Free Daniel Villegas

Rally at Capitol today for teen many believe was wrongly jailed

Supporters of Daniel Villegas rallying in El Paso. Today, they will rally at the Capitol to support Villegas' bid for freedom
Supporters of Daniel Villegas rallying in El Paso. Today, they will rally at the Capitol to support Villegas' bid for freedom (Courtesy of John Mimbela)

Last August, a veteran El Paso district judge concluded that Daniel Villegas, sentenced to life in prison for a double murder that almost no one now believes he committed, should be given a new trial. Since Aug. 16, 2012, supporters have been waiting for the appeals court in Austin to make that happen. For a year, the court has remained silent.

That silence, from Texas' highest criminal court, the Court of Criminal Appeals, has prompted supporters of Villegas to travel from El Paso to rally at the Capitol today, Friday, Aug. 16, at noon, in an effort to see that justice for Villegas – and for two murdered teens – is finally done.

Villegas was 16 when he was arrested for the drive-by double-murder of two teenagers – Armando Lazo, 17, and Robert England, 18 – in April 1993, two weeks after they were shot, not long after midnight on Good Friday. Although Villegas repeatedly told police that he had nothing to do with the crime, after hours of intense questioning by now-retired El Paso Detective Alfonso Marquez, Villegas confessed to the crime. As it turned out, that "confession" was enough to land Villegas in prison for life, without any independent, corroborating evidence, and despite the fact that the details Villegas offered up were completely inconsistent with known facts about the crime – including information that contradicted details provided to police by two surviving witnesses to the shooting who had been with Lazo and England that night. For example, Villegas said he'd used a shotgun and hit one victim in the back; a handgun was used in the crime and neither victim was shot in the back.

Villegas has been in prison for 18 years, a victim of woefully incomplete police work (for example, Marquez failed to check on the alibi of a suspect who, not long before the shooting, had an argument with the victims), a demonstrably false confession, and severely ineffective assistance of counsel (Villegas' appointed attorney failed to call any of Villegas' numerous alibi witnesses). "For our justice system to work it must make two important promises to its citizens: A fundamentally fair trial and an accurate result," El Paso District Judge Sam Medrano told a packed courtroom last summer, when delivering his ruling in favor of Villegas. "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."

In an effort to support Villegas' bid to secure a new trial, a caravan of supporters has traveled from El Paso and beyond – including former El Paso Mayor John Cook, and exonerated inmates Anthony Graves and Christopher Ochoa, who falsely confessed to a 1988 murder he did not commit – and will converge on the Capitol for a noon rally. Villegas' chief supporter is John Mimbela, who is married to his former sister-in-law; Mimbela says the rally is designed to prompt the CCA into action. Indeed, there is no timeline for the court to rule and the CCA has at times taken years to rule in such a case. "Daniel tells me that he never imagined that in America an innocent person would be sent to prison," Mimbela wrote in a recent email. "Sadly, it happens more often than people care to believe."

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Courts, Legislature, Daniel Villegas, Capitol, criminal justice, wrongful conviction, false confession, coerced confession, John Mimbela, Sam Medrano, Court of Criminal Appeals, Jaime Esparza, The Nation

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