PORT ARANSAS, Texas — It's been almost eight years since a beach camping trip to Port Aransas turned into a terrifying experience for Fred Martinez and a 12-year-old boy.
Now, the Innocence Project of Texas said DNA evidence may exonerate Martinez.
"I'm innocent. I'm innocent and they know I'm innocent," he said. The 48-year-old man spoke to KRIS 6 News on the phone from the Briscoe Unit in Dilley, where he's served four years of a 12-year sentence. "They were accusing me of sexually assaulting a 12-year-old child," he said.
Martinez pleaded guilty to that crime in January 2015.
He said he hoped by taking the plea he could get home faster to his mother, who has cancer and to whom he serves as a caretaker.
When that didn’t happen, Martinez's family reached out to the Innocence Project of Texas.
Every month, the group reviews hundreds of cases of people who are wrongfully convicted and works to get the courts to exonerate them.
The organization's executive director Mike Ware said cases like these are not unusual, and that Martinez's case has all the hallmarks of an “Innocence” case.
"It's not uncommon for completely innocent people to plead guilty,” Ware said.
It was on the beach in Port Aransas that everything changed for Martinez, who struck up a conversation with another beachgoer. She was the mother of a young boy who was later sexually assaulted.
Martinez and his family spent hours with the mother before the tone shifted. "She took a liking to my brother Fred; Fred is gay, and he was there with his male partner,” said Martinez’s sister Emily Delgado. “She started making sexual advances towards him, and he had warned her many times that it was inappropriate."
Delgado says that woman was asked to leave and shortly after they were awoken by Port Aransas Police, who were investigating the assault.
Police conducted a line-up, the family says, consisting of Martinez and his boyfriend. They say the victim did not identify either as the assailant. But then, Martinez was arrested.
"I told them I'll give DNA, here's my swab, here's my clothes, they collected everything with no resistance," Martinez said.
Martinez spent three months in jail before seeing meeting a defense attorney at a docket call, it was there he says he hired Clay Bonilla and asked for his help. He says Bonilla told him to plead guilty.
Delgado says they were told a jury wouldn't believe his story.
"You're going to risk getting the maximum time because no one is going to believe a brown gay man over a white child," Delgado says Bonilla told them.
Martinez says he took a plea, to get home to his mother and believed the evidence to exonerate him didn't exist.
He says that evidence, in the form of a DNA report, just came too late.
Martinez took a plea in January 2015, but records show the DNA report was not issued until May 2015.
"It appears Mr. Martinez may very well be innocent," Ware said.
Ware said the DNA report may exonerate Martinez and the Innocence Project has begun reviewing his case.
"The National Registry of Exonerations shows that a large percentage of DNA exonerations began as an innocent person pleading guilty," Ware said.
KRIS 6 News asked Bonilla if he stands by his representation of Martinez. In a 2018 affidavit, Bonilla stated he was in possession of and reviewed all pertinent evidence in Martinez's case prior to his plea in January 2015.
With the DNA report not available until months later, his family claiming he was never alone and claims the victim never identified Martinez, we wanted to know why he recommended a plea.
In an email, Bonilla told 6 Investigates he stands firm in his original assertion that Martinez was represented appropriately.
Meanwhile, Ware says that the DNA report may not only prove Martinez's innocence but also help find another suspect.
"Alternative perpetrators or suspects that were never explored, or appears they were never explored, and I'm talking about specifically about the DNA," he said.
The family has received support from across the United States, including Congressman Joaquin Castro. In a statement to KRIS 6 News, his office said, "Congressman Castro is concerned by the irregularities in the Fred Martinez case, and he supports the Innocence Project of Texas’s advocacy on Mr. Martinez’s behalf. According to the laboratory report released by the Texas Department of Public Safety on May 11, 2015, Mr. Martinez is not a match for the DNA evidence found on the victim. This raises serious questions about the prosecution’s case against Mr. Martinez and the strength of the evidence used to pressure him into a plea deal.”
Last week, The Innocence Project reached out to the Nueces County district attorney.
It hopes the DA's office will work with them in exonerating Martinez.
Ware said if the DA's office agrees to work with them, the possibility of exoneration for Martinez will be much smoother.