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Wrongfully convicted search for justice after winning their freedom

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Rafael Suarez was in prison for a crime he didn’t commit (Source: KPHO/KTVK) Rafael Suarez was in prison for a crime he didn’t commit (Source: KPHO/KTVK)

The hugely popular Netflix documentary, “Making a Murderer” has really shaken up the conversation about the wrongfully convicted & incarcerated across America.

We wanted to look at what happens after people who are exonerated win their freedom, and we found a Valley man whose fight for justice for himself and others took us on an elaborate runaround with twists and loopholes and deception we just never saw coming.

Rafael Suarez did three years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

“I lost my family, I lost my home, I lost my job. We suffered a lot,” Suarez said.

He broke up a fight in Bisbee 19 years ago. A Good Samaritan who saved a man's life, Suarez somehow got arrested and convicted for the assault, even after another man confessed.

“You've got prisons full of people who say they didn't do it. Well, he really didn’t do it!” said Chris Whitten.

Whitten, who worked pro bono to help Suarez win his freedom, is now a Maricopa County Superior Court judge. He says there aren't many cases that have stuck with him like this.

“Maybe a handful of people I still wake up and think about in the middle of the night,” Whitten said.

He helped Suarez sue his defense attorney Ed Distel and won a $1,045,500 civil judgment.

“It looks good on paper, but not with the banks,” Suarez said.

Distel was disbarred. He didn't have malpractice insurance and filed for bankruptcy.

“I haven’t seen a penny,” Suarez said.

Distel then went on to open up a family wholesale liquor business, Powderhorn Distributing.  The bankruptcy court ruled the negligence was willful and malicious, so Suarez could still go after Distel to collect his money.

Actually doing so wouldn't be easy.

“He started his whiskey business to hide his assets,” Suarez said.

Suarez says he feels frustrated, ripped off and cheated.

Determined to get answers from Distel himself, we found a woman named Alex Munro who said she was running the business now because Ed Distel died 2 years ago.

Dead End?

We thought that might be it, but something just wasn't adding up. 

Turns out our dead end, wasn't dead.

Ed Distel is alive.

“You gotta be kidding me,” Suarez said.

A relative told us Ed Distel just changed his name to Ed Munro to dodge his debts. So we went to Tucson to find him.

No one answered at the warehouse for Powderhorn Distributing.

Their landlord and a woman who works next door, identified the owners, Alex and Ed Munro, as Ed Distel and his wife Sandy, who we found, have been sued for a slew of claims, from the IRS, to Suarez’s million dollar judgment.

After a repeated runaround, they finally agreed to meet us.

Sandy Distel, aka Alex Munro, wasn't happy when we asked why she lied and told us her husband was dead.

At first, she just kept trying to say we had the wrong people.

“His name's not Distel, it's Munro,” she said.

After a few minutes, she then admitted that they wanted to put the case behind them too.

“Mr. Suarez needs to move on,” she said.

“The problem is he's trying to get money from people who have no money,” she said.

Suarez wishes he could move on.

“Because he's living a crooked life, I have to now life a crooked life,” Suarez said.

Before prison, he found out about a teenage son he never knew he had. When he got out, back child support interest and his student loan debt had ballooned badly out of control.

“They seized my bank accounts, followed me around to garnish my wages, I’m struggling with barely enough to live on,” Suarez said.

Meantime, the Distels were running their liquor business, making no payments to Suarez.

“Had he had insurance back then, I’d be a millionaire right now,” Suarez said.

Arizona now has a mandatory disclosure law where every attorney has to tell their clients if they don't have malpractice insurance.

Oregon is the only state that requires it.

Suarez isn’t alone.

More than 25 percent of exonerees are never compensated for the years they lost behind bars.

“We can't ignore this,” said Rep. Macario Saldate (D) who is right now working on a bill that would either compensate Suarez for his wrongful imprisonment, or set up a state fund.

“It’s not just him, it’s anybody else that shouldn’t go through this,” Saldate said.

30 states have wrongful conviction compensation funds.  Arizona does not.

In Texas, for instance, exonerees are entitled to $80,000 per year of wrongful incarceration, an annuity, another $25,000 per year for parole or registering as a sex offender, child support compensation, tuition up to 120 hours and the opportunity to buy into the state employee healthcare plan.

“I think that’s the best thing that could come out of this,” said Sam Gross with the National Registry of Exonerations.

Since 1989, his team at the University of Michigan Law School has worked to track 1,737 exonerations. 18 are here in Arizona.

Gross said almost a third of the cases, like Suarez’s, are tied to attorney negligence.

“The average time between conviction and exoneration is about 10 years,” Gross said.

He said people rarely spend the time & resources to do the “very time consuming re-investigations to determine innocence, and the courts and prosecutors aren’t interested in hearing about it.”

That’s what he said is so troubling about Suarez’s case.

“His lawyer did interview the witnesses who provided unmistakable evidence of his innocence. Then, for reasons I cannot fathom, didn’t call them to trial. That’s why it’s very easy to determine this was a case of very extreme ineffective assistance of his defense attorney, why it was reversed on that ground, and why he was able to sue and get a substantial judgment, which I’m afraid he’ll never collect on,” Gross said.

“This story deserves more attention, to get Arizona to move to the majority position across the United States, and provide statutory compensation for people who’ve been wrongfully imprisoned,” Gross said.

“We’d be talking at most four to five people a year.  That wouldn’t be a big change in Arizona’s budget, but it would be a big contribution to fairness,” Gross said.

“Do what's right,” said Suarez’s daughter, Eva. She said there's no way to put a price tag on what her dad, her family, lost.  

He missed the birth of his youngest daughter, then a year later, while he was still wrongfully imprisoned, his wife left him.

“Justice has to be made,” Eva said.

She's hoping the state will step up where the system failed.

Righting the past while moving forward

Now, Suarez is working with AWEE, a local nonprofit - specializing in helping people find employment & empowerment after prison.

“I’m absolutely confident we can help Rafael,” said CEO, Marie Sullivan.

She said it’s very common to have extreme debt and face discrimination when looking for housing and work, trying to start over but if Suarez stays positive, he can have a better life than the limbo in which he’s been living.

Suarez said he’ll keep fighting to right the past while moving forward, so the worst thing that happened to his life, doesn't define it.

“I’ll just continue to fight until they finally do what's right,” Suarez said.

Click here for a state by state breakdown of exonerations.

Click here to see what programs each state has in place for wrongful conviction compensation from the Innocence Project.

Check out the Q&A we did on Facebook.

Copyright 2016 KTVK (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.

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