Erasmo Gutierrez walked out of the Essex Superior Courthouse last November an exonerated man after Judge Thomas Dreschler granted the motion of the Boston College Innocence Program (BCIP) to vacate his 2004 convictions based on evidence demonstrating that no crimes had occurred.
Gutierrez, a humble and hard-working man, was in his eighth year as a custodian for the Hampton/Homewood hotels on January 19, 2002, when a fire broke out in an unoccupied room at the Hampton Inn in Peabody while he was on duty.
After the fire alarm went off, Gutierrez grabbed an extinguisher and ran to help put out the fire. He assisted firefighters by unlocking hotel room doors for them, using his employee keycard. Despite evidence suggesting that the fire was caused by shorted wires in an HVAC unit, state police investigators quickly concluded that the fire was intentionally set on the floor beneath the unit. Investigators reached this determination because, in their view, the burn patterns “did not look right,” and they believed, based on their interpretation of the hotel keycard records, that someone had entered the unoccupied hotel room before the fire alarm went off.
At a jury trial in 2004, Gutierrez was convicted of breaking and entering and arson, based in large part on the hotel keycard records, which the prosecution claimed placed him in the hotel room where the fire occurred prior to the fire alarm going off.
The jury also heard testimony from police interrogators that Gutierrez “confessed” to them that he started the fire, first in a way that did not comport with the prosecution’s theory of how the fire started and then, after police told him that was wrong, to another version that fit with their theory. Police extracted these false confessions from Gutierrez after a seven-hour interrogation in which they confronted him with false evidence of his guilt that they had invented.
Gutierrez was sentenced to one to two years in state prison, and three years of probation. During his incarceration he was unable to support his family or care for his mother, who died before his release.
In January 2022, after an extensive re-investigation of Gutierrez’s case, BCIP filed a motion to vacate his wrongful convictions. In the motion, BCIP demonstrated that the state investigators had misinterpreted the hotel keycard records: When compared with the firefighters’ trial testimony, the records showed that the very first keycard entry on the night of the fire happened after the fire alarm went off. Contrary to what the prosecution told the jury, the keycard evidence proved that no one was in the hotel room when the fire started and that the fire could not have been set by anyone. In other words, the keycard evidence showed that no crime occurred.
BCIP’s motion also argued that trial counsel’s failure to present to the jury this proof of Gutierrez’s factual innocence violated his constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel. BCIP bolstered its case with expert testimony supporting Gutierrez’s innocence. A false confession expert explained how newly developed scientific research undermined the reliability of Gutierrez’s “confessions,” which had the hallmarks of false confessions. An arson expert concluded that the fire could not have started in the manner alleged by the prosecution or described in Gutierrez’s false confessions, and was instead, most likely an accidental electrical fire caused by shorted wires in the HVAC unit.
At the November 19, 2022 hearing, the Essex County District Attorney’s office conceded that the keycard records supported Gutierrez’s defense and undermined the prosecution’s case. Following its own “exhaustive analysis,” the Commonwealth assented to BCIP’s motion to vacate Gutierrez’s convictions and immediately entered a nolle prosequi ending the case.
“I came to law school hoping to one day make some sort of an impact on the world. In the BC Innocence Program clinic, I learned to practice law by helping to research and write a motion that gave a man back his life.Ismail “Izzy” Ercan ’22
Gutierrez is one of seven BCIP clients exonerated or freed since 2019. His BCIP legal team included staff attorneys Charlotte Whitmore and Lauren Jacobs ’19; director Sharon Beckman; students Emily Van Auken ’23, Ismail “Izzy” Ercan ’22, Rachel Feinberg ’23, and Jamie Ehrlich ’23; Luke Trinka, Theology & Ministry ’22; and attorney Fred Mock, volunteering with BCIP through the Lawyer’s Clearinghouse Access to Justice Fellowship Program. The team worked thousands of hours on the case.
“We are thrilled that Mr. Gutierrez has finally received the long-awaited justice that he deserves and are grateful to the Essex County District Attorney’s Office for recognizing how important it is to protect the interests of justice,” said Whitmore.
“I can’t stop smiling knowing that Mr. Gutierrez is exonerated,” Ercan said of the decision. “I came to law school hoping to one day make some sort of an impact on the world. In the BC Innocence Program clinic, I learned to practice law by helping to research and write a motion that gave a man back his life. That, and the bonds I formed with my BCIP clinic classmates and supervisors, made for a most remarkable and meaningful law school experience.”
BCIP director Beckman noted that BC Law’s representation of Gutierrez did not end with his exoneration.
“Jamie Ehrlich filed and won a motion to return to Mr. Gutierrez all of the fees and fines he had paid as a result of his wrongful conviction,” Beckman explained.
In addition, Visiting Assistant Clinical Professor Heather Perez Arroyo ’17, teaching in the Immigration Clinic, assisted by Center for Experiential Learning Paralegal Andrea Burbono Perez, provided Gutierrez with pro bono representation in renewing his proof of permanent residency. Beckman pointed to this unique pro bono collaboration as “filling a critical gap in a legal system that fails to provide innocent people with a right to legal counsel to obtain relief from wrongful convictions and related collateral harms.”
BCIP staff attorney Jacobs, who was once a BCIP student, said, “It was an honor to represent Mr. Gutierrez and help bring to the truth to light. We are so relieved that Mr. Gutierrez finally has his life back.”