El Paso, Texas – Daniel Villegas, who is serving a life sentence for a 1993 double-murder in this Texas city, could receive a new trial after the presentation of evidence possibly proving that the confession he made at 16 was coerced by the detectives interviewing him.
The now 35-year-old Villegas has spent almost two decades trying to prove his innocence from prison.
In the face of the presentation of evidence that could show Villegas' innocence, Judge Sam Medrano urged the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to grant a new trial.
"There are two possibilities: for them to schedule a new trial for us or for them to find Daniel innocent," said attorney Luis Gutíerrez, who represents Villegas along with Joe Spencer.
At the time Medrano made his recommendation, Villegas broke down in tears, while his lawyers embraced him.
"This Court's recommendation of reversal is based on the numerous and inexcusable mistakes and omissions committed by the State of Texas, as well as defense counsel, that have harmed Villegas over the last 19 years," the judge said in his written finding, released Thursday.
He described Villegas' confession as "coerced and unreliable" and pointed out that the defendant's court-appointed lawyer had been given only 60 days to prepare for the trial.
Joshua Tepfer, the project chief at the Center for Wrongful Convictions of Youth at Northwestern University, who has worked with the lawyers representing Villegas, told Efe that all the evidence is in favor of the young man from El Paso.
"The evidence shows that the crimes were not committed by Villegas. They were committed by two other people and we have a witness who confirms it," he said.
Tepfer was referring to brothers Rudy and Javier Flores. The former is serving a federal prison sentence for another crime and the latter is deceased.
"We've handled several cases all over the country like that of Villegas," Tepfer said. "From my experience, I can say that it's just a question of time until we'll be able to get Daniel free."
In 1993, four young men, including Armando "Mando" Lazo and Robert England, were walking along an El Paso street when an automobile carrying three people approached them and the occupants opened fire.
England died at the scene and Lazo was found dead nearby at the door of a house.
A few hours after the murders, police arrested Villegas.
Aside from Villegas' confession, no physical evidence was found tying him to the crime.
His first trial in 1994 ended in a hung jury, but at the second trial in 1995 the jury found him guilty of murder and sentenced him to life in prison.
After the hearing last Thursday, Villegas' father Prisciliano told Efe that at least justice was starting to be done.
"We're very happy after so many years of suffering by the family and by Daniel. It's been too many years waiting for our son to have a clean trial at last," he said.
Villegas' mother Yolanda said once again that she is completely certain of his innocence.