Exonerated: August 2, 2021
Incarcerated 11 years, 11 months, 5 days
On Saturday, July 19, 2009, Darvin Castro Santos was in Houston, Texas, helping friends with chores after completing a full week of construction work. Meanwhile, 400 miles away in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana, four men robbed a diner and got away when they were interrupted during the crime. The crime was captured on grainy surveillance video and witnesses reported that the robbers were four Latino men.
Six weeks later, Mr. Castro Santos was unlucky enough to be riding through Natalia, Texas, as a passenger of one of the robbers when the two men were pulled over by local police. When the car was linked to the Louisiana robbery, investigators assumed that Mr. Castro Santos one of the robbers because he was Latino and vaguely resembled one of the perpetrators from the surveillance video.
A month after Mr. Castro Santos was arrested, one of the victims made a cross-racial identification of him from a photo array. This was the only person to identify Mr. Castro Santos prior to trial. However, at trial, two other victims identified Mr. Castro Santos in court when he was the only Latino man in the room and after each victim had seen Mr. Castro Santos in court on at least nine prior occasions. These witnesses had been unable to identify Mr. Castro Santos during the police investigation. This was enough evidence to convict Mr. Castro Santos, even though one of the actual robbers, the man with whom Mr. Castro Santos was arrested, testified to his own guilt, swore that Mr. Castro Santos was innocent, and identified the actual robbers.
While the evidence against Mr. Castro Santos at trial was weak, the racism and xenophobia that infected his trial was strong. There were forty-five references to immigration, ten references to national origin, five references to the stereotypical physical appearance of Latino men, and eleven references to the Spanish language. The prosecutor contrasted the so-called “illegal alien” defendant to the “citizen” victims, referred to a Honduran witness as a “made-in-Mexico Jesus,” claimed that someone’s immigration status means that they “live a lie” and cannot be trusted, and told the jury “[d]on’t let him go to be deported and come right back and do it again.” During jury deliberations, as the jurors assessed the credibility of Spanish speaking witnesses, one of the jurors opined that “she worked with Spanish people and that they lie.” Mr. Castro Santos was convicted by a vote of 11-1, based on the racist rule in place at the time that allowed for convictions by non-unanimous verdicts.
After Mr. Castro Santos was convicted, IPNO began working on his case and was able to present DNA results that showed that the DNA on items touched by the robber in question did not come from Mr. Castro Santos. IPNO also presented phone records from the phones of the actual robbers showing that they travelled together to the scene of the robbery at a time when work records showed that Mr. Castro Santos was in Houston; other evidence also corroborated that Mr. Castro Santos was in Houston through the weekend of the crime. IPNO also presented evidence further implicating the man named by the defense at trial as the actual robber.
Based on this evidence, IPNO was able to secure an evidentiary hearing for Mr. Castro Santos. While these hearings were occurring, St. Bernard Parish District Attorney Perry Nicosia—who had taken office since Mr. Castro Santos’s trial—agreed that Mr. Castro Santos should be exonerated. On August 2, 2021, Mr. Castro Santos walked out of prison a free man.