Texas Man Convicted of Murder to Be Released After 20 Years in Prison
A Texas man who was imprisoned for 20 years for a crime he says he did not commit will be released on Tuesday.
Daniel Villegas has been serving a life prison sentence since 1995 for allegedly committing two murders. His case has drawn the support of hundreds of people in El Paso, including the two men who survived the shooting and the foreman of the jury that convicted him.
Villegas, who is now 36, has been in jail since a jury convicted him in the 1995 fatal shootings of Robert England, 18, and Armando Lazo, 17.
According to the Los Angeles Times, an appellate court vacated the conviction in December, and on Monday, District Judge Sam Medrano set a bond hearing for Tuesday. The judge will consider Villegas' request to be released on bond while the district attorney decides whether or not to seek a new trial.
Joe Aureliano Spencer Jr., Villegas' attorney, will ask that Villegas be released on a personal recognizance bond. "He's certainty not a danger to the community," Spencer said.
Villegas' supporters hope that the district attorney will not seek another trial.
"It's been a struggle," said John Mimbela, an El Paso businessman who took on Villegas' case seven years ago and has financed much of his appeal. "We could make history."
The spokesman for El Paso County Dist. Atty. Jaime Esparza said that the prosecutor will need to "look at the case pretty hard" before deciding whether to bring it to a trial again or dismiss Villegas' charges.
"We're not close to that decision," she said.
The killings, which were committed in a drive-by in 1993, were characterized by the police as the work of a gang against a rival.
The only evidence were shell casings. Villegas' conviction was based almost entirely on a one-page, dictated confession, which did not match many of the facts of the case. For example, Villegas said he was riding that night in a car driven by a man who was actually in prison at the time. He also said that the car was white, when it was red.
Authorities said that Villegas bragged to a cousin about committing the murders with a shotgun, when a small-caliber handgun was actually used.
Villegas, who hails from a poor, crime-ridden neighborhood, has been said to glamorize street life, but had never been taken in for a serious crime.
Villegas, who was 16 at the time, recanted his confession, and said that he was coerced into giving it. He said he was threatened by authorities, who said he would be raped in prison if he did not confess, and that he would receive the death penalty, which the police would personally carry out.
Nevertheless, the confession stood.
His case drew the support of organizations such as the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth at the Northwestern University School of Law. The center says that false confessions are common among juvenile suspects who bend under police questioning.
An appellate court also found that Villegas did not have adequate council during his trial.
If he is exonerated, he could be compensated $80,000 for each year he spent in prison, plus monthly annuity and other benefits. Additionally, Villegas could file a lawsuit against the police and the city of El Paso.