High court reinstates rape convictions in Lakewood case with immigration questions

A Lakewood man’s rape convictions were reinstated by the state Supreme Court on Thursday after they were previously reversed because he wasn’t allowed to bring up the victim’s application for an immigration visa at trial.

Jurors convicted Leonel Romero-Ochoa of two counts of both first-degree rape and second-degree rape, one count of first-degree burglary, one count of second-degree assault and one count of unlawful imprisonment for the July 2014 attack.

Prosecutors said he broke into a mobile home and assaulted a woman who had been asleep with her young daughter.

Romero-Ochoa, 37, argued in his appeal that he should have been allowed to bring up evidence at trial about a special immigration visa the victim was seeking. The so-called U-visa let’s victims of certain crimes stay in the United States legally and eventually become lawful permanent residents.

A three-judge panel of Division II of the state Court of Appeals agreed and reversed all but the unlawful imprisonment conviction.

“A jury could infer that the requirements of receiving a U-visa, particularly the requirement of providing helpful assistance in a criminal investigation, and the value of receiving permanent legal resident status through the U-visa program supplied a motive for (the woman) to fabricate or embellish the allegations against Ochoa,” the appellate court wrote in its opinion in 2017.

The state Supreme Court said in its 9-0 decision that the Court of Appeals was wrong to throw out the rape, burglary and assault convictions.

“In light of the entire trial record, we conclude that any error in excluding the U-visa evidence was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt as to all of Romero-Ochoa’s convictions,” Justice Debra L. Stephens wrote for the unanimous court. “The Court of Appeals’ distinction between the unlawful imprisonment conviction and the remaining convictions is unsustainable.”

According to court records:

The 26-year-old victim said she was asleep with her 5-year-old daughter in the mobile home park where they lived when she woke up to find a man standing over her.

She ran into her living room, where he grabbed her by the hair and then raped her for 20 minutes.

She cried, screamed, and he hit her in the face repeatedly.

When she managed to run outside, he dragged her back and raped her again for about 20 minutes.

She escaped again, ran to a neighbor, and police arrived and arrested Romero-Ochoa.

The victim told police she’d met him once several years before but that they had not spoken since.

Romero-Ochoa argued they’d had a secret relationship previously and that he happened to be walking by her window in the early morning when she saw him and invited him in.

He said they started having consensual sex in her living room and that she became “hysterical” when he no longer wanted to.

“As the prosecutor pointed out in closing, the victim’s account was corroborated by three neighbors’ testimony about what they saw and heard while Romero-Ochoa was at her house; by the testimony of the police officers who arrived on the scene; and by the testimony of several medical professionals who observed the victim immediately after she arrived at the ER and then throughout the following day as she cried, gave repeated and consistent accounts of her attack and developed bruises on her neck and legs,” Stephens wrote in the Supreme Court opinion.

Romero-Ochoa’s version of events was “highly implausible,” the court said.

“... his U-visa conspiracy theory implies that, at some point after their initial chance encounter at the window, the victim hatched a plot to frame him,” Stephens wrote. “Standing on its own, that story would be very difficult for any jury to credit. But here it was also contradicted or undermined by an overwhelming amount of evidence supporting the victim’s account.”

The opinion went on to say: “The jury found he committed burglary and first degree rape. In light of the overwhelming evidence supporting that conclusion, we can say beyond a reasonable doubt that cross-examination on the victim’s U visa application would not have resulted in a different verdict.”

Romero-Ocho was sentenced to 30 years to life in prison for the attack, which means the state’s Indeterminate Sentence Review board would decide when or if he’s released.

He argued in his appeal that there was an error in how that sentence was calculated.

The Supreme Court’s opinion sends the case back to the state Court of Appeals to consider that argument.