An Oregon man has been held in jail for 900 days as a material witness to a crime he didn’t commit, the Oregonian reports.
Benito Vasquez-Hernandez, 58, may be the longest held material witness in the nation’s history. He is waiting to testify in the murder case against his son, Eloy Vasquez-Santiago. Oregon prosecutors believe the son killed Maria Bolanos-Rivera, a 55-year-old mother of six children, in Hillsboro, Ore.
Initially, Benito Vasquez-Hernandez and his younger son Moises were arrested in California in the fall of 2012 on hindering prosecution charges after detectives said Moises shared that Eloy admitted to the murder and Benito said Eloy hid the knife. The next day, Eloy called from Mexico and asked that his brother and father be let go; he would turn himself in.
During an interview at the San Diego Central Jail, Eloy is alleged to have told detectives that he worked with Maria Bolanos-Rivera at Oregon Berry Packing Company and went on a date with her on Aug. 26, 2012. Eloy reportedly said he stabbed her to death because she insulted him but didn’t give up information on where her body was. The detectives told Eloy that his father and brother were key witnesses.
“I don’t want your family to be involved in this, but they are witnesses that have to go to the court here and say that you killed her. Your dad has to testify. Moises has to testify.”
The detective continued: “I can’t let go of your family until I find the body, until I find the truth from you – all of the details. Because they’re all witnesses that can tell me what you said to them.”
Eloy’s murder trial starts Tuesday.
Material witness laws have been controversial since they were introduced into American law, in 1789. Given that a material witness isn’t a criminal, legal scholars have questioned the constitutionality of the law allowing their imprisonment because witnesses can be held for an unjustifiably long time, or may be unable make bail. States vary in how they use material witness laws. In Arizona, a witness can’t be held for longer than seven days; in New Jersey, witnesses can’t be detained in jail at all. Oregon’s wording is more open-ended and open to interpretation. Usually, the law is used to protect witnesses to gang-related crimes.
But Benito Vasquez-Hernandez’s detention is almost entirely unprecedented. Jann Carson, the associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Oregon, told The Guardian she had never heard of anyone being held this long as a material witness in the state.
“It really is a bit shocking to understand that somebody is being held this long that hasn’t been charged with a crime,” Carson said. “It’s a long time for a deprivation of liberty.”
Benito and Moises’ bail was set at $500,000 each. They would have had to pay 10 percent, or $50,000, to be released. The number is simply prohibitive. Fifty dollars, Vasquez-Hernandez’s lawyer says, would be too much for them afford. Father and son also have other challenges.
“He has a poverty of intellect that can be described as nothing short of stunning,” Benito’s attorney, David Rich, wrote in court filings, according to The Oregonian.
Son Moises was committed to Oregon State Hospital during his detention, where doctors diagnosed him with schizophrenia. Records say he likely experienced his first psychotic break while in jail. Medical treatment improved his mental state and he was returned to jail.
The hindering prosecution charges were dropped against the father and son at the end of 2013 and early 2014, respectively.
When Moises finally testified in a pre-trial deposition, a loophole from long material witness detention, he admitted that his brother told him about killing the woman in a long rambling, semi-coherent statement. He was released.
But the time in jail ruined his mental health.
“Quite frankly and bluntly spoken, being held in custody is making Mr. Vasquez-Santiago literally crazy,” he wrote in court filings.
The father, who struggled to understand the process and testified through a translator, didn’t get past the first question.
“Do you swear to tell the truth?,” the judge asked.
“I didn’t do anything,” Benito said. “I’ve been in jail. … I’m innocent.”
Benito asked the judge why he was in jail multiple times.
The judge became frustrated and yelled, “Get him out of here.”
He could have gone home had he answered a few questions, like his son. Alan Biedermann, Benito Vasquez-Hernandez’s lawyer, said his client didn’t understand the implications of the deposition, even though he tried to explain it to him before the hearing.
“It was not a matter of contempt or defiance,” Biederman said. “It was the result of his failure to understand the process.”