Defense team works to clear name of man wrongly accused and imprisoned

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From left, Amy Parker, Bettye Witherspoon, and Molly Gilbert — the team that worked to clear Ezequiel Apolo-Albino’s name.

Update: Ezequiel Apolo-Albino was released from immigration detention yesterday, Oct. 5, and his immigration case has been terminated.

Ezequiel Apolo-Albino spent eight years in prison wrongfully accused of a crime that never happened. Thanks to the tenacity and legal acumen of Department of Public Defense attorney Amy Parker and DPD investigators Molly Gilbert and Bettye Witherspoon, a Superior Court judge recently signed an order vacating his conviction on two counts of child molestation.

The judge did so after Parker submitted a 511-page motion calling for a new trial, a motion that argued his two daughters were coerced into accusing him by their foster mother. Parker learned about his situation when an investigator for the state’s Child Protection Services (CPS) – frustrated that she couldn’t get anyone to take up Apolo-Albino’s cause – called DPD’s on-call attorney one afternoon to say the case should be reopened because the two daughters, now teenagers, had recanted.

After Parker filed her motion for a new trial, the state conceded the motion and submitted an order to vacate the conviction and dismiss the changes. Judge John Ruhl issued the order on Sept. 29.

But the fight on behalf of Apolo-Albino is not over. Now Parker, Gilbert and Witherspoon, with support from the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, are trying to persuade an immigration judge to halt deportation proceedings against the 64-year-old landscaper. Shortly after Apolo-Albino walked out of Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Eastern Washington, he was picked up by immigration officers and taken to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, pending deportation proceedings based upon the now-vacated conviction. Apolo-Albino has been in the United States legally since the 1980s.

It’s a nightmare made for a TV special. It’s also the kind of legal victory public defenders don’t often experience. “When I got the news the prosecutor’s office was agreeing to dismiss, I was elated,” Parker said.

But the women’s feelings of triumph have been tempered by what they saw in the process of their investigation. Not only was a man who could barely speak English framed, they said, but the many professionals who could have intervened or raised questions did nothing to stop what many now realize was a travesty of justice. They also got a glimpse into the practices of the foster mother, a woman who continues to receive children from the state despite other evidence of wrongdoing. “It was horrifying what we heard,” Gilbert said.

According to the motion Parker filed in King County Superior Court, both daughters said their foster mother “manipulated and forced” them to make up the allegations. Both girls “described incidents of physical threats and mental and physical abuse” by the foster mother and said their father never abused them, according to Parker’s brief. Parker and the two investigators unearthed reports of other incidents suggesting the foster mother engaged in “a pattern of behavior” that included “lies and deceit.”

“It is clear that there are likely other false allegations that should be investigated,” Parker said in her brief.

The two girls and their brother were adopted by a family on Vashon. The recantations surfaced last year, when one of the girls told her therapist she had been forced to make the accusations, information the therapist, a mandatory reporter, disclosed to CPS. Eventually, the two girls were interviewed by the CPS investigator, the state, and the defense team – stating in all those interviews that the allegations were false.

Throughout the ordeal and during his eight years in prison, Apolo-Albino maintained his innocence, even when an admission of guilt would have helped him before the Indeterminate Sentencing Review Board. His many landscaping clients also believed in him; one of those clients saved his landscaping tools so they’d be ready for him upon his release.

“There were so many people who believed he was innocent,” Gilbert said.

Even so, it took years for his case to reach DPD, where three public defense professionals – with support from paralegal Rachael Schultz – were able to undertake the kind of investigation that change the course of Apolo-Albino’s life. They did so because of a phone call from a CPS investigator. “She was heroic,” Parker said.

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