Monday, February 26, 2024

‘Presumed innocent’: Defense calls Oswaldo Martinez’s detention unconstitutional

Oswaldo Elias Martinez at the age of 33. Photo taken in 2005. (WYDaily/Courtesy JCCPD)
Oswaldo Elias Martinez at the age of 33. Photo taken in 2005. (WYDaily/Courtesy JCCPD)

The Oswaldo Martinez case has stalled for more than 13 years in James City County courts, and now, without a pre-written road map determined by case law, the case continues to hang in the balance.

The complexity of the capital rape and murder case was highlighted during a hearing Wednesday, Oct. 31, in the Supreme Court of Virginia.

During the hearing, Martinez’s defense attorney and the Office of the Attorney General presented arguments on whether Martinez could be held indefinitely and receive treatment to restore him to competency, even if that treatment is never successful.

Martinez, a 47-year-old deaf-mute undocumented immigrant from El Salvador, is accused of raping and killing 16-year-old Brittany Binger on Jan. 2, 2005 in James City County.

Martinez knows no language well enough to understand the court proceedings against him, rendering him incompetent to stand trial.

In court Wednesday, Martinez’s attorney, Tim Clancy, said he is “ultimately” trying to find out if Martinez can be released.

“I’m trying to get a court with jurisdiction to tell me if that’s possible or not,” Clancy said. “At a certain point in time, I think it’s entirely inappropriate and violative of due process and equal protection that someone be held indefinitely.”

“He is presumed innocent,” Clancy later added.

Issues at-hand

Because of the unusual circumstances in the Martinez case — and the lack of case law available to guide a decision — several key questions surfaced Wednesday:

  • Whether the Supreme Court has legal jurisdiction to opine on the Martinez case.
  • Whether the indefinite detention can be appealed civilly, even though the underlying case involves criminal charges.
  • Whether Martinez’s sign language education is considered a medically appropriate treatment.
Oswaldo Martinez (WYDaily/Courtesy VPRJ)
Oswaldo Martinez (WYDaily/Courtesy VPRJ)

The state’s high court will make a decision in the upcoming months.

Chief Deputy Clerk of Court Doug Robelen said Monday there is no set time frame for the court to release an opinion, although it could potentially take a month — or several months. The court releases opinions on cases every Thursday.

Medically appropriate

Some experts have deemed Martinez “unrestorably incompetent,” meaning no amount of treatment will make him competent to stand trial.

Clancy argued the sign language education and treatment his client is receiving is not medically appropriate because it is educational, not medical. The section of Virginia Code under which Martinez is being held contains a stipulation requiring the continued treatment to be “medically appropriate.”

“We’re asking this court to tell us what this means,” Clancy said.

One of the justices hearing the arguments clarified with Clancy, asking him whether he was arguing Martinez must be released if the treatment is not medical in nature.

“Yes, I am ultimately trying to get to that point,” Clancy said.

One justice suggested the six-month competency reviews Martinez undergoes are enough due process: Martinez has been found to be a danger by a judge, and his competency is regularly monitored.

“So, you’re giving him oodles of due process every six months,” the justice said. “So it’s not like we just hold someone for no reason, throw him in a dungeon and forget about him… Why isn’t that plenty of process that is due?”


The appeal filed by Clancy focuses on the civil mechanisms holding Martinez in custody, rather than the underlying capital charges against him.

While Clancy’s argument focused on challenging his client’s indefinite detention and due process rights, Senior Assistant Attorney General Matthew Dullaghan argued the case doesn’t have a place in the Supreme Court of Virginia.

Dullaghan said the Williamsburg-James City County Circuit Court order holding Martinez is not a “final civil judgement,” and it cannot be appealed in the Supreme Court of Virginia.

Dismissing the capital charges against Martinez, on the other hand, is out of the question.

“That’s one thing the statute is crystal clear about,” the justice said.

Coming up

Clancy said Martinez has another competency review hearing in the Williamsburg-James City County Circuit Court Nov. 27.

Based on conversation with doctors from Central State Hospital, Clancy said he expects Martinez will remain incompetent to stand trial, and a judge will order continued treatment and detention.


Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing is the Assistant Editor at WYDaily. Sarah was born in the state of Maine, grew up along the coast, and attended college at the University of Maine at Orono. Sarah left Maine in October 2015 when she was offered a job at a newspaper in West Point, Va. Courts, crime, public safety and civil rights are among Sarah’s favorite topics to cover. She currently covers those topics in Williamsburg, James City County and York County. Sarah has been recognized by other news organizations, state agencies and civic groups for her coverage of a failing fire-rescue system, an aging agriculture industry and lack of oversight in horse rescue groups. In her free time, Sarah enjoys lazing around with her two cats, Salazar and Ruth, drinking copious amounts of coffee and driving places in her white truck.

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