Oaxacan immigrant, mother of newborn left for dead in Camarillo faces trial
By David Michael Courtland 02/06/2014
Seen through the cage that separates defendants from the rest of the courtroom, Rosalba Cruz Moran reminds one of the nursery rhyme about the little teapot: She is short and stout. The 21-year-old does not look like a woman who has been accused of leaving her newborn child to die in a strawberry field.
Moran — whose Oxnard family hadn’t seen her for seven years until the 19-year-old arrived from Mexico almost two years ago — was already in jail for entering the country illegally when the body of a full-term newborn was found on May 12, 2012.
There were no signs of trauma on the infant body found at La Esperanza Farms on Central Avenue, and investigators believe it was born in the strawberry field just outside Camarillo and left for dead.
After collecting DNA samples from field workers, detectives singled out one of them as a close relative of the baby’s mother, leading them to Moran’s family in Oxnard.
That in turn led them to Moran, whose DNA was collected under a search warrant. Her trial for murder is scheduled to begin Feb. 11 in Judge Donald D. Coleman’s court.
She is being held in Santa Paula’s Todd Road jail in lieu of $1 million bail; a charge of having fake identification has been dropped.
“I have compassion for her, she is a new person in this country,” says Arsenio Lopez of the Mixteco/Indigena Community Organizing Project in Oxnard, who emphasized that he spoke for himself and not MICOP.
“Probably she saw just one option,” said Lopez. “I think it can happen to people who are isolated and desperate — sometimes you make decisions that aren’t the best option.”
Like Lopez, Moran is Mixteco, one of 20,000 members of Mexico’s indigenous Oaxacan culture who reside in Ventura County.
The Mixteco are largely poor migrant farmworkers making well below the average income and unfamiliar with how the system works here.
“They don’t speak English; they just come for work, following a dream,” explained Laura Quintanilla, the consul de protection at Oxnard’s Mexican Consulate, who advises Mexican nationals of their legal rights.
“They get into trouble for lack of knowledge,” said Quintanilla, “and sometimes I think lack of interest — they think if it works that way in Mexico, why not here?”
Quintanilla’s observations were echoed by Roseann Torres, an Oakland defense attorney who often represents non-English-speaking clients.
“These people have no idea of what they are up against. There’s a lot of inequity for them,” said Torres, who grew up in the San Joaquin Valley’s farmworking community.
“Oftentimes our culture is that lawyers, doctors and teachers are so educated, they must be given blind faith,” said Torres. “So these people will hire an attorney and say, he must know what he’s doing.”
Huge amounts of information are lost because of the language barrier, said Torres, sometimes even causing people to plead guilty to something they didn’t do — often people whose convictions would leave them unable to work and their families in danger of homelessness.
“Essentially what I saw week after week were immigrants with attorneys who don’t speak Spanish and interpreters who translate things wrong,” recalled Torres, a former San Joaquin County prosecutor who turned to defense law after seeing how the criminal court system was stacked against immigrants like Moran.
“While my job as a prosecutor was to foam at the mouth for a conviction, at times I would intervene and say, ‘Your honor, that’s incorrect,’ ” said Torres, who described people bringing their children to court to translate for them.
“The biggest problem (for undocumented immigrants) in getting fair representation is the language barrier,” agreed Jose Alamillo, a professor of Chicano Studies at California State University, Channel Islands. “The other is that they don’t even know they have rights.”
Because Oaxacans are viewed as inferior by mainstream Mexican society for a number of reasons, they are intentionally marginalized — something that may well have contributed to Moran’s state of mind when she was pregnant, said Alamillo.
“If you look at women from Oaxaca, they have a higher rate of being raped and abused,” Alamillo said, noting Moran’s mother’s reported refusal to acknowledge either her daughter or the baby. “It sounds to me like (Moran) will be viewed in shame.”
But on top of the other strikes against her, the chances of a fair trial for Moran are being jeopardized by her own lawyer, say two local activists, who point to statements he made to them personally.
“He told me explicitly in a courtroom, ‘She’s guilty and she should do 40 years,’ ” said Theodora Davitt-Cornyn quoting defense attorney Joseph Lax, who has been hired by Moran’s family to represent her.
A Unitarian minister who has visited Moran in jail weekly since December 2012, Davitt-Cornyn says she was stunned when Lax made the remark at a Sept. 10 pre-trial hearing in front of other lawyers.
“I was shocked that he was so overt about her guilt and that she should do a long sentence,” said Davitt-Cornyn, who recorded the incident in the calendar where she keeps records of her visits to Moran and of appointments.
Lax made similar remarks to Denis O’Leary when he met the attorney in Lax’s office on Sept. 9, says O’Leary, an Oxnard School District trustee and Rio School District teacher who assisted Ventura County Sheriff’s investigators in tracking down Moran last year.
“Seeing that in every conversation I had with law enforcement Rosalba was referred to as a victim, I decided to contact Mr. Lax to let him know I may very well be one of his defense witnesses,” O’Leary explains. “He told me I was a patsy for the Sheriff’s Office and that he didn’t believe he needed me.”
Of particular concern to O’Leary is that Lax indicated to him he does not intend to use Moran’s claim of having been a rape victim in her defense.
In fact, says O’Leary, Lax told him he wasn’t going to call any witnesses, only experts who could address whether Moran should have been interviewed in Spanish, her second language.
“At the end of the visit as we were leaving the office, he told me it doesn’t matter, that she’s guilty and would serve life anyway,” says O’Leary — but Lax flatly denies making the comment.
“That is a lie, I never said that,” Lax said in a Nov. 13 phone interview. “I don’t try my cases in public by volunteering my opinion.”
Lax would not say much because his policy is not to talk to the press, but indicated he has told O’Leary and Davitt-Cornyn to stay away from Moran because “They have their own agenda.”
O’Leary, who helped detectives communicate with the Latino and Mixteco communities in radio broadcasts, says they not only told him they believe Moran is a rape victim, but that the baby’s father is in fact her brother-in-law.
Ventura County Sheriff’s Office Detective Sgt. Jose Lopez, however, says that although they speculated in the early stages of their investigation that the baby’s mother might have been a rape victim, investigators never reached that conclusion.
“Initially we weren’t certain of that; we didn’t know what her status was,” says Lopez, adding that he cannot comment on current details of their investigation because it remains open. “We knew we were looking for a female, but not whether she was a victim.”
Nonetheless O’Leary is definite that as recently as when detectives identified Moran’s family as persons of interest last year, one of the detectives referred to the still-unidentified Rosalba as a victim in conversation with him.
Quintanilla corroborates O’Leary, not only confirming Moran’s claim of rape but adding that she suspects it is the reason Moran’s family decided to have the baby buried in California instead of Mexico.
“In February I was approached to get help transporting the baby to Mexico, but then they decided to have the baby buried here,” recalled Quintanilla.
“I think for some reason, a question of culture, her mother opposed the transfer,” said Quintanilla. “Rosalba declares she is a victim of sexual abuse. I think for that reason Rosalba’s mother refused to receive the body of the baby.”
The consulate can only provide for a transfer of a body to Mexico, so Quintanilla checked with the Ventura County District Attorney’s Office and determined that since the baby is considered the victim of a crime, burial services were covered by California’s Victims of Crime Act.
Meanwhile Quintanilla also asked O’Leary to talk to Moran in jail, “because apparently her family had told the consulate that she wasn’t interested in being contacted about legal services from the consulate,” said O’Leary. “(Quintanilla) and I both thought that was strange.”
Visiting Moran for the first time in February, O’Leary discovered that Moran spoke good Spanish and so asked her the things the consulate would want to know: Was she satisfied she had medical attention, psychological counseling and legal representation?
“The answer to all three was that that they were nonexistent,” recalled O’Leary. "I also asked her if she wanted to speak to a legal representative from the Mexican Consulate, and the answer was, ‘By all means, yes.’ "
O’Leary became further interested in Moran’s situation when he learned that Ventura County officials only allowed Quintanilla to speak to a Mexican citizen over a jail phone with the discussion recorded or with a member of the District Attorney’s office present.
Though recording conversations is a standard policy for jail inmates and their visitors, O’Leary was concerned that Moran was not being granted a civil right to speak with an attorney privately, and so he began contacting public officials.
That led to an April 19 meeting in Supervisor John Zaragosa’s office with Zaragosa, Sheriff Geoff Dean, O’Leary and Quintanilla. The policy was changed so that Quintanilla could meet with Moran privately without being recorded.
“She isn’t a cold, hard criminal; she was desperate,” said Quintanilla. “I think she still did not get — understand in full — the enormous responsibility she’s facing for what she did.”
Moran was adamantly clear on one thing, however, recalled Quintanilla.
“All she asked me was if that person in Mexico would be arrested for what he did,” said Quintanilla, referring to Moran’s alleged rapist. “She was insistent about that.”
O’Leary says that before he began complying with Lax’s order not to talk to Moran, he asked her if she wanted to fire Lax and get a public defender — and that she said yes.
“The third time I met with her at the window (in jail), I went to great pains to let her know it was her decision who represents her. I wanted her to think about it,” said O’Leary, who met with Moran in September. “She kind of popped out that, yes, she wanted to ask for a public defender, and she asked how she could do that and if I would talk to her family about it.”
But before he could speak to Moran’s family, Lax explicitly ordered O’Leary to stay away from Moran in a message left on O’Leary’s cell phone on Sept. 27.
“You cannot see my client, you cannot interfere in my relationship with my client, do not see her,” Lax can be heard yelling in the recorded message. “You pulled a fast one. You had her sign that paper saying she wanted a public defender. They told me.”
O’Leary, who held a press conference with Davitt-Cornyn in October at the government center to express their concerns about the case, says that despite the serious crime Moran committed he feels a responsibility to make sure she knows her rights and is able to make informed decisions about her defense.
“I know to some I’m a villain. It hurts but I don’t care. We have to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” said O’Leary. “It’s easy to make judgments based on a couple of headlines.”