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Innocent man spent 10 years behind bars

Madera County Historical Society Madera Attorney Joe Barcroft worked for 10 years to free an innocent man from Folsom Prison. In 1919 he was finally successful.


Justice is blind, so they say, but sometimes she ought to open her eyes like Catilena Belmonte should have done on the night of July 4, 1909, when one of her guests shot another man at her kitchen table. In the midst of all the confusion, loud talk, threats, and, finally, a pistol shot, one man was left dead on her kitchen floor and one man — the wrong man — went to prison because she said she was sure he had pulled the trigger.

Catilena had come to Madera from Mexico with her husband, Jesus Belmonte, in 1905. He was 33 years old, and she was ten years younger. He got a job on the section gang of the Southern Pacific Railroad and rented a little house in the Millview district of Madera. To help make ends meet, the Belmontes emptied two of their bedrooms and opened up a little boarding house. By 1909, they had three roomers, Constantino Soto, Seferino Verduzco, and his brother Jose.

They all seemed to be one big, happy family until that fateful 4th of July. We don’t know what started the disagreement, but Constantino and Seferino, after a few drinks, found themselves on opposite sides of a vicious argument. When it became obvious that the quarrel was going to get physical, Jesus stepped in to put a stop to it. Seferino ran out the door and Constantino sat down at the table. Catilena, holding 1-year-old Mary, the latest addition to the Belmonte family, sat across from him.

Just as cooler heads began to prevail, in bounded the Verduzco brothers. Jose let it be known that he was going to take his brother’s part, and the shoving began. With Catilena yelling and the kids screaming, someone pulled out a pistol and fired a bullet into Constantino. He fell dead.

When Seferino turned and ran out of the house, Jose followed him. Later he returned and walked over to the dead man, felt of his pulse and remarked that he was gone. He sat down and lit a cigarette, waiting for the law to come. He didn’t have to wait long.

Night watchmen Kingston and Northern soon arrived. No one would hazard a guess as to which brother had fired the fatal shot except Catilena. She announced that Jose had pulled the trigger and had given the gun to Seferino who ran out with it. Jose denied the accusation vociferously.

Northern arrested Jose while Kingston called the coroner. When the morning of the July 5, 1909, broke, Jose woke up in the Madera County jail.

At the coroner’s inquest, Catilena’s testimony made it official. Her eyewitness account made the charge of murder against Jose Verduzco imperative. On October 9, he stood trial for murder.

At that point, only Catilena Belmonte was certain that Jose Verduzco was guilty. Not even the District Attorney, George Goucher, was absolutely sure, especially when Constable Lewis testified that Catilena had once told him that the man who took the pistol outside was the one who did the shooting. Since no one saw who took the gun out of the house, a modicum of doubt infected the case.

Still Goucher persisted in prosecuting Jose based solely on Catilena’s testimony.

Between October 1909 and February 1910, Judge William Conley presided over three trials of Jose Verduzco for Soto’s murder. The first two ended in hung juries, but the third time was a charm. The jury finally found Jose guilty of second degree murder. On March 5, 1910, Judge Conley sentenced Jose to Folsom Prison for life and that’s how things would have ended had it not been for attorney Joe Barcroft.

Since he was fluent in Spanish, Barcroft attended all of Jose’s trials as a court interpreter. As Catilena Belmonte testified and Barcroft interpreted, he became convinced that she had not seen who actually fired the shot, but in her mind she had convinced herself that Jose was the one. The more he observed, the more convinced he became that Jose Verduzco’s conviction was a miscarriage of justice. He was determined to right the wrong.

Barcroft labored on Jose’s case for years building a dossier that he put before two Governors. He composed a list of particulars to consider:

• Seferino Verduzco was known to be a trouble maker and before the shooting had threatened to kill Soto.

• Seferino had fled, but Jose remained at the scene.

• Jose had a mild-mannered disposition — never carried weapons, and made no attempt to escape.

• Finally, Barcroft pointed out that Jose had always maintained his innocence.

None of this convinced Gov. Hiram Johnson, nor did it move his successor Gov. William Stephens to action, then in January 1919, Barcroft received a letter that rocked him to his toes. It had been mailed from Mexico by Seferino Verduzco, who had been a fugitive for almost 10 years.

In his letter, Seferino confessed to killing Constantino Soto and fleeing with the murder weapon. He said his brother was innocent of the shooting.

With Seferino’s letter in hand, Barcroft made another trip to Sacramento, and finally, on February 27, 1919, Gov. William Stephens granted Jose a conditional pardon. If he would return to his native Mexico, he would be released from prison.

Joe Barcroft was at Folsom Prison when the gates swung open for Jose Verduzco. His prodigious efforts on the innocent man’s behalf had paid off.

At the age of 39, Jose walked out of the same prison he had walked into nine years earlier. He had spent nearly half of his life behind bars, but it was a two-sided coin. On the one hand, his life was a tragedy; he had been wrongly convicted. On the other hand, he had a benefactor, Joseph Barcroft, who refused to give up on an innocent man.

History does have its heroes.

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