EL PASO, Texas - Dec. 20, 2013 Update:
Daniel Villegas, the man convicted of double murder in 1995, will not be released from jail today pending his retrial.
Villegas' attorneys asked the judge to release Villegas on bond. The judge said in court Friday morning that he is waiting for a mandate from a higher court. A mandate is an official order after an opinion has been issued.
Dec. 18, 2013 story:
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has issued an opinion saying Daniel Villegas had ineffective attorneys in his original capital murder trial and he deserves a new trial.
Villegas was convicted of Capital Murder in 1995 for the shooting deaths of teenagers Armando Lazo and Robert England in Northeast El Paso.
Villegas and supporters across the country, have maintained his innocence saying he was coerced into confessing by former El Paso Police Detective Al Marquez. Villegas, now 36, was 16 years old when Marquez arrested him in 1993 and interrogated him for hours.
The Court of Criminal Appeals, made up of nine judges, agreed with El Paso District Judge Sam Medrano's prior opinion that Villegas had ineffective counsel. "We agree Applicant has demonstrated that counsel was ineffective for not presenting evidence of possible alternative perpetrators and for not discovering and presenting evidence that would have allowed the jury to give effect to the voluntary confession jury instruction submitted in this case," the opinion states.
Judge Medrano presided over an evidentiary hearing last fall in which Villegas' new attorneys, Joe Spencer and Louie Gutierrez, tried to prove Villegas was actually innocent and the evidence in the case pointed at other suspects, who were never investigated by El Paso Police.
Medrano issued a recommendation to the Court of Criminal Appeals stating Villegas was actually innocent and had a bad defense. Medrano also ruled Marquez had illegally obtained the confession from Villegas.
The higher court did agree with Medrano's assertion of ineffective counsel and a questionable interrogation but did not agree that Villegas new attorneys had proven actual innocence. "We further find that Applicant has not shown that new facts 'unquestionably establish' his innocence."
Spencer said Texas courts generally don't grant actual innocence without DNA evidence that exonerates the defendant. There is no DNA evidence in the deaths of Lazo and England.
Though the Court of Criminal appeals established Villegas deserves a new trial, the District Attorney will ultimately decide whether to retry Villegas. "I'm still evaluating the evidence and it's too early to tell if we'll retry," said District Attorney Jaime Esparza on Wednesday. Esparza was the original prosecutor in Villegas' murder trial. Last year, in an interview, Esparza said he had never doubted Villegas' guilt. "I have not, at any point had a thought that maybe Daniel Villegas was not the person who committed this crime," Esparza said in the fall of 2012. Asked if he still believed that, Esparza said he cannot answer the question because the case is now pending and he cannot comment on an ongoing case.
Spencer said Villegas is scheduled for a bond hearing on Friday morning, at which time Spencer will ask Judge Medrano to let Villegas free on bond until his new trial, if there is one. "When you have a very conservative court saying that there's problems with this case, problems with the way the confession was taken, problems with the defense, they (the District Attorney's office) need to step back and do what's right and not just (focus on) winning."
Either way, Spencer said the evidence is "very strong" for Daniel's innocence. "I'll tell the judge I'll take the first 12 jurors. We're ready to go."
The El Paso business owner who has fought for years to free Daniel and who has funded his defense, said he could not stop crying when he heard the news. "I made a commitment to Daniel that I would never stop until he got out of jail," said John Mimbela.
Mimbela said he's spent more than $200,000 of his own money in the effort to free Villegas and he said "it's been worth every penny." The businessman said his sons took over the management of his company, Mimbela Contractors, while he focused on freeing Daniel. "It's become like a second job," he said.
He hopes Villegas will be home for the holidays. "Our wish came true. We wanted him by Christmas. He wanted to be home by Christmas." If Judge Medrano does not grant Villegas the bond, it'll be his 18th Christmas behind bars.
In an interview with Villegas last fall, he also wondered what it'd be like to be home for the holidays. "I haven't been out with my family in a long time. What am I going to do on Christmas day with them? How is that experience going to be? What's going to happen? what's it going to be to taste egg nog? I haven't tasted that in like 17 years."