Joseph Martinez recognized one of the faces on Crime Stoppers. "It was all over the news," he says. The next day, he turned himself in.
"I asked the police if I could find out what was going on," he says. "I wanted to work it out, and prove it wasn't me. And they took me to CJC."
Martinez was booked into the county's Criminal Justice Center on Jan. 12, 2010. For the next two weeks, he says, he didn't know why he was being held. Turns out he was facing two charges: one for dealing meth, and the other for dealing within 1,000 feet of a school building. He was looking at a mandatory eight years in prison.
In September 2009, Colorado Springs Police Detective Chace Passanante made an undercover meth buy from a man who identified himself as "Casper." Passanante described Casper as having "a tattoo on his left shin" with no reference to the man's size, height or eye color.
Martinez has no tattoos on his shins.
Didn't matter. He spent the next 40 days in jail, on a $50,000 bond.
As a kid in the Springs, Martinez ran with a gang and used the alias Casper. When he turned 18 back in 2004, he discarded the name. But when he was picked up and convicted for criminal trespassing in 2009, police found out about the alias, and into the CSPD database he went. That's where Passanante spotted Martinez's photo.
Early on in the case, Terry Rector, Martinez's defense attorney, gave prosecutors a "laundry list" that could prove Martinez wasn't the right Casper. It included requests for tests of fingerprints and touch DNA that could have been left on the bag of meth that Casper sold Passanante, the two $5 bills that Casper handled, and a scale he touched.
Rector also pointed out his client had no tattoo.
TJ Shull, a private investigator and 25-year veteran of the El Paso County Sheriff's Office, worked with Rector on the case. Shull interviewed two co-defendants. One was present on the night of the buy, and both were regular characters in Passanante's months-long investigation.
Both swore to Shull that they had never seen Martinez. Prosecutors, Shull says, were informed.
The 4th Judicial District Attorney's office could have ordered a physical inspection of Martinez, but didn't, despite the tattoo issue having been raised, says Rector. (Even Martinez's booking report would have noted tattoos.) Nobody ran DNA tests or confirmed fingerprints. Prosecutors were operating solely on Passanante's statement.
According to police spokesman Sgt. Steve Noblitt, the department would almost never run DNA or fingerprints in an undercover meth buy. Prints are hard to pull off paper, and DNA can be misleading. "So from our perspective," he says, "it doesn't prove or disprove anything." It is usually enough evidence when an undercover officer says the suspect sold him dope, Noblitt says.
Here's how Rector sees it: "It is enough to get to a jury. And in conservative Colorado Springs, you've got a problem. The jury has the defendant sitting in front of them, and then they have the polished narcotics officer, saying, 'That's him. That's the guy who sold me the drugs.'" He adds that typical witnesses never would be allowed to ID a suspect from just one photo.
In this case, prosecutors offered Martinez a deal: Plead guilty to the dealing charge, and they'd drop the special offender count. That would take mandatory prison time off the table, but a judge could give him up to four years in prison.
"It was still a lot of time for something I didn't do," Martinez says. He turned it down.
DA spokesperson Shelly LaGrill says prosecutors got proof last month of the mistaken identity, when Martinez met with them at the police department and showed them his leg. Seeing insufficient evidence regarding the identification, they dropped the charges.
"It was pretty much handled like any other case," LaGrill says.
It took 13 months. Asked who might have provided proof earlier that the ID was incorrect, LaGrill answers, "The defendant, maybe."
Rector says he raised plenty of flags.
"I had all these bullet points saying, 'Would you please look at this? Would you look at this? Would you look at this?'" And, he notes, it's the prosecutors' responsibility to prove that they charged the right person.
Noblitt says when the tattoo issue made it clear that Martinez couldn't have been Casper, Passanante admitted his mistake.
"They work a lot of cases where they are arresting a lot of people, so I'm sure that there is an error quotient there," Noblitt says. "If there were some indication that the officer had maliciously done this, then there would be a big issue. But we do allow people to make mistakes."
Passanante couldn't talk about the case due to its nature, says Noblitt.
During his 40 days in jail, Martinez lost his $100-a-day roofer job. He was forced to raise bond, and although he recouped it, he lost more than $1,000 to the bondsman.
"I'm still angry about it," says Martinez. "I can't go anywhere without looking over my shoulder to see if anyone is after me. I was trying to work and get ahead in life."
Meanwhile, the DA's office has moved on.
"It's really cut-and-dried from our end," LaGrill says. "We did the right thing."
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