County of Conviction: Los Angeles
Convicted of: Second Degree Murder
Sentence: 19 to Life
Years Served: 18 Years
Cost of Wrongful Incarceration: $810,000 and counting
On July 21, 1990, Dolores Macias’ children (Melody Alvarez, age four and Gilbert Alvarez, age five) and her sister Olivia Orozco’s daughter (Lynette Orozco, age four) were playing outside in a small swimming pool in the backyard of Olivia’s home. While Olivia and Dolores were inside the house, Melody came inside and told them that Lynette was “playing dead” and had mucous coming out of her mouth. Olivia and Dolores ran outside to the swimming pool and found Gilbert holding Lynette in the pool. Dolores attempted CPR on Lynette while Olivia phoned 911.
Officer Robert Diaz responded to the 911 call. When he arrived at Olivia’s home, he found Lynette unconscious on a couch and performed CPR until the paramedics arrived. Once the paramedics arrived, Officer Diaz interviewed Olivia, Dolores, and Melody. Melody told Officer Diaz that she, Lynette, and Gilbert were in the swimming pool, and that Gilbert had held Lynette’s head under water until mucous came out of Lynette’s mouth. In a subsequent interview, Gilbert admitted he was mad at Lynnette and may have been touching her when she drowned.
A week after the incident, after undergoing medical treatment, Lynette was pronounced dead. The medical examiner who performed the autopsy determined that the cause of death was brain damage resulting from the drowning. Lynette’s death was classified as an accidental homicide because, as the police reported, another child held Lynette’s face underwater.
As a result of the incident, Dolores’ children were removed from her custody and placed in the care of their paternal grandmother – Sara Alvarez – who despised Dolores. Almost two years after Sara obtained custody of the children, a six-year-old Melody told her that she dreamt about Lynette a lot and indicated that, in her dreams, Dolores and not Gilbert, drowned Lynette. Sara immediately reported Melody’s account of Lynette’s death to a caseworker with the Department of Children’s Services and, on January 3, 1994, Dolores was charged with Lynette’s murder.
The case proceeded to trial where Melody testified that she was swimming in the pool outside Olivia’s house with Gilbert and Lynette. Lynette hit Melody, and Melody went inside the house to tell Dolores. According to Melody, Dolores came outside to the pool, grabbed Lynette by the hair and neck, and stuck Lynette’s head under the water. Later, Dolores told Melody to tell the police that Gilbert drowned Lynette. Gilbert testified in a similar manner. On cross-examination, Melody testified that the drowning was real, but that she did not know whether her observation of Dolores drowning Lynette was a dream. Gilbert admitted he did not know the difference between “real and make believe.” Olivia and Dolores both testified that they were inside Olivia’s house when Melody ran in and said Lynette was pretending that she was dead. Olivia ran outside and found Gilbert holding Lynette. Lynette was foaming from her nose and mouth. Dolores was convicted despite the fact that Olivia – the prosecution’s only adult witness and the mother of the victim – testified that Dolores was in the house with her when Lynette drowned. Olivia stands by her testimony and to this day knows Dolores to be innocent.
Given the known problems with child testimony and the susceptibility of children to fabricating stories, the California Innocence Project began an investigation into Dolores’ claim that she was innocent. During its investigation, the California Innocence Project spoke with Melody and Gilbert (who were then in their late teens) as well as their brother, Frankie. All of the children stated that Dolores did not drown Lynette. The children stated that they testified falsely at Dolores’ trial because of police coercion. Their false testimony is understandable. Science has shown that the testimony of children can be extremely unreliable and they often have a great deal of trouble determining the source of their memories. Children will take what is told to them by adults and turn it into a memory. That is exactly what happened here.
Years after Dolores’ conviction, Frankie, Gilbert, and Melody took the stand in front of a Los Angeles Superior Court judge and testified they lied during the original trial and that their mother was not involved in the drowning. Frankie testified that his grandmother, Sara, repeatedly discussed the drowning with him and that these discussions led to his false testimony against his mother. Gilbert likewise stated that Sara manipulated him into implicating his mother. “My grandma was telling me what to say when I was younger,” he claimed. Melody panicked on the stand and said she had no memory of her mother drowning Lynette, but that she did recall fighting with Lynette in the pool at the time of the drowning. Unfortunately, the judge found the children’s original trial testimony to be more persuasive than their recantations.
It truly strains the bounds of reason to believe a mother, Olivia, would cover for her murderous sister’s actions for all these years. It also strains the bounds of reason to believe that Dolores’ children would recant their trial testimony if it was not, in fact, the truth. Dolores’ avenues for relief in the courts are closed. Neither will she likely be paroled because she refuses to admit she drowned Lynette. Dolores will likely spend the rest of her life in prison for a crime she did not commit if not granted clemency.