A man serving a 137-year prison sentence for the murders of an elderly couple in upper Northwest Washington could get a new trial.
Jose Portillo was found guilty in December 2010 of two counts of first-degree felony murder and other charges. The D.C. Court of Appeals on Thursday did not vacate Portillo's sentence but called for a lower court to further investigate whether his lawyers were deficient prior to his trial.
On Nov. 20, 2008, Portillo and two friends entered the home of Dr. Michael Spevak, 68, and his 67-year-old wife, Virginia. They took turns guarding the Spevaks while the men looked for valuables to steal.
The Spevaks were tied up and gagged. One of Portillo's friends then stabbed the pair, and the other of Portillo's friends beat the couple with a baton. Portillo and his friends fled the scene with the stolen goods, and the friends later went back to the Spevaks' home and stole the couple's car.
Portillo was represented during his trial by two court-appointed lawyers, one of whom was a fluent Spanish speaker because Portillo did not read or speak English.
A few weeks before Portillo's trial began, he sent the trial court a letter asking that his lawyers be removed. At a hearing, Portillo requested that he receive all court papers in both English and Spanish and was upset that the lawyer who was fluent in Spanish would not visit him in jail.
But the trial judge brushed off Portillo's issues and instructed him to work with his current lawyers, noting that good lawyers tend to be busy. "I don't think you want a lawyer representing you who don't [sic] have time to do anything except come over there and hold your hand over at the D.C. jail," the judge said.
A three-judge panel for the appeals court ruled that the trial judge did not adequately ask questions about Portillo's concerns with his lawyers in order to determine "the truth and scope of the defendant's allegations." Additionally, the judge's comments during the hearing may have hurt the inquiry into the lawyers' competence because Portillo may have perceived the remarks as dismissive and might have felt uncomfortable voicing his concerns, the appeals court opinion stated.
Portillo's case now heads back to the trial court. If that court determines that Portillo's Sixth Amendment right to counsel was violated, then he could receive a new trial.