Villegas' Writ Hearing Over; 'Last Chance At Freedom' In Judge's Hands
The decision whether to recommend convicted killer Daniel Villegas' case for further review to the Court of Criminal Appeals is now in the hands of Judge Sam Medrano.
Closing arguments in Villegas' writ hearing concluded Thursday afternoon. The last part of the long process was filled with passionate pleas.
"Daniel Villegas is crying for his freedom. He is praying for justice, he has been doing so for almost two decades, I pray to God that he doesn't do that from his grave," said Villegas' attorney Joe Spencer. That was the last statement he made to the judge.
"God's not fooled by what's going on here regardless of how you rule in this case. And if Armando Lazo and Robert England are going to have to wait to receive justice from God instead of this court, that's your call," Assistant District Attorney John Briggs told Judge Sam Medrano.
Villegas maintains he was coerced into confessing to the shooting deaths of Armando Lazo and Robert England in the Spring of 1993. Villegas has said former El Paso Police detective Al Marquez hit him and threatened him with the electric chair if he did not confess to the killings. Marquez denies ever threatening or hitting Villegas.
Villegas had two trials. The first ended with a mistrial, the second one ended with a guilty verdict.
"There is not one shred of physical evidence that ties to Daniel Villegas to these murders...we had a detective and a young delinquent -- guess who they're going to believe," said Villegas' other attorney, Luis Gutierrez.
The state argues there are safeguards that were taken to keep minors from falsely confessing to crimes. Briggs also said that none of Villegas' evidence constitutes as 'newly discovered evidence' - a requirement for the writ hearing.
But Spencer argued that there are dozens of pieces of evidence that were not discovered by the District Attorney's office or Villegas' former lawyers. For example, Spencer discovered a statement Villegas gave to a Juvenile Center Intake Officer hours after confessing to the killings. In it, then 16-year-old Villegas said he only confessed out of fear. "He sat there shaking and looking quite scared... He said he only gave the confession because the cops kept on harassing him, " the statement, written by the officer, reads.
Villegas' legal team spent more than two hours methodically detailing new evidence they said could have helped Villegas' case, but that was never presented. They pointed out that another detective who was with Marquez and Villegas the night the police picked him up, said, under oath, that the three had stopped at Northpark Mall before they went to the juvenile center - a move, that if true, would be illegal.
"The state has tried to clean this up a little bit, Judge," said Gutierrez. Briggs argued that Detective Aborgast said the trio had only stopped by Northpark Mall for 'a few seconds'. The state argued that wasn't enough time for Marquez to threaten Villegas at Northpark Mall - as Villegas said he had.
"He's merely repackaging old facts in a new argument. He's not raising anything new. He's trying to raise the same inconsistencies. It didn't work at the trials, at the writ hearing," said Briggs.
Spencer pointed out that Marquez had admitted to putting on doctor smocks during interrogations. "That's what happens when you don't follow proper protocol, you're going to have these young children confess out of fear, his mind was paralized," said Spencer.
In an unexpected twist, Briggs read the transcriptions of phone calls between Villegas and his parents during the time he's been incarcerated at the El Paso County Jail.
In a conversation with his mother on October 18, 2011, Villegas said to her that they'd have more of a chance to get the Court of Criminal Appeals to hear their case if one of his legal team's arguments was "actual innocence."
"That's why I always wanted to put actual innocence in the writ - even though we don't have sh**," said Villegas, in the phone conversation. Briggs read Villegas' conversation in the courtroom.
In a similar conversation months before that, on March 14, 2011, Villegas told his mother: "You have to have actual innocence man, and we don't got that."
"I don't know why we're wasting time talking about the innocence of the defendant if he himself says he's not," Briggs then told Judge Medrano.
Spencer later said that Villegas is not a lawyer and did not fully understand how to use the legal term "actual innocence." He maintains Villegas was not referring to whether he committed the crime or not.
"They take small pieces of taped recordings of a young many when he's lost faith in God, in his family because he is desperate, he's lot his innocence in prison because of what they did," Spencer told the judge.
Villegas' lawyers said John Gates, the court-appointed attorney who represented Villegas in his second trial was ineffective because he did not call witnesses to the stand that could have helped his case.
They contend that one of those witnesses was Dr. Rodriguez-Chevres, a psychiatrist who evaluated Villegas. In his evaluation of the teenager, Dr. Rodriguez-Chevres said Villegas was easily manipulated, gullible and could have easily falsely confessed if pressured.
Briggs pointed out that in the same evaluation, the psychiatrist wrote that Villegas had a history of cocaine, heroine, marijuana, model glue and aerosol paint abuse. The doctor also wrote that Villegas had been violent with his mother once before and could be resistant to authority figures.
When asked about those statements in Dr. Rodriguez-Chevres' report, Spencer said the incident of violence against his mother could not have legally been brought up in Villegas' trials because it was a separate case.
Briggs concluded by saying that the publicity garnered by Villegas' team was all in an effort to influence the judge. "Its an attempt to place bias on the public and thus making it uncomfortable for a judge to rule against them... they are sensitive to public sentiment because it is the public who keep judges in office," he told Judge Medrano.
Spencer countered. He said Briggs' argument was "pure desperation and absured." "If someone has been wrongly convicted and in prison for 18 years, isn't that important, shouldn't the public know," Spencer told Judge Medrano.
The Judge will evaluate the evidence and prepare a packet with his findings for the Court of Criminal Appeals. There is no set timeline for that, but Spencer said he hopes to have Judge Medrano's decision by early January.
Judge Medrano can either recommend Villegas case move on to the higher court or not. Either way, the Court of Criminal Appeals will review the case to determine if Villegas merits a new trial.
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