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.
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 and noticed that Angel, who was sitting on the couch with his four-year-old sister, Emily, was having difficulty breathing. He immediately woke up Acela and went next door, where a neighbor called 911. Angel was nonresponsive when EMTs arrived. He was rushed to the hospital and the next day—the boy’s first birthday—he was declared brain dead.
Angel was taken off a ventilator on November 2; he died that same day. An autopsy would reveal that he had two skull fractures and a subdural hematoma, or blood on the brain, which had resulted from blunt force trauma to the head.
Velez and Acela were both arrested when Angel was hospitalized. During Acela’s interrogation, she insisted over and over again—despite investigators’ insistence that she tell them what Velez had done to the child—that she had never seen Velez mistreat her children. She said that she had seen him “playfully” throw Angel up in to the air and she demonstrated how he had gently shaken the baby to get him to smile. Velez had been “playing,” she insisted. “I never saw that he did that with malice.”
While Acela’s interview was videotaped, Velez’s was not. Instead, a written statement was taken from him in English, a language he could only read at a kindergarten level. (His first language is Spanish.) Several different versions of the statement exist, including one that includes self-incriminating statements that are attributed to him in which he says he threw, squeezed, and shook Angel. All the versions have him admitting to biting the baby. The statements—which were taken down by a sheriff’s sergeant in English—include curiously sophisticated language and have him repeatedly referring to Acela as “Rosalva,” a name he was unfamiliar with, though her middle name is the slightly different “Rosalba.” (Velez’s attorneys later disputed the authenticity of certain portions of the statements.)
Both Velez and Acela were charged with capital murder. They spent more than a year in the county jail awaiting trial as the state prepared its case, which increasingly focused on Velez. It was Velez who had discovered Angel in distress while Acela slept, making Velez the last adult who had been with the boy.
In 2007, the Cameron County D.A.’s office offered Acela a plea deal. If she testified against Velez—and pleaded guilty to injury to a child, which carries a maximum ten-year sentence—the murder charges against her would be dropped. (Had she been convicted of capital murder, she would have faced either life without parole or a death sentence.) Acela took the deal. According to the wording of the plea, she agreed that she had struck Angel’s head—with her hand, an object, or against a hard surface—on or around October 31, 2005.
But jurors in Velez’s capital murder trial in 2008