EL PASO, Texas - Daniel Villegas, who had his double murder conviction overturned last month by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, was released on $50,000 bond on Tuesday after a hearing before Judge Sam Medrano.
Daniel Villegas, 37, has served more than 18 years in prison for the shooting deaths of teenagers Armando Lazo and Robert England - a crime he insists he did not commit.
As he was released Tuesday shortly after noon, some in the crowd shouted, "Free at last, Daniel! Free at last!" Hundreds of supporters waited for Villegas outside of the El Paso County Detention Center.
"It feels great," Villegas said. "I never thought this day would come. Now that it has come and it's here it feels almost like it's a dream."
Villegas thanked God and John Mimbela, the El Paso businessman who has paid more than $200,000 for Villegas defense and efforts to free him.
Villegas requested his first stop out of jail be St. Pius church where he prayed with Monsignor Arturo Bañuelos and his supporters. After church, the group went to Great American Steakhouse where Villegas had his first meal as a free man: a two and a half bound t-bone cut especially for him.
"He wanted Chico's (Tacos), too," Mimbela said. Mimbela said the red convertible Villegas was picked up in is also his once Villegas gets his drivers license. "He's my guardian angel. And you (John) told me you weren't going to give up. Seven long years and we're finally making it," said Villegas as he hugged Mimbela after his release.
Villegas' family was overcome with emotion. "I thought my son was going to die in prison. I really thought that," said Yolanda Villegas, his mother. Villegas will be living with his parents during his release.
Villegas' attorney Joe Spencer said he'd be "very disappointed" if the District Attorney decided to retry Villegas. "I would expect if they step back and look at it through objective eyes, they would see there is no evidence to convict Daniel."
"The decision that's going to be made is whether we have proof beyond a reasonable doubt to obtain a conviction in this case ... That is what is being looked at, so just because the charges might be dismissed that doesn't mean that's the district attorney's office saying that he didn't do it ... It's a question about whether or not we have the proof 20 years after the fact," said John Briggs, the Prosecutor assigned to Villegas' case.
A jury convicted Villegas of capital murder in 1995. He has always maintained his innocence, saying an El Paso Police detective coerced him into confessing to the deadly drive by shooting.
In mid-December, Judge Sam Medrano said he did not have the authority to let Villegas out on bond because the Court of Criminal Appeals had not issued an official mandate. That mandate was issued on Monday.
The higher court in mid-December issued an opinion saying Villegas deserved a new trial. But the case was still in the jurisdiction of the Court of Criminal Appeals until it issued a mandate, the official order that puts the case back in the jurisdiction of Medrano.
The District Attorney's Office still has not announced if it'll retry Villegas. If D.A. Jaime Esparza chooses not to retry the case, it will be dismissed. Judge Sam Medrano scheduled a status conference on January 21st, when he's expecting the D.A. to confirm if he'll retry Villegas or not. If Esparza chooses to retry Villegas, Judge Sam Medrano said he'd schedule the trial for late May or early June.
Earlier this month, the D.A.'s Office filed a motion to remove Medrano from the case. The motion was denied by Stephen B. Ables, Presiding Judge of the Sixth Administrative Judicial Region of Texas. Medrano in a 2012 opinion stemming from several hearings, said Villegas was actually innocent.
Ables' ruling states the court found "no legal or factual basis" to recuse Judge Medrano.
In a document filed with the 409th Judicial District Court, Villegas and his defense argued the district attorney's motion undermines confidence in the judicial system.
"The judicial system would grind to a halt if any judge's findings based on evidence required him to recuse himself from any further proceedings in the case," states Villegas in the document.