“For our justice system to work it must make two important promises to its citizens: A fundamentally fair trial and an accurate result. If either of these two promises are not kept, our system loses its credibility, our citizens lose their faith and confidence in our court system and eventually our decisions and laws become meaningless. Just as it is important to keep jury decisions intact, judges have a duty to set things right. It is this court’s recommendation to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals that the applicant Daniel Villegas’s request for a new trial should be granted.”
With these words from Texas District Court Judge Sam Medrano Jr., supporters of Daniel Villegas, 35, cheered yesterday and he wiped away tears. Medrano’s 78-page opinion strongly criticized the evidence used to convict Villegas, imprisoned for life for the 1993 drive-by shooting of two men. In prison since 1995, he confessed to the crime at age 16, but claimed the confession was coerced. Villegas has always proclaimed innocence, and a third victim who survived the shooting says he was not involved. Villegas now awaits the Court of Criminal Appeals decision on whether it will order a new trial.
The case attracted the support and advocacy of the Center on Wrongful Convictions (CWC) at Northwestern School of Law, as well as local and national media, including “Dateline NBC.”
Rob Warden, CWC Executive Director, said that the Judge indicated the tactics used to obtain the confession were “highly problematic.”
As reported here, in referencing Villegas’s confession and incriminating statements from two other suspects, “This Court cannot help but come to the conclusion, especially considering the age of the Defendant and other accused juveniles in this case, that these statements were both factually incorrect as well as illegally obtained by Detective Marquez.” He was referencing then-El Paso police Detective Al Marquez who, as reported here “allegedly obtained false confessions from two other suspects…using the same (interrogation) methods he used to get Villegas to confess.”
District Attorney Jaime Esparza, who prosecuted Villegas twice—in 1994 resulting in a mistrial and in 1995 resulting in the capital murder conviction—told the El Paso Times that the state will respond to Judge Megrano’s recommendation. “We think what the jury did 17 years ago is still valid,” Esparza said.
See the El Paso Times report on the case with a video from the courtroom here.