They must be guilty; they can barely speak English!
After seven years and about $2.5 million, Sarah Teachout helps to free two innocent men
Published in 2010 Texas Rising Stars magazine
on March 17, 2010
Updated on December 31, 2019
Eight years ago, criminal defense attorney Sarah Teachout was not yet 30, but she had already won the kinds of cases that make a much longer career look really good. Then another partner in her firm—Barry McNeil—came to her for help with a pro bono defense case. “It was the case of a lifetime,” Teachout says.
An attorney working for the Mexican Foreign Ministry, looking for Mexican nationals who have been wrongly convicted of capital offenses, believed she had found a particularly egregious example of such a case. Alberto Sifuentes and Jesus Ramirez had been convicted in the 1996 killing of a convenience store clerk in the Texas Panhandle and were given life sentences. The clerk was shot nine times during an apparent robbery.
Ramirez and Sifuentes were stopped by police on the night the clerk was killed as they were on their way home from a Lubbock bar. They did not match the description of the men the clerk gave to police as she lay dying, so officials let them go. But the men became the prime suspects the following day—after an acquaintance of theirs called to ask about a Crime Stoppers reward. Then came an eyewitness and a botched photo lineup and the men were locked away.
In 2002, the attorney representing the foreign ministry contacted Haynes and Boone for help. The firm agreed to donate whatever was needed to seek the men’s release. Teachout became a major part of the team. “We had to start from ground zero, learning the law,” she says. “We spent years investigating the case.”
The team spent $400,000 on private investigation services, expert witness services and other trial expenses. The attorneys spent thousands of hours poring through police files and investigative data. In all, firm officials estimate they donated the equivalent of $2.35 million to the case. What they found, Teachout says, were gaping holes in the case.
First, there was the alleged eyewitness to the shooting. The witness picked one of the men out of a photo lineup. But, Teachout says, it turns out “she wasn’t actually there at the time.”
Then there was the testimony of an alibi witness, a woman who would have testified that the men were in a Lubbock bar at the time of the shooting. That evidence, Teachout says, was never pursued by the prosecutors in their “rush to judgment.”
“It was just a shoddy investigation,” she says, that appeared intent on convicting two men with limited English because it was a convenient way to wrap up a case.
“Once they had an arrest, it appeared they didn’t want to look at anything else,” Teachout says. “The more we looked at it, the more it fell apart.”
Teachout says she is convinced that prosecutors used evidence that they knew was wrong.
In 2005, Teachout and the team won a new evidentiary hearing in the case and introduced their new evidence and the new witnesses. In January 2008, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ordered a new trial. Prosecutors then presented the case to a new grand jury, which concluded there was no evidence linking Sifuentes and Ramirez to the crime and refused to indict them.
They were released 12 years after their arrest and seven years after Teachout and her team took the case. For their efforts they were awarded the W. Frank Newton Award.
“I was confident the evidence was there and that we’d find it,” says Teachout. She admits, however, that she was less confident their work would overturn the case, given the history of such cases in Texas.
The first attorney in her family—her father is a retired farmer, her mother a nurse—Teachout, now 37, says she enjoys the white-collar defense work that is the staple of her practice. But this case convinced her that more needs to be done to clean up wrongful prosecutions in Texas state courts. In fact, she says, the firm has filed civil rights litigation against the police and prosecutors in the Sifuentes-Ramirez case.
“It’s an example of everything that could go wrong in a case going wrong,” she says. “And it is disturbing that it took me and four other attorneys thousands of hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars to get these guys out of jail.”