Angel Ortiz has never had a driver’s license. His friends and family said they have never seen him drive. Residents of his old Hartford neighborhood say he was more the type to push around an old shopping cart loaded with cans for recycling.

But Ortiz, now 78 years old, is two decades into a life sentence for allegedly being the driver in a brutal 1994 kidnapping and double murder in Rocky Hill.

Ortiz had no prior criminal record, and his lawyers have long maintained he was wrongly convicted. And now, in a state that has seen a number of high-profile exonerations in recent years, the Connecticut Innocence Project has appointed a lawyer to win Ortiz’s freedom.

“Pretty much everybody believed Ortiz was not involved,” said Stamford Public Defender Barry Butler, who defended Julio Diaz-Marrero, the convicted shooter in the case who is serving life imprisonment.

Butler said his client recently “came clean” and testified at a recent habeas proceeding that Ortiz was never involved in the crime. Butler said the two men never met until they were in a jail cell together following their arrests.

State prosecutors aren’t convinced. After the slayings, prosecutors argued that Ortiz was trying to infiltrate a drug-selling operation and getting rid of the victims was a step toward that goal.

Ortiz’s habeas attorney, W. Theodore “Ted” Koch III of Lyme, is trying to convince Superior Court Judge William Bright Jr. that his client is innocent. A decision is expected in the next few weeks. “[Judge Bright] definitely has doubts about whether Ortiz is guilty, but [the judge] also has doubts about whether the evidence meets the standard to declare him innocent,” said Koch.

According to court documents, Hector Alvarado was a known drug dealer who conducted business in an apartment building in a mostly Hispanic neighborhood in Hartford. Ortiz was Alvarado’s brother-in-law and lived at the apartment. Prosecutors say Ortiz helped run the drug operation as well.

Diaz-Marrero had come to Hartford from Puerto Rico just a few weeks prior to the murders. He stayed for about a week at the same apartment building, but in a different unit. Shortly after he left, the tenant’s apartment was burglarized and two shotguns and a rifle were stolen. The guns were later found left at the murder scene. 

According to prosecutors, in the late-night hours of July 27, 1994, and into the early hours of July 28, the defendants carried out a plan to kidnap, rob and kill Alvarado and his wife, Migdalia Bermudez. The couple was abducted and robbed in Hartford, and then taken to Rocky Hill, where they were reportedly executed by Diaz-Marrero with a .12-gauge shotgun.

Both Diaz-Marrero and Ortiz were convicted of crimes that included capital felony and kidnapping, though they were spared the death penalty.

Koch, however, has a different version of how things went down that night.

Koch asserts that two other men—Ramon Caraballo and Jesus Roman—were involved rather than Ortiz. The men set up a meeting with Alvarado under the pretense of selling him stolen firearms. The actual motive was robbery, said Koch. Caraballo was injured in the robbery attempt, decided that the couple should be killed and then shot the two victims, the attorney said.

Much of Koch’s belief as to what happened derives from the testimony of Diaz-Marrero at the habeas hearing. Diaz-Marrero said he was the driver, Caraballo was the shooter and Ortiz was not involved at all.

Diaz-Marrero’s habeas lawyer, Walter Bansley, then contacted the state Innocence Project. He said, “‘I think you’ve got something here,’” according to Koch. The Innocence Project asked Koch to take on Ortiz’s habeas petition in light of the new testimony.

“I went up to visit [Diaz-Marrero] maybe 10 times,” recalled Koch. “He was always willing [to talk] and was straightforward. He said he wanted to clear his conscience. They both say that they met for the first time in the lockup area when they were both arrested for this.”

Though Caraballo and Roman were never charged, they testified at the trials of Ortiz and Diaz-Marrero. Caraballo described the driver of the car as a man in his 30s with graying hair and a big bushy beard. In 1994, Koch said, Ortiz was already 58 years old, had no beard and had jet-black hair. In fact, at Ortiz’s criminal trial, a hairdresser testified that his hair was truly black and had not been dyed.

Also, Koch noted that Ortiz is just 5 feet tall. He said the witness failed to mention that the driver was also unusually short.

Following Ortiz’s habeas trial, Judge Bright sought additional briefings, which were due May 16. A decision is expected shortly after that. If the state challenge is unsuccessful, Koch plans to file a federal habeas petition.

Supervisory Assistant State’s Attorney Jo Anne Sulik said the defense needs to come up with evidence beyond a convicted killer’s changing testimony before the state will change its mind about Ortiz.

“We do not believe that actual innocence can be proven simply because the defendant and the codefendant decided to testify 17 years after their trial. To prove actual innocence you need more corroboration,” said Sulik.

In court briefs, Sulik called Diaz-Marrero’s changed testimony “highly suspect.” She said Diaz-Marrero and Caraballo both can’t be telling the truth. “Thus, in order to credit [Diaz-Marrero], a court would have to find that numerous state’s witnesses either lied or were mistaken.”

Sulik argues that if Ortiz were to win his habeas case based on his codefendant’s testimony, then Diaz-Marrero would seek a new trial by arguing that the other two witnesses who were never charged perjured themselves.

Koch acknowledges that he is still seeking additional evidence.

Butler, the public defender who once represented Diaz-Marrero, doesn’t see what his former client would gain by lying in an attempt to clear Ortiz. “What was in it for Marrero to give up his own habeas corpus, his last chance at a new trial for himself, just to help Ortiz? What was in it for him? Absolutely nothing,” said Butler.

Butler recalled spending hours on the case with one of Ortiz’s trial lawyers, Michael Graham, who died as a result of a car accident some time after Ortiz’s guilty verdict. He was 54.

“The Ortiz verdict haunted Mike and certainly I still question it myself,” said Butler. “Michael Graham was a great trial lawyer. He was absolutely convinced Angel Ortiz was innocent and he wasn’t the only one.”

Koch said the murder victims’ family members also believe Ortiz is innocent. According to the lawyer, they “said there’s no way Angel would have done this.”

As for Ortiz, he’s sad because his wife died of cancer while he was in prison. But he’s hopeful about his future, said Koch, who claims his client is well-liked by prison workers and has never once gotten in trouble.

“Physically, he’s still pretty strong,” said Koch. “He has an unshakable faith in God. He’s just hopeful. I don’t think he’s unrealistically hopeful, he just has hope.”•