, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has 48 hours to decide whether he will remain in custody, be released or deported.
Were filing a motion to have him released on bond, Pishko said, adding that he hopes Moreno will be released by sometime next week. He said Morenos mother is ill with kidney disease, and that Moreno wants to take care of her as he did before he was imprisoned.
Morenos family said they were pleased that the charges were dropped.
Im very happy and very grateful for all the lawyers and others who helped, said Morenos sister, Patricia Moreno, speaking in Spanish. Im very, very happy. I cant put it into words.
The evidence from the accident reconstruction experts, the prosecutors pointed out, was critical in their decision to take steps to get the charges against Noe Moreno dropped.
The District Attorneys Office concluded there is not a reasonable likelihood that a jury would convict Moreno when presented with all of the evidence in addition to the reconstruction evidence, prosecutors said in a statement.
Justice requires consideration of all available evidence. Considering all of the evidence together, the District Attorneys Office concluded that justice requires a dismissal of the charges against Noe Moreno.