On April 21, 1993, the El Paso police picked up a seventeen-year-old boy named David Rangel and questioned him about a double murder that had occurred the night before. Detective Al Marquez and a second officer browbeat Rangel for hours, telling him—falsely—that others had already implicated him and that he would get life and be raped in prison if he didn’t cooperate. Rangel maintained his innocence, but he mentioned that his cousin, sixteen-year-old Daniel Villegas, had boasted in a phone call about shooting the victims—Armando “Mando” Lazo and Bobby England, two teenagers from Villegas’s neighborhood—with a shotgun. Rangel told the officers that Villegas was joking, but Marquez demanded that Rangel write out a statement implicating his cousin. He then forced him to revise it, leaving out the reference to the shotgun; that detail, Marquez angrily told him, was “incorrect.” The victims had been shot with a .22 caliber pistol. Villegas, it seemed, didn’t know enough about the crime to properly brag about it.
Nevertheless, Villegas was picked up later that same night and interrogated, without speaking to his parents or an attorney. Early the next morning, Marquez extracted a signed confession from the boy, using the same aggressive tactics he employed with Rangel. Villegas recanted the statement hours later, but the confession became the key piece of evidence in his prosecution, which eventually resulted in a life sentence. He was sent to prison, where he spent the next seventeen years. Finally, in the summer of 2012, El Paso judge Sam Medrano ruled that Villegas had been coerced into a false confession. Medrano’s remarkable ruling followed a series of hearings in 2011 during which Villegas received excellent representation by El Paso attorney Joe Spencer. Villegas’s bills were paid for by a crusading family friend named John Mimbela, who has worked tirelessly on the case for years. Medrano recommended Villegas receive a new trial, and the judge took the unusual step of declaring Villegas factually innocent. Last month, after sitting on the case for almost a year and a half, the Court of Criminal Appeals agreed that Villegas’s conviction must be set aside, though it stopped short of endorsing Medrano’s finding of actual innocence.
Villegas remains in county jail in El Paso, awaiting a decision from district attorney Jaime Esparza—who prosecuted the original case almost two decades ago—about whether he will retry Villegas, who is now 36, or let him walk free. Villegas could go home—at least for the time being—as soon as January 14, when a hearing will be held in Judge Medrano’s court to determine if Villegas should be allowed to post bond while he waits for Esparza’s decision regarding a new trial.
It is hard to see how Esparza can do anything but dismiss the charges. As Medrano’s 78-page ruling makes clear, the “incorrect” shotgun was just the beginning of the problems with the state’s case. Villegas’s confession, the only real piece of evidence against him, was filled with inconsistencies when compared with not only the factual record of the crime but also “confessions” collected from his alleged accomplices. Yet Esparza seems to be digging in his heels. While he has not yet announced whether he will retry Villegas, he made a short-lived and futile attempt to have Judge Medrano removed from the upcoming bond hearing, a clear effort on Esparza’s part to keep Villegas in jail as long as possible.
Villegas’s case is a classic example of two phenomena often seen in wrongful convictions, one of which is well understood by juries. As the hearing in Medrano’s court made abundantly clear, Villegas was a victim of poor lawyering by his court-appointed counsel. Everybody knows that a good lawyer makes all the difference, especially when a defendant is facing a life sentence, but not every case offers such a stark and compelling demonstration of why this is true. Back in 1994 and 1995, Villegas had actually been tried twice. For his first trial, his family came up with the money to hire a well-respected El Paso attorney named Jaime Olivas, who called eighteen witnesses and grilled Detective Marquez on the stand, getting him to admit that he had been the subject of multiple internal affairs investigations and over thirty citizen complaints. (Olivas also called a former prosecutor who testified that he had twice presented perjury charges against Marquez to a grand jury.) Olivas also carefully walked the jury through all the inconsistencies in the alleged confessions. Still, a confession—even one as problematic as Villegas’s—is a difficult hurdle for a defense lawyer to overcome. At least one juror remained unconvinced, and the result was a hung jury and a mistrial.
The state decided to prosecute again. By that point, the family’s resources were depleted, and Villegas was forced to rely on a court-appointed attorney. Despite being appointed just 67 days before the trial date, the new attorney, John Gates, inexplicably failed to ask the judge for a continuance, which would have given him more time to prepare. He hired an investigator only six days before trial. Gates had the transcript of the previous trial—an outstanding road map to probable victory—but in the end he called only one witness. He made no opening statement and gave the jury no convincing reason to question the validity of Villegas’s confession. His closing statement was a poorly conceived effort to convince the jury that although Villegas may in fact have been the shooter, he was only trying to scare the boys, not kill them. Villegas’s life sentence could not have come as a surprise to anyone who attended the trial.
The second thing that sank Villegas, of course, was his false confession, a phenomenon that is harder to understand, but no less common. Most of the cases in the recent wave of exonerations in Texas