A state district judge stunned onlookers Friday by granting a new trial for a young man who had been facing life in prison after being convicted of slaughtering three members of an El Rancho family with a pickax.
His first trial resulted in a hung jury. His second trial in December 2016 resulted in Ortiz being convicted of murdering Lloyd Ortiz, 55, Dixie Ortiz, 53, and their special-needs son Steven Ortiz, 21, during what prosecutors said was a botched burglary attempt. Nicholas Ortiz is not related to the victims.
But District Judge Francis J. Mathew reversed those convictions Friday and ordered a new trial in the case, saying there had been a "fundamental error" in last winter's trial. Ortiz's attorney had requested the third trial on a number of grounds.
Ortiz's extended family celebrated the judge's decision, embracing one another and loudly proclaiming that justice would finally be served in the case. Cherie Ortiz-Rios, a daughter of the slain couple who attended the hearing with her husband's mother, appeared floored by the judge's decision but declined to comment.
Mathew did not elaborate on the specific errors that he felt justified a new trial, and said after the hearing that he couldn't comment because the case against Ortiz is still active.
Ortiz's defense attorney, Dan Marlowe, admitted even he was surprised by the judge's ruling and wasn't exactly sure which of his arguments had prompted it. He speculated that the judge may have made the decision based on his own interpretations of law and not strictly what Marlowe argued.
Marlowe had said in his written motions for a new trial that there were so many troubling issues with the evidence in the case and the way it was presented to jurors that, combined, they raised "a real issue" of whether Ortiz's convictions were "offensive to the interests of justice."
Marlowe said that whatever Ortiz's involvement in the deaths may have been, he doesn't believe his client committed the killings and that "the people who actually did the killings are walking free."
According to testimony given during Ortiz's first two trials, he had conspired with two friends -- Ashley Roybal, who was 23 at the time of the killings, and her cousin Jose Roybal, who was 15 at the time -- to kill Lloyd and Dixie Ortiz and their son, Steven, and then steal their money and marijuana in the early hours of Father's Day 2011.
The Roybal cousins both told state police investigators that they had conspired with Nicholas Ortiz to rob the family's home. Ashley Roybal also said she had driven Ortiz and Jose Roybal to the family's residence that night and that she had picked up Ortiz after he committed the murders.
But when it came to how a burglary plot became a plan to commit murder, the cousins' stories diverged.
This lack of agreement between the state's star witnesses was one of more than a dozen issues Marlowe raised in his motions for a new trial.
"Ashley Roybal and Jose Roybal conflicted in virtually every aspect of their testimony except for the fact that it was defendant who did the killings, acting alone," Marlowe wrote.
He also said Jose Roybal had "tested as deceptive" during a polygraph test that was wrongly excluded from the trial, and that a new witness had contacted him after Ortiz's conviction, saying Jose Roybal had confessed to at least one of the killings.
The witness claimed to have been too frightened to come forward before, Marlowe said, but couldn't live with the thought of Ortiz's wrongful conviction.
Marlowe also homed in on the actions of the deceased couple's daughter, Ortiz-Rios, who lived next door to her slain parents, after they were killed.
When Ortiz-Rios called 911 to report that she had found her parents' and brother's bodies, Marlowe wrote in a motion, she revealed information she couldn't have known if she had truly just discovered the deaths.
"In her hysterical call to 911 she stated that her parents and brother had 'been there since early morning,' " Marlowe wrote.
"There is not a shred of evidence that would have told her the bodies were there from early morning. She knew this fact without being advised of it by any person. She is the one who called police and reported what she found that evening."
Ortiz-Rios had removed $80,000 in cash from her parents' home after their deaths, Marlowe added, and didn't reveal that to police until three days after the homicides.
These issues and others, Marlowe argued, justified granting Ortiz a new trial.
Contact Phaedra Haywood at 505-986-3068 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @phaedraann.