A federal magistrate in Texas has cleared the path for a Mexican woman to walk free from prison after serving 14 years for allegedly murdering a toddler.
U.S. District Magistrate Andrew Austin issued a report late Tuesday finding that the woman, Rosa Elena Olvera Jimenez, should be released from custody, based on evidence that she is innocent of the charges.
Jimenez, an undocumented migrant living in Texas, had been accused of stuffing paper towels down the throat of a 21-month-old boy named Bryan Gutierrez, who died from his injuries several weeks later. Jimenez contended that as soon as she saw the child turning blue, she took him to a neighbor, where they tried to revive him and called 911.There were no witnesses to how the paper towels got down the toddler’s throat.
Investigations that expose, influence and inform. Emailed directly to you.
The case had drawn international interest over how Mexicans are treated in U.S. Courts.
The case against Jimenez hinged on prosecution expert testimony that a toddler could not have stuffed the paper down his own throat, and therefore Jimenez was guilty. The defense relied on a forensic pathologist who was neither an expert in pediatrics or choking. But In a series of post-conviction proceedings, new defense experts provided evidence that contradicted the prosecution’s argument that Bryan could not have shoved the towels down his own throat.
In October, magistrate Austin granted Jimenez’s post-trial petition that challenged the conviction, ordering the state to either release her or retry her by Feb. 25. He wrote that Jimenez’s was the “rare case in which just and fundamental fairness” required him to grant her petition.
However, local prosecutors and the state attorney general’s office had opposed the grant of relief and appealed Austin’s decision.
At a hearing Tuesday, prosecutors asked Austin to delay Jimenez’s potential release until the Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals could consider their appeal. But after the hearing, Austin refused to grant a delay, writing that the public has a “strong interest” in ensuring that any retrial occur “without further delaying the incarceration of a potentially innocent person.”
Austin’s recommendation now goes to U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel for approval, and the state has until Jan. 22 to object to Austin’s decision.
The Jimenez case has long drawn international interest. A Mexican documentary in 2009 cited Jimenez’s legal battle to highlight concerns that U.S. courts treat Mexicans unfairly. Three years later, the then-Mexican president echoed those concerns in a petition filed on the woman’s behalf.
The case also has drawn attention to the plight of women migrants charged with crimes.
Before magistrate Austin stepped in, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals had refused to overturn the verdict. Austin, in his later opinion, wrote that the ruling was “based on several factual determinations that were plainly unreasonable in light of the record before the state court.”