Once serving life, Bakersfield man resentenced after evidence shows aneurysm caused wife’s death

Crime Watch

Jorge Aceves-Cortez pleaded no contest to voluntary manslaughter.

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — In a stunning reversal of fortune, a man who was serving a life term behind bars in the death of his wife will go free in a few years thanks to an unlikely source — a portion of his wife’s brain.

Jorge Aceves-Cortez was sentenced Wednesday to 13 years in prison but will be released no later than 2025 with credit for time he’s already spent in custody. He pleaded no contest last month to voluntary manslaughter and two felony assault charges.

Aceves-Cortez, 43, was previously serving 15 years to life.

Supervising Deputy District Attorney Gina Pearl said the family of Maria Cortes, who died eight years ago, is disappointed but understands the challenges a second trial would have posed given medical evidence showing her death resulted from an aneurysm.

If another trial had been held, jurors would have been asked to decide whether Cortes’ death resulted from an aneurysm exacerbated by domestic violence, or an aneurysm that occurred independent of any alleged abuse.

T. Alan Rogers, the public defender representing Aceves-Cortez, has said his client chose to plead to the manslaughter charge rather than risk a second trial.

The case has its origins in October 2013 when Aceves-Cortez shoved his wife in the head with enough force she fell backward onto a couch. She died hours later. The coroner’s office ruled cause of death as blunt force trauma.

Aceves-Cortez admitted shoving his wife, saying he believed she was about to hit him. He denied statements made by one of her children accusing him of repeatedly hitting and choking Cortes.

Prosecutors argued the hemorrhaging in Cortes’ brain that resulted in her death was caused by a blow to the head; the defense blamed it on the rupture of a previously undiagnosed brain aneurysm.

A jury acquitted Aceves-Cortez of first-degree murder but convicted him of second-degree murder, and he was sentenced to the life term.

In 2018, however, the 5th District Court of Appeal conditionally reversed the conviction after finding an “apparent inadvertent failure” by the coroner’s office to tell attorneys tissue from Cortes’ brain had been preserved.

That information wasn’t disclosed until late in the trial — too late for the defense to conduct an examination of the tissue — and the trial judge refused to grant a postponement.

Following the appellate court’s findings, the brain tissue was tested by neuropathologists on behalf of both the defense and prosecution. The findings confirmed a misdiagnosis on the part of the coroner’s office regarding Cortes’ cause of death.

She died from an aneurysm, not blunt force trauma.

The guilty verdict was tossed and a new trial scheduled until the plea agreement was reached.

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