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.
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.
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.