Daniel Villegas was just 16 when he admitted killing two men in a drive-by shooting in El Paso, but after nearly two decades of professing his innocence from behind bars, he may be on the brink of a new trial.
Now 35 years old, Villegas continues to insist the recanted confession that helped a jury find him guilty was coerced. But as he awaits a judge's decision on whether he'll get a new trial, he has more than just his jailhouse claims to back up his story. A private investigator hired by friends of his family, a team from Northwestern University Law School's Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth and a pair of men exonerated after serving time for murder have taken up his cause. And Jesse Hernandez, who survived the shooting, says Villegas is not the killer.
"I believe with all my heart he is innocent," Hernandez told FoxNews.com. "I always thought I knew who else might have done it from the beginning. I had never heard of Daniel before."
"I believe with all my heart he is innocent."
- Jesse Hernandez, witness to 1993 double murder
Supporters of Villegas' innocence filed a writ of habeas corpus, citing ineffective assistance of counsel and actual innocence as their reasons for retrial. Texas 409th District Court Judge Sam Medrano plans to rule on Thursday on whether Villegas will get one last shot at freedom in what would be his third murder trial.
It was back in 1993, when four men, including Hernandez, Juan Carlos Medina and murder victims Armando "Mando" Lazo, 18, and Robert England, 17, were walking along Electric Avenue. A car with three occupants rolled up, and one passenger demanded "Que Barrio?" - slang for "what gang are you with?" Two men fled, two were left dead in a trash-strewn vacant lot.
England suffered a single gunshot wound to the head and died on scene. Lazo was shot once in the abdomen and once in the thigh. His body was found on the doorstep of a home across the street, where he'd managed to knocked on the door for help as his life slipped away.
Cops zeroed in on Villegas, a high school dropout and gang member who grew up in a tough neighborhood called the "Devil's Triangle" and told fibs to boost his street cred. They went to his house and arrested him.
“He was on the phone with his girlfriend in his bedroom when detectives came to our home," remembers Villegas' sister, Michelle Pena, who was 13 at the time. "It was totally unexpected. My mom and I were out. When we got back, the detectives walked in with us. I was very much in disbelief."
Hours later, cops had a confession from Villegas, who wrote and read at the third-grade level. In it, he noted the detective gave him a Coke and apologizes to the families of the victims. Villegas' team says he was threatened and slapped into a confession by then-detective Al Marquez, now a bailiff in another El Paso judge's court.
Beyond the confession, there was no physical evidence to tie Villegas to the crime. His first trial ended in a hung jury, but in the second trial, in 1995, the jury deliberated for three hours before announcing a guilty verdict. Villegas sentenced to life in prison.
Jaime Esparza, the district attorney for El Paso who has been working on this case since 1993, declined comment until after Thursday's hearing. But El Paso Assistant District Attorney John Briggs told FoxNews.com the jury got it right, and dismissed Villegas' claims of ineffective counsel.
"He has provided no new evidence, which is required for someone who is claiming actual innocence," Briggs said.
The driving force behind the campaign to win a new trial for Villegas is local contractor John Mimbela. After marrying a woman he met at a bank and adopting her three daughters, Mimbela learned the girls' uncle was in prison for a crime the family didn't believe he committed. He delved into the case, reading thick case files, hiring a private detective, and spending - by his count - more than $200,000 trying to prove Villegas was innocent.
"These overwhelming facts were never presented," Mimbela said. "He used to boast about a lot of things. That's what got him into this big old mess. He told his cousin 'I blew them away with a shotgun.' They never mentioned the shotgun part in court. I know that the crime was with a .22."
The detective Mimbela hired, Freddie Bonilla, reported back to his client that Villegas' court-appointed lawyer, John Gates, had dropped the ball, spending just 40 hours preparing for his trial. Gates even signed an affidavit saying he had not done his best to argue Villegas' case. Bonilla, a former El Paso Police Department homicide detective, said he doesn't take calling out his former department lightly.
"I wouldn't get involved with a case disputing the work of policemen unless it is something I knew didn't happen," Bonilla said. "I'm willing to bet my life on his innocence."
The story of a coerced confession rang true for Hernandez, who was also questioned following the murders.
"They tried to do that to me, but I kind of put things together," said Hernandez, now a city mechanic for El Paso. "They pushed him. They had other leads but they just dropped the ball and wanted the easy way out."
Joshua Tepfer, project director at the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth, told FoxNews.com evidence shows the murders were committed by are two brothers, Rudy and Javier Flores, who allegedly told a witness Villegas was in jail for a crime they did. Javier Flores has since died and Rudy is currently serving jail time for drug-related charges.
"We have new evidence from a third party witness for a prime suspect. This third party is a clear suspect in this crime and the evidence we have overwhelmingly meets the standard for a retrial," Tepfer said.
Medina, the other witness who was there that night, seems to believe Villegas is innocent, but he doesn't much care about what happens at the hearing.
"He took the rap for it for whoever it was," Medina told the El Paso Times. "But that is not going to get my friend out of the grave, that was my thought. It's hard to have feelings for him (Villegas), but I'm only human, too. I'm willing to give him that chance to prove himself ... if everything stays the same, that's OK, too."
By Maegan Vazquez
Published August 11, 2012
Dear Friends and colleagues please check out this link to the article on Daniel’s case publish by NYC, The Nation Magazine, written by Jordan Smith a staff writer for The Austin Chronicle.
Dear friends and colleagues,
Last nights ABC special on Amanda Knox wrongful conviction in Italy mirrors Daniel Villegas and many others here in the USA. Her confession was also never corroborated nor recorded and now they want to retrial her! Daniel case is still in The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in Austin, Texas since August 2012. Please help us pray that they rule soon with our Honorable Judge Sam Medrano and finally grant Daniel Justice! If anyone would like to write Daniel some words of encouragement it would be greatly appreciated. He is having a difficult time and many sleepless nights worrying and wondering if he will ever be FREE. Below is his address and an excellent link on False Confessions.
Daniel Villegas # 9487699
El Paso County Jail
601 E. Overland
El Paso, Texas 79901
Follow link: www.falseconfesions.org
April 1993, in El Paso, Texas, Daniel Villegas only 16 years old was arrested and later convicted of a double murder he did not commit. Without the presence of his parents or an attorney he was interrogated for hours into the late night. He was threatened with the death penalty and told he would be taken to the county jail to get raped if he did not confess. Daniel went to trial in 1995 with a court appointed attorney, John Gates, who was given 60 days to prepare for the trial. Mr. Gates was assigned a private investigator 6 days before Daniel’s trial. Unprepared, he went to trial, called one witness to the stand and failed to call 18 available defense witnesses, including Daniel’s alibis. Without any physical evidence or eye witnesses tying Daniel to this crime, the prosecution relied solely on Daniel’s confession, which was full of impossible and false facts. Daniel has always maintained that his confession was false and coerced by Detective Al Marquez, a harsh and relentless interrogator. Nevertheless, after a 3 day trial, Daniel was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Our judicial system that guarantees us the right to a fair trial failed Daniel. He has now been in prison for 18 years.
My name is John Mimbela and in the last five years I have spent well over $200,000 in Daniel’s attorney fees, private investigators, expert witnesses, and other expenses in seeking his release and bringing awareness to his wrongful conviction. I believe in Daniel’s innocence because after 5 years of investigating his case. With the help of private investigator Freddie Bonilla, with 40 years in law enforcement, we have gathered overwhelming facts that were never presented in Daniel’s murder trial which prove his innocence. As a homicide detective of 20 years, Mr. Bonilla stated, “There is no way Daniel could have committed this crime”. After researching Daniel’s case, the Northwestern Law Center on Wrongful Conviction of Youth from Chicago, Illinois and Dr. Richard Leo, a world famous expert on false confessions from San Francisco, also believe in Daniel’s innocence. Moreover, Daniel recently passed a polygraph test with flying colors. Even Attorney John Gates recently concluded that he was indeed ‘ineffective’ in representing Daniel. He admits missing many key factors that could have made a difference in the outcome of Daniel’s trial. After attending and hearing the overwhelming evidence in Daniel’s evidentiary hearings that was never presented in Daniel’s first trials, Ben Hodge, the foreman of the jury that convicted Daniel, agrees Daniel is innocent and deserves a new trial.
We hold no ill feeling towards our D.A. Jaime Esparza, who convicted Daniel. I am sure he never intended to convict an innocent young man, but it happened. Exonerates and DNA have proven that our system isn’t perfect, but to try and preserve a wrongful conviction at any cost is wrong. It goes against the principle of what our judicial system stands for, truth and justice for all!
We want to thank Daniel’s Attorneys Joe Spencer, Josh Spencer, Louie Gutierrez, and John Mobbs. Additionally, we would like to extend our gratitude to attorneys Laura Nirider and Josh Tepfer from Northwestern Law in Chicago, Ill., for presenting an excellent case in Daniel’s writ. On August 16th, 2012, our Honorable Judge Sam Medrano of the 409th District Court, in El Paso County issued an extraordinary detailed “Findings of Facts and Conclusions of Law” recommending that Applicant Daniel Villegas be granted a writ of habeas corpus. The court found that Mr. Villegas was denied the ‘effective assistance of counsel’ and that the jury in this case could have ‘reasonably found the Applicant innocent’. We are now awaiting the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in Austin, Texas, to uphold Judge Sam Medrano’s ruling. We strongly pray that after nearly two decades of proclaiming his innocence, Daniel will finally get the justice he deserves.
For more information on Daniel’s case, please visit our website www.Questforjustice.net. Or contact Johnm@mimbela.com
Stay tuned to NBC Dateline, which will soon air the truth and reality of Daniel’s case. Special thanks to our Mayor John Cook, Congressman Silvestre Reyes, Steve Drizin (co-founder Northwestern Law Center on Wrongful Conviction of Youth) Exonerates Anthony Graves, Chris Ochoa, And Juan Melendez for their support in our Quest For Justice.
by Adriana M. Chávez \ El Paso Times
Posted: 09/10/2011 12:00:00 AM MDT
A former police detective accused of coercing the confession of convicted killer Daniel Villegas was allegedly physically and verbally abusive to Villegas in order to get him to confess, a defense expert witness testified Friday.
In 1995, Villegas was convicted of the murders of Armando "Mando" Lazo and Robert England. Villegas is seeking a recommendation for a new trial from 409th District Judge Sam Medrano Jr., claiming that he had an ineffective defense attorney and that his confession to then-police detective Al Marquez was coerced.
Marquez is now a bailiff for 210th District Court Judge Gonzalo Garcia.
Richard Leo, a San Francisco law professor and expert on false confessions, testified that most coerced, false confessions aren't an intentional outcome and are due to poor training, overzealousness and tunnel vision.
Leo also testified that suspects usually aren't thinking about long-term consequences at the time they're interviewed by police.
"They just want to get the interview over with," Leo testified.
Leo said on the stand that he reviewed several statements given in the case, including Villegas' confession to police.
In Villegas' case, Marquez allegedly yelled at Villegas, accused him of committing the murders, told Villegas his friends had "ratted him out," and told Villegas he was going to be convicted, face the death penalty and subjected to "homosexual rape," Leo testified.
When Villegas denied committing the crime, Leo said on the stand,Marquez allegedly verbally attacked Villegas and told him Villegas would be physically hurt if he didn't confess. Marquez also allegedly slapped Villegas during the interrogation.
Villegas "couldn't take that pressure," Leo testified. "He was scared. That's why he ended up giving the confession he did."
When Marquez was asked about his interrogation tactics, Leo said on the stand, Marquez denied wrongdoing but "doesn't have a description of why Daniel confessed." Leo also said Marquez's and Villegas' descriptions of the interrogation are "dramatically different."
Marquez testified for most of Thursday and again took the stand Friday morning, but after Villegas' attorney Joe Spencer asked that Marquez be allowed to review the case file, including statements and reports written during the murder investigation, Assistant District Attorney John Briggs argued that he couldn't cross-examine Marquez without having Marquez review the case first.
Medrano agreed, and ordered Marquez to review the case file. Marquez told Medrano that he didn't know how long it would take him to do so, and that he is going out of town on Oct. 4.
Before Marquez was asked to review the file, he admitted on the stand that the murder investigation "wasn't perfect," but "what was done was done well."
Villegas' hearing is expected to continue on at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday.
Adriana M. Chávez may be reached at email@example.com; 546-6117.
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