Convicted murderer, 31-year-old Jose Morales, walked out of prison Tuesday, liberated by the testimony of Father Joseph Towle, who told the court that shortly after the murder, Jesus Fornes admitted to him that he was the killer.
Fornes has since died, but the priest believes his disclosure is what Fornes would have wanted.
"And I truly believe that at this moment … I have done what he wanted me to do," says Father Towle.
Ruben Montalvo, 30, also convicted of murder in the 1987 beating and stabbing death of Jose Antonio Rivera and jailed for the past 13 years, will have his fate decided at a separate appeals hearing.
Under Roman Catholic law, it is forbidden for a priest to disclose information — under any circumstances — obtained in the form of religious confession. If a priest breaks what's called "the sacred seal of confession," he will be subject to excommunication from the church.
For example, admitted spy Robert Hanssen confessed his early espionage to his priest, who kept the secret despite the fact that enormous national security damage might have been averted.
Counseling, Not Confession
Father Towle, however, insists his conversation so many years ago with Fornes was not a confession, but merely counseling.
Catholic University law scholar John Beal says, "If it was not a sacramental confession, then there is no reason why he cannot — and at this point, should not — come forward to exonerate two innocent young men."
Even still, the district attorney in the Bronx argues that Father Towle's conversation with Fornes is privileged, similar to the way in which doctor-patient and attorney-client conversations are privileged. The prosecutors want Morales back in prison.
Towle says there is no privilege because the entire purpose of the conversation with Fornes was to help the young man take his story public. Fornes did try to do so, but his testimony was ultimately ruled inadmissible.
"The priest did not break the confidentiality code because the man who went to the priest went in order to figure out how they could let other people know that he was the man who committed the crime," says Fordham University legal scholar Michael Martin.
The district attorney's office will continue to attack Father Towle's testimony on appeal.
And Towle says he has only one judge: God. "Gentlemen, I have never been at more peace in my life, if that matters to anybody," he told reporters.