Crime

Jail phone calls cannot be used as evidence in Villegas retrial

Court of appeals upholds judge's ruling

EL PASO, Texas - Another victory for Daniel Villegas.

Villegas was in prison for nearly 20 years for allegedly killing two men back in 1993. He was released in 2013 when the Court of Criminal Appeals threw out his conviction.

The El Paso District's Attorney's Office plans to retry the case. They were hoping to use phone calls that were made by Villegas while he was in jail as evidence.  The 37 statements were made during telephone conversations between Villegas and his friends and family members.

But a judge refused to allow the prosecution to use those phone calls and the District Attorney's Office appealed.

The State appealed the ruling, stating the calls should be admitted because they show Villegas was conscious of his own guilt and that he conspired to tamper with witnesses and a judge.

Thursday, a Court of Appeals upheld the judge's original ruling.

In the opinion statement by the Eighth District Court of Appeals, it states:

"We do not decide which characterization is correct, nor do we pass on guilt or innocence today. Instead, we are called on to answer one simple yet multifaceted question: Did the trial court exceed its discretionary authority by blocking the State from using several hours of recorded prison phone calls at the inmate's retrial before trial even began? We conclude the trial court did not abuse its discretion in determining admissibility before trial or in issuing a preliminary order excluding the phone calls from any retrial. Accordingly, we affirm the trial court's order."

John Mimbela, the stepfather of Villegas' nieces, helped spearhead his successful post-conviction efforts. Court documents show phone conversations between Mimbela and Villegas, in which the two men discuss reaching out to witnesses. The State says these calls show that the two men were trying to influence witnesses. Here is an excerpt from one of their conversations on January 11, 2010:
 

Mimbela: "I'm going to send you the picture of Jesse [witness]...at the football game...he sat there with us and we talked a lot and...he never been to a football game."

Villegas: "Oh, no?"

Mimbela: "No. and ... to the Sun Bowl ... a big game like that ... he was all excited ... same thing with him. 'John, I'm ready. Whenever you need me to testify, I'm ready.'"

 

The appeals court left open the possibility that the calls could be used in the trial, just not for the purpose prosecutors requested.

"We also note that while the trial court excluded this evidence for the particular offered purposes, it did not rule on other possible bases for admission. Further development of the record at trial may furnish missing predicates, fill in inferential gaps, or render otherwise inadmissible evidence relevant or admissible for another purpose. However, the trial court's evidentiary rulings will stand for now, because we are powerless to intervene absent an abuse of discretion."

The phone calls not being allowed as evidence is just another blow to the District Attorney's case.

In 2014, a judge ruled that Villegas' 20-year-old murder confession could not be used in court because a detective violated Villegas' constitutional rights.

 

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