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Woman freed from prison with law students' help is immediately deported

March 18, 2010 |  5:30 pm

A mother of four who spent 23 years in prison for setting a deadly fire and was paroled with the help of law students who believed she got an unfair trial was deported Thursday, just hours after she was released.

Rosie Sanchez, 49, was convicted of setting a 1985 fire to a competitor’s business in downtown Los Angeles that killed a man. Prosecutors argued she did it because she needed money, but she maintained her innocence.

Ten years ago, students and staff at the Post-Conviction Justice Project at USC Law School met with her. They came to believe she’d gotten an unfair trial because she had inadequate representation and they spent years working to free her.

Last month, the judge who presided over the case urged the governor to release her. "The jury's decision in her trial has always continued to haunt me because it was one of the few times in my 59 years as a lawyer that I think justice was not served," wrote Sam Bubrick.

Of the thousands of cases that go before the state parole board every year, only a tiny percentage of inmates are recommended for release. Those who get that recommendation have the added hurdle of getting past the governor’s veto.

On Friday, students and family learned that Sanchez had surmounted both hurdles and would be freed.

But Thursday, as Sanchez’s family prepared for her arrival, they learned she wouldn’t be coming home to Anaheim. She was picked up from prison by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents and was taken to the San Ysidro border crossing before she could see her family.

Sanchez believed she had legal status when she was arrested, her daughter said. But ICE agents determined she did not, said ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice.

“The bottom line is someone who is in the country illegally and has a felony conviction has very few legal avenues available,” Kice said.

For Rosie Sanchez, the decision is bittersweet, her daughter said. “She’s happy because she’s going to be free,” said Rosie Sanchez, the daughter who shares her mother’s name. “But she’s going to be alone.”

-- Paloma Esquivel in Orange County