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Will a Texas Teenager's False Confession Keep Him in Prison for Life? | The Nation

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Will a Texas Teenager's False Confession Keep Him in Prison for Life?

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Sixteen-year-old Daniel Villegas was arrested at his family’s home in El Paso, Texas, just after 10PM on April 21, 1993. An affable kid with a learning disability, a penchant for braggadocio, and only minor-run ins with the law, Villegas was accused of the drive-by double-murder of two teenagers a couple of weeks before. Villegas vociferously denied the charge; at the police station, he spent hours repeatedly telling El Paso Police Detective Alfonso Marquez that he knew nothing about the slayings of Armando Lazo, 17, and Robert England, 18, not long after midnight on Good Friday.

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Jordan Smith
Jordan Smith is a staff writer at The Austin Chronicle.

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England and Lazo had been walking home from a party on El Paso's Northeast side with two friends, Juan Carlos Medina and Jesse Hernandez, both 17, when a car rolled up. It was a seventies model Chevrolet, Hernandez later told police, a Monte Carlo or Caprice, maybe maroon in color. That’s when the shooting began. Hernandez and Medina ran and survived. Their friends were not so lucky. Both boys were killed on the scene, one from two gunshots to the abdoman and thigh; the other from a shot to the head.

At the police station two weeks later, Villegas insisted he had nothing to do with the crime and said he was with a group of friends—who were babysitting and watching the movie White Men Can't Jump—when the shooting occurred.

Yet, hours after he was brought in for questioning, just before 3AM, Villegas made a statement confessing to the crime. The confession alone would be enough to send Villegas to prison for life.

But 19 years later, in August 2012, El Paso County District Judge Sam Medrano declared that Villegas, who is now 35, should be given a new trial. The confession obtained by Detective Alfonso Marquez was coerced, he ruled, and the court-appointed attorney who represented Villegas at trial was severely ineffective. “For our justice system to work it must make two important promises to its citizens: A fundamentally fair trial and an accurate result,” Medrano told a packed courtroom on the morning of August 16. “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.”

El Paso prosecutors have pushed back against the court’s ruling, filing objections to Medrano's findings and urging the state's highest criminal court, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals—known to be fond of finality rather than a stickler for certainty—to affirm Villegas' conviction. Villegas, in the meantime, remains behind bars. Whether he will get a new day in court is now in the CCA’s hands.

Villegas' case remains a potent example of the insidious problem of false confessions, the incomplete or sloppy police work that often accompanies them, and the damage done by defense attorneys who fail to investigate or to defend their clients—in Villegas' case, a story that has almost certainly landed the wrong person in prison while a killer remains unpunished for his deeds.

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Villegas' main advocate is John Mimbela, who is married to his former sister-in-law. For years Mimbela would hear about Villegas' conviction during visits with his adoptive daughters and their grandparents, Villegas' parents. He saw the family's pain and wanted to help. “I said, 'well, let me look at it and I'll see,'” he recalls telling Villegas' mother in 2007. Mimbela didn't expect to find anything of consequence, he says. But when he began reviewing the case, he was stunned.

“I started looking at it and I thought, ‘There's no evidence. How did he get convicted?’” he recalls. Villegas’s confession, given after roughly five hours of questioning, was clearly fabricated. “Nothing in Daniel's confession was true,” Mimbela says. Villegas said he shot one of the kids in the back; “the autopsy shows he was shot from the front,” Mimbela says. Villegas said he used a shotgun in the drive-by; the murder weapon was actually a .22-caliber handgun. Villegas told Marquez that his accomplices were two friends: Popeye and Droopy. The friends were real, but “Droopy was under house arrest” at the time of the murders, Mimbela recalls—a fact confirmed by his probation officer— “and Popeye was in jail.” Villegas had told Marquez that the car he was riding in that night was a white four-door sedan—a far cry from the maroon Chevrolet described by Hernandez, who survived the shooting.

Villegas’s conviction had to be a terrible mistake, Mimbela recalls thinking. He asked a friend to set up a meeting between him and El Paso County District Attorney, Jaime Esparza, who, as a newly-elected prosecutor in 1994, personally tried Villegas' case. But at the meeting, which took place in November 2007, Esparza suggested Villegas “lied about everything else, but he admitted to the killing,” Mimbela says. Esparza also pointed out that Villegas never took the stand to testify that his confession had been false. “All this combination of things made me say right off the bat, this is wrong,” Mimbela says. DA spokesperson Renee Railey told The Nation that the office does not comment on pending litigation.

Mimbela was undeterred. He hired a former homicide detective as an investigator and plastered the town with billboards. “Free Daniel Villegas; Will the system finally get it right?” read one. “Did Daniel Get a Fair Trial?” asked another. Five years after Mimbela began his quest to free Villegas, in the summer of 2011, a witness finally came forward to say that he was present when arrangements were made to get rid of the weapon—a .22 pistol—used to kill England and Lazo. JaMarcqueis Graves, a former gang member, had seen the posters asking for help in the case and his girlfriend ultimately urged him to come forward. Graves said that, in fact, two brothers named Javier and Rudy Flores, who he had known since the nineties, had committed the crime. Rudy was a 15-year-old gang member known to local law enforcement.

The Flores brothers were not unknown to El Paso police. In fact, just days after England and Lazo were murdered, police questioned Javier and Rudy in connection to the crime. Court records show that several individuals pointed to Rudy and/or Javier Flores as the Good Friday shooters. At the station, Javier said he knew nothing about the murders, and that when he arrived home that night, around 12:30 am, Rudy was not home. Rudy acknowledged being near the scene of the crime at the time of the shooting, but said he neither saw, nor knew, anything about it. Rudy offered an alibi, which Detective Marquez never bothered to check—a fact he later affirmed in court.

By the time Graves came forward, a hearing had already been scheduled in Villegas’s case, but it was put on hold so that his story could be vetted. According to court testimony, the defense interviewed Graves first, then passed his name over to prosecutors for vetting. But prosecutors declined to do so. “Did you ever meet with...any investigator from the district attorney's office?” Spencer asked Graves in court.

“No, I haven't,” Graves replied.

“Nobody's followed up to ask you any questions?” Spencer asked.

“No questions at all,” Graves said.

Javier Flores died in a car accident roughly a year after the murders of Lazo and England, according to Mimbela. Rudy Flores is currently serving a 20-year federal prison sentence for drug trafficking. He was brought to El Paso for the hearing in September 2011, but after being interviewed by prosecutors, Flores refused to testify, invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

***

Villegas was actually tried twice for the deaths of Lazo and England. The first time he was represented by a hired attorney who fought hard to counter the state’s case, which was—and remains—built solidly on the confession obtained by Detective Marquez. That trial ended in a hung jury. The state decided to give it another go, but by this time, the Villegas family no longer had money to pay for a defense lawyer, says Mimbela. Although the original attorney offered to continue on, the trial judge refused, appointing an entirely new attorney, John Gates, just sixty days before the retrial.

To say that things did not go well the second time around is an understatement: Gates failed to call any of Villegas' alibi witnesses. In fact, according to veteran criminal defense attorney Joe Spencer, Villegas' current attorney—hired by Mimbela—Gates failed to do anything more to prepare for the case than to read over the transcripts of the first trial. He then failed to do anything with the evidence the transcripts provided. Gates declined to call any witnesses in Villegas' defense—save for an expert marksman from whom Gates elicited testimony about how difficult it would've been for an untrained shooter, like Villegas, to strike a moving target from a distance. And even that backfired: It still would be possible, wouldn't it? the prosecutors asked on cross-examination. Yes, it would, the witness testified.

Gates also failed to challenge the validity of Villegas' alleged confession. "He did not point out any of the inconsistencies," says Spencer.

Villegas was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.  

Had his lawyer challenged Villegas’s confession, he would have had plenty to work with. Describing his interrogation at the evidentiary hearing last year, Villegas said Marquez had intimated and abused him. "[H]e would slap me on the back of the head and tell me, Don't act stupid with me, motherfucker. I am going to take you down to the desert and I am going to handcuff you to my car and beat the shit [out] of you," Villegas testified. "I was terrified out of my mind. I mean, that was the first time I had ever been interrogated."

Marquez's tactics were so fierce and heavy-handed that Villegas remained convinced, years after he was convicted, that he would have been given the death penalty had he not confessed, according to Spencer.  Even after he was sent to prison, Villegas was still asking the guards, "where is the electric chair?" Spencer says. “We don't have [the electric chair] here” in Texas, Spencer says the guards told his client. “’But the detective said he was going to pull the switch,’” Spencer says Villegas told him.

According to Dr. Richard Leo, a University of San Francisco law professor and a leading expert on false confessions, Villegas’s description of his interrogation contains classic examples of police coercion—including physically threatening behavior and the introduction of false evidence. (Marquez claimed others had implicated Villegas in the crime.) If Villegas' descriptions of the incident are accurate it would be clear that the interrogation was "physically and psychologically coercive," he says. The problem in making an ultimate determination is that no one recorded the hours of questioning, he says.

False confessions are implicated in roughly 25 percent of wrongful convictions, according to the Innocence Project. Yet, while research on false confessions has made great strides over the last three decades, there is still a common misconception that people don't confess unless they're guilty. "I think we're still in that stuck place, because it's so counterintuitive and so counterproductive and self-destructive," to confess to something you didn't do, says Leo. “In a way, we understand suicide better than a false confession, and that's the ultimate act of self-destruction.”

Leo says that juveniles are more vulnerable than adults when these coercive techniques are used because they lack experience and mental maturity. "They are gullible and trusting, without thinking through the long-term consequences" of how they respond. The subjects of such interrogations will often simply tell police what they think they want to hear in order to make the questioning stop, not realizing the jeopardy they place themselves in, says Leo.

Veteran State Senator Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, a lawyer and chair of the board of directors of the Innocence Project, says false confessions come down to “fear and power.” For more than two decades Ellis has fought to reform Texas’s criminal justice system, including pushing to implement measures to ensure that confessions are accurate and voluntary. Ultimately, he says the cure for Texas is to ensure access to high-quality defense counsel—especially for indigent defendants—and to create strict guidelines for interrogations. In the meantime, requiring police to record interrogations, in their entirety, would be a “strong step,” toward preventing false confessions, Ellis wrote in an email to The Nation.

Seventeen states and the District of Columbia now require interrogations to be recorded. Ellis has tried for nearly a decade to get such a measure passed in Texas, but those efforts have withered amid complaints from law enforcement officials that such a requirement would be onerous and might even inhibit police efforts to solve crimes. “Texas is proudly tough on crime and, sometimes, that clearly doesn't mean 'right on crime,'” Ellis says. “The prosecutor's lobby and law enforcement have been very effective in defeating even common sense reforms that would alleviate any number of abuses in the system.”

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Some states require confessions to be backed by corroborating evidence, but this is not the case in Texas—and it certainly did not happen in Villegas's case. Not only is there nothing to corroborate Villegas's confession, details the teenager provided to Marquez were inconsistent with the known facts of the crime, as Judge Medrano found last August. The confession “contained details that are demonstrably false and factually impossible in several ways,” Judge Medrano wrote in his ruling, including “critical” physical evidence—like the location of the victim's wounds and the kind of weapon that made them.

Whether the CCA will agree with Medrano and grant Villegas a new trial—or even rule that he is actually innocent—or whether it will side with prosecutors, remains unknown and the court has no deadline to rule. But Spencer compares convincing the conservative CCA to overturn a conviction to “climbing Mt. Everest in sandals.”

Still, Villegas' defense team is cautiously optimistic and Spencer, like Mimbela, is devoted to seeing Villegas freed. “It's hard to believe that [the state] would rather have an innocent person spend the rest of his life in prison than to admit a mistake,” Mimbela said. "It's not a big deal to admit a mistake. That's what shocks me most.”

What does Connecticut's gun legislation mean for the national debate on gun control? Read Bruce Shapiro's take in the April 29 issue of The Nation.

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