WashCo man serving life for 2000 murder receives lesser sentence
A Washington County man who was convicted of murdering his would-be brother-in-law 20 years ago and later sentenced to life in prison pleaded guilty to lesser charges Tuesday, May 25, avoiding a retrial, prosecutors said.
Rafael Mora-Contreras pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter and second-degree kidnapping in the 2000 killing of Gonzalo Pizano-Guzman, 20, said the Washington County District Attorney's Office in a statement Tuesday.
Mora Contreras was sentenced to 25 years and 10 months in prison, prosecutors said.
Pizano-Guzman disappeared on the evening of July 6, 2000. Authorities discovered his car burned near Cornelius, and later found his body on the side of a gravel road near Henry Hagg Lake. He had been shot and stabbed, authorities said.
Two months later, police arrested Mora-Contreras and another man, Joseph Noble, charging both of them with the kidnapping and murder of Pizano-Guzman.
Prosecutors believed Mora-Contreras had likely paid Noble to kill Pizano-Guzman to prevent his upcoming marriage to Mora-Contreras' sister.
In 2003, Mora-Contreras and Noble were both convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.
The trial "remains one of the lengthiest and most complex in Washington County history," prosecutors said Tuesday.
Both convictions were later affirmed by the Oregon Court of Appeals.
In 2008, Mora-Contreras filed a petition for post-conviction relief, saying his defense and appellate attorneys didn't represent him properly. Per standard practice, Oregon Department of Justice attorneys represented the state in those proceedings, and the Washington County District Attorney's Office was not directly involved.
After a nine-year process, Marion County Circuit Judge Jamese Rhoades in 2017 granted Mora-Contreras' post-conviction relief and sent his case back for a new trial.
Rhoades ruled that Mora-Contreras's defense attorney should have objected to the requirement that he wear a leg restraint and/or an anti-escape device called a "stun belt" during the trial, prosecutors said.
"The (Washington County District Attorney's) Office was surprised and disappointed by this ruling and requested that DOJ appeal Judge Rhodes' decision," prosecutors said. "DOJ declined to appeal, and Mora-Contreras was then returned from state prison to the Washington County Jail to await his new trial."
New prosecutors assigned to the case faced multiple challenges retrying the case 17 years after the crime.
Some witnesses have died, others have became uncooperative and significant evidence was no longer available, prosecutors said. They added that recent legislative amendments to Oregon murder statutes benefit criminal defendants.
With the changed dynamics, the District Attorney's Office agreed in 2021 to participate in a settlement conference with Washington County Circuit Judge Eric Bergstrom, a veteran judge of dozens of murder cases, who brokered a deal with Mora-Contreras.
Noble, having not petitioned for post-conviction relief, remains incarcerated on his original sentence.
Members of Pizano-Guzman's family have said they feel like the justice system failed them.
"We were blindsided, we didn't see this coming," Juana Edith Pizano, sister of Pizano-Guzman, told Portland-based KATU-TV.
Family members were preparing for a retrial set for June when they learned a few months ago the District Attorney's Office struck a plea deal with Mora-Contreras that would give him the chance of release in six years if he pleaded guilty, according to KATU.
Mora-Contreras' sentence began in September of 2000, said Stephen Mayer, a spokesman for the District Attorney's Office, making the recent lesser sentence end in mid-2026.
Prosecutors said they explained the difficulties of retrying the case to Pizano-Guzman's family, who believes Mora-Contreras should still receive a life sentence.
"The (District Attorney's) Office agrees that Mora-Contreras deserves to spend his life in prison for the murder of Gonzalo Pizano-Guzman," prosectors said. "However, we must also weigh the strength of the evidence in a case in 2021, the likelihood of conviction, the changes to Oregon's murder laws that have a retroactive impact on this case, and the likely sentence when deciding whether to agree to a resolution. It is the professional assessment of experienced prosecutors that this plea agreement is indeed the appropriate resolution to this case. We applaud the passion of the victim's family, and regret that they are unhappy with the result."
Editor's note: This story was updated after the District Attorney's Office corrected the previously stated year in which the murder occurred and the age of the victim at the time.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.