Ernesto was convicted and sentenced to prison for 20 to 30 years. No one thought much of it after that, says David Miranda, Ernesto's closest nephew, who was a boy at the time. "We thought that was the end of the case."
The way we were
The fact was Ernesto's interrogation was not atypical - especially for a "little Mexican kid." Phoenix, like most American cities, was still segregated in the early 1960s. For the most part, Hispanics lived south of Thomas Road and whites lived north.
"My dad tells me Mexicans couldn't swim in certain places, couldn't go to certain dances, couldn't date certain girls," says Dave Miranda.
Ernesto, the fifth son of an immigrant housepainter from Sonora, Mexico, had been in and out of juvenile facilities from a young age. He dropped out of school in the ninth grade, and later followed his older brothers into the US Army. By the time he moved back to his hometown of Mesa, Ariz., he'd been dishonorably discharged for going AWOL and had served a year in federal prison for stealing a car.
So when Ernesto was arrested for rape, he was no stranger to the criminal-justice system. Then again, the system didn't treat him as it would a suspect who was white, middle-class, and lived on the right side of Thomas Road.
Recalling the police department of the 1960s, Debus acknowledges prejudice in handling Ernesto. "Up north, it was kid gloves. Down south, it was rough and tumble," he says. "When you put a guy in the car up north, you put your hand on his head so he didn't bump it and you'd gently put his leg in. Down south you'd say, 'Get in the ... car!' and if his leg was hanging out, you'd slam the door on it. That's the way it was."
Ernesto's court-appointed lawyer thought race would be a problem at trial. "She, the victim, was a beautiful girl ... the kind of girl a man would want his own son to marry. But she was white.... It was one of those things you couldn't get away from in Arizona," the lawyer would tell a local newspaper.