As police investigated the 1985 double murder of Luis and Hector Camacho in broad daylight in North Philadelphia, all evidence seemed to point to a prime suspect: Witnesses heard an argument over a drug deal, saw shots fired, even saw the killer dragging the body of one of the victims.
But that suspect was never prosecuted. And years later, in 1989, the case took a sharp turn — and a different man, Antonio Martinez, was charged and convicted.
Now, after 30 years in prison, Martinez, 73, was ordered released from State Correctional Institution Mahanoy after the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office agreed that “his trial was infected by serious official misconduct, resulting in his wrongful conviction.”
Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Tracy Brandeis-Roman vacated Martinez’s conviction Friday, and the DA dropped the charges. In a hearing conducted over Zoom, Brandeis-Roman apologized to family members of both Martinez and the Camacho brothers.
“Everyone has suffered a great, great loss here for the last 30 years," she said.
The DA’s Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) and the defense agreed that evidence pointing away from Martinez was withheld by trial prosecutor Richard Sax. The DA previously accused Sax of ‘egregious’ misconduct in the case of Dontia Patterson, who was cleared of murder in 2018 after a decade in prison.
Sax, who joined the DA’s Office in 1980 and retired in 2017, strenuously denied any wrongdoing in an interview Friday. He said he had received the file in Martinez's case only a week before trial, as was common at the time. But he said he shared the entire file with the defense lawyer.
“He had what I had," Sax said. “I trusted him with my file, every last page of it. I’ve never excised exculpatory information in my life.”
Sax said he’d made that clear to CIU chief Patricia Cummings, and notified her of numerous inaccuracies in her filing in the case. He also planned to testify at an upcoming hearing in federal court, where a petition in the case is pending. That proceeding had been scheduled to be held next month before U.S. District Judge Mitchell Goldberg of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.
“I was told I was going to be able to tell the judge what happened in the case," Sax said.
But Friday’s decision in Common Pleas Court preempted that opportunity.
Cummings said the case was referred to her unit by an appellate prosecutor who uncovered the suppressed evidence and raised concerns.
In those files, Cummings found “very little explanation and very little if any credible evidence" for how investigators zeroed in on Martinez.
Two witnesses testified against him: one who received a lenient sentence in his own case after cooperating, and another who said he gave a statement after police threatened to charge him with the murders. The judge who heard the case, Theodore McKee, even ruled that the conviction should be overturned in 1993, but was overruled by the Pennsylvania Superior Court on appeal.
It’s the 15th case cleared by the CIU since DA Larry Krasner took office in 2018.
“It’s just another example of how cases were prosecuted decades ago in this city,” Cummings said. “[Prosecutors and police] seem to ignore often troves of evidence pointing in an entirely different direction, and what that results in is a fundamentally unfair trial.”
Despite the extensive witness statements in the case, Cummings said that, 35 years after the fact, the office does not have sufficient evidence to prosecute the drug dealer police originally suspected of killing the Camachos.
Because the hearing centered on the wrongful conviction, it did not address the fundamental question of innocence.
“The evidence shows a stunning violation of Mr. Martinez’s constitutional rights,” his lawyer, Jonathan Feinberg, said in court Friday. But it does more than that, he added: There are also statements and documents indicating that Martinez was living and working in Puerto Rico when the murder occurred.
Despite all of that, the case has been a procedural thicket, bouncing between state and federal court for decades.
A petition is still listed as pending in federal court — where Goldberg granted an emergency bail motion in April in light of the pandemic. According to the DA’s office, Martinez’s release on bail hit a roadblock when officials uncovered a memo in his prison file indicating a pending case in Puerto Rico. The office has since confirmed that there is no outstanding warrant.
Martinez’s daughter, Damisela Santiago, wept over an audio feed as Brandeis-Roman approved her father’s release.