A Tacoma man serving 30 years for killing a man during a carjacking was returned to Pierce County this week to again stand trial after the U.S. Court of Appeals overturned his first-degree murder conviction.
In a ruling last year, the three-judge panel said Pierce County prosecutors violated Santana Ocampo’s rights by allowing detectives to testify about what a witness said, denying Ocampo the chance to confront his accuser in court.
Ocampo was convicted in 2004 for the death of Julio Morales-Castro, 25, and sentenced to 30 years in prison.
Prosecutors said Ocampo and an accomplice, Jose Ramon Hernandez, shot Morales-Castro on Aug. 10, 2003, when he came out of a restaurant while they were trying to steal his car outside a pool hall in Tacoma.
Ocampo was 17 at the time of the crime; Hernandez was 15.
There was no physical evidence indicating Ocampo helped commit the crime; the case hinged on Hernandez saying his friend had been there. The defense argued Ocampo was attending a Quinceañera birthday celebration at the time of the shooting and produced several witnesses to back up his account.
“In sum, the overall case against Ocampo was far as can be from ‘overwhelming,’” Judge Marsha Berzon wrote for the panel in its 37-page finding.
According to court papers, Hernandez told detectives Ocampo was the gunman. Baldemar Vela, who drove Hernandez and his friends from the scene after the shooting, told police he wasn’t sure which of Hernandez’s friends were there that night. He later identified a photograph of Ocampo after detectives told him Ocampo admitted to being in Vela’s van as they fled.
A third teen in the getaway van was Mesial Vasquez, who did not testify at the trial because he and his family had returned to Mexico.
Instead, two detectives testified about what Vasquez told them, implying Vasquez had said Ocampo was present for the shooting.
The panel ruled the detectives’ testimony had “a substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury’s verdict.”
Prosecutors say Ocampo wanted to steal the special tires and rims from Morales-Castro’s car. Ocampo, armed with a .25-caliber handgun, allegedly urged his young friend to steal the car while he stood guard.
As the teens approached, Morales-Castro came out of a restaurant and got into his car. Ocampo tried talking to the victim to distract him and asked for $2 so the teens could ride the bus.
When Morales-Castro said no and tried to drive away, Ocampo allegedly pulled the gun from his pocket and shot Morales-Castro in the back of the head.