Reasonable Doubt: The Manuel Velez Case

A Brownsville construction worker named Manuel Velez was sent to death row in 2008 after he was convicted of killing his girlfriend’s baby. Five years later, new testimony from a number of forensic experts suggests that the medical evidence against Velez was deeply flawed. Now he may receive the chance to prove his innocence.
Wed March 6, 2013 2:45 pm

UPDATE: On April 2, 2013, state district judge Elia Cornejo Lopez ordered that Manuel Velez receive a new trial. The Cameron County judge agreed with Velez’s appellate attorneys, who have argued that Velez received a woefully poor defense at his 2008 capital murder trial.

Velez was accused of killing eleven-month-old Angel Moreno, who stopped breathing on October 31, 2005. Moreno was the son of Velez’s new girlfriend, Acela Moreno.

Lopez found that Velez’s trial attorneys erred by failing to present critical medical evidence pointing away from his guilt, and that they also failed to present evidence of Acela’s culpability in the crime. Lopez noted that the trial attorneys did not “adequately investigate and present evidence that Moreno had a history of abusing her children and that she admitted to striking Angel on the day in question.”

Lopez’s order (see PDF at the end of this story) must be approved by the Court of Criminal Appeals before Velez can receive a new trial. It’s unclear how long Texas’s highest criminal court may take to rule.

When a child dies from suspected abuse or assault, law enforcement officers typically focus their investigation on the last person who was with the victim. This is logical reasoning; but recent developments in forensics have shown that a child’s fatal injuries could actually have been inflicted hours, days, or even weeks before he or she is rushed to the emergency room. The evolving science of head trauma, for example, has upended long-held beliefs about “ shaken baby syndrome” and has recently resulted in a number of exonerations of people convicted of murdering children.

At least three women in Texas have had their cases thrown out or convictions reversed when misinterpreted medical evidence was re-evaluated. And the case of Manuel Velez is now drawing attention for the same reasons. 

The Story

Only two adults were home when eleven-month-old Angel Moreno stopped breathing on October 31, 2005, at his home in Brownsville. One was his mother, 25-year-old Acela Moreno, who had a troubled history with Angel, the youngest of her three children. She once admitted to her sister that she had bitten Angel on the face, and she would later tell police that she might have burned the baby with a cigarette. Her two older children would later tell CPS their mother had abused them. As recently as last year, a witness came forward to testify under oath that he once saw Acela, frustrated by Angel’s crying, throw the baby approximately five feet onto a couch.

The other adult at home that day was Acela’s new boyfriend, Manuel Velez, who moved in with her two weeks earlier. Velez, a 40-year-old construction worker with children of his own, had no history of violence, save for an arrest fourteen years earlier after a bar brawl, which had earned him a misdemeanor charge. He often looked after the children in his extended family, and relatives and neighbors recall that he was attentive and patient.

That afternoon Velez had been napping with his two-year-old son, Ismael, while Acela took care of the baby. At around 2:30 p.m., Acela came to the bedroom and lay down. Velez got up and took a shower. Afterward, Velez walked into the living room

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