Special Report: Man Says Coerced Confession Convicted Him Of Double Murder
Daniel Villegas' days are long and monotonous. They've been that way for almost half of his life.
But it's the nights that are worse.
That's when the nightmares of a spring 1993 night come back to him.
"I'm looking in the back of the police car, and I'm thinking, 'this has got to be a joke, this ain't serious,'" Villegas said during an interview at the Abilene jail he is imprisoned at.
It was serious. Villegas, then 16 years old, was charged with murder in the shooting-deaths of two teenagers, Robert England and Armando Lazo, in Northeast El Paso.
A murder weapon was never found and there was no physical evidence linking him to the crime. His conviction hung on a confession he says was coerced by detectives when he was 16 years old.
Villegas claims he wasn?t even at the scene. The admitted delinquent said he didn?t know the victims either. John Mimbela, an El Paso contractor, believes him.
?The biggest tragedy is that there's an innocent person in prison, and there's a guilty person out there,? Mimbela said.
The El Paso businessman said he heard about Villegas? case through mutual relatives.
In the past two years, he's $80,000 of his own money to find proof that Villegas did not commit double murder, but made the worst mistake of his life when joking with his cousin that he did commit the crime.
?It was just a stupid joke, being juveniles and all, we didn't think nothing of it,? Villegas said.
Word of Villegas? boast reached police fast and that?s when the real nightmare began, he said.
He was arrested and claims he was threatened and slapped by police detectives.
Villegas said the detectives told him, ?They were going to take me to the desert and beat me up, handcuff me to the car, then whip me again, then let me walk home, and then when I hit the highway, they were going to pick me up again, and they were going to whip me again. And they were telling me they were going to give me the electric chair, and I believed them, too."
Villegas said the ordeal lasted seven hours.
?The big factor was fear,? He said. ?Fear and I was drained. I was drained emotionally and everything else. I mean, these guys put me through hell. I would have done anything just to get away from them.?
Get away. That?s also what Jesse Hernandez said he wanted to do, as well. Hernandez said he was a good friend of the victims and a witness to the murders.
He said the detective questioned him, as well - and let him go only after his mother stepped in.
?He kept on saying it and saying it and I started thinking 'did I? I don't remember if I blanked out. Maybe I did and I don't remember? because he kept on pushing and pushing,? Hernandez said.
Villegas also started doubting himself.
?I said ?maybe we just blacked out man, because I can't see why these guys would write these statements against me,?? he said.
Hernandez was cleared, but he still has nightmares over the incident.
?Until this day, I have such anger toward (the detective) because he left me with some nightmares and I'm a grown man,? Hernandez said.
The nightmares continue for Villegas, as well.
?I always have nightmares of him chasing me down, trying to kill me, and I've been having those nightmares for years,? Villegas said.
District Attorney Jaime Esparza, who prosecuted Villegas, maintains jurors were right to convict Villegas
?The confession in this case, was a juvenile confession, which requires law enforcement to take extra steps to ensure that the confession is voluntary,? Esparza said.
Villegas said the confession was far from voluntary.
?They said, ?look man, this guy is going to ask you if you want to talk to us, you're going to tell him yeah, if you don't we're going to kick your ass,?? Villegas said of how the confession came about.
For Mimbela, it comes down to a decision Villegas shouldn?t have been allowed to make by himself.
?At 16, you're not allowed to sign a contract, but you're allowed to pretty much sign your life away, cause that's what Daniel did,? Mimbela said.
Villegas' confession weighed heavily during the trial. The defense presented 18 witnesses - including a woman who testified the teen was actually babysitting her daughter the night of the murder.
Defense attorneys said that the main detective had a history of lying under oath and coercing witnesses.
Defense attorneys also said hat the murder weapon was a small caliber gun, not a shotgun as Villegas confessed, and that he was easily manipulated, gullible, and mentally slow, according to a psychiatrist.
Even the supposed driver and passenger in the car the night of the shooting - mentioned in the confession - were later confirmed to be in jail and at home.
?It was 11 to one, so clearly 11 people were convinced beyond a reasonable doubt,? Esparza said. ?It's not enough to get a conviction, but it's certainly an indicator.?
So Villegas was put on trial a second time.
With his family out of money, he was represented by a court-appointed lawyer who didn't present any of the 18 original witnesses.
The verdict this time was guilty.
?I've always thought the jury had done the right thing,? Esparza said.
A private detective and former homicide detective, hired by Mimbela, has studied the case. Freddii Bonilla, the private detective, said he will go to his death believing Villegas is innocent.
Innocent or not, Villegas has grown up behind bars.
?When they tried to rape me a few times in here,? Villegas said, laughing nervously before crying a little. ?That would probably be the worst experience I?ve had. Someone trying to take my manhood from me, that's one of the worst ones.?
And changed another life.
Villega's daughter was born six months before he went to prison at the age of 18.
?To have her think her dad's a low-life, he's a low-life, a killer, that's what hurts the most,? he said. ?That right there kills me. Not being able to hold her, not being able to tell her 'look mija, it's going to be alright' when she gets picked on or when she falls, that hurts the most.?
It hurt so much that he was on the verge of committing suicide until he got word of Mimbela?s help.
?He was pretty much ready to call it quits,? Mimbela said. ?He literally got down on his knees, and he prayed, he said 'God showed me a sign that I'm not going to spend the rest of my life (in jail).? The next day, he got my letter. That's why I?m fighting so hard and I promised him that I wasn't going to stop until he got out.?
Getting out. It?s a hope that hinges on a new hearing to review Villegas? previous representation.
His future will be determined by the same system that some insist put a murderer behind bars and others believe dealt an innocent man false justice.
The El Paso Police detective who allegedly coerced Villegas? confession is no longer with the police department.
Al Marquez retired and is now a court bailiff at the El Paso County Courthouse.
?Daniel has been convicted,? was all Marquez said when asked by ABC-7 about the case.
There are no records of complaints against Marquez for abuse Villegas claims happened at hands of Marquez.
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