An El Paso, Texas man who had been convicted of double murder and imprisoned for life was freed Tuesday, 19 years after being sent to prison. Witnesses, supporters and family members all maintain that he was wrongly sent to prison.
Daniel Villegas, 37, has been serving a life sentence for the 1993 driver-by shooting of Armando Lazo, 17, and Robert Englund, 18, since 1995. At the time, Villegas was a 16-year-old high school dropout.
His conviction was mainly based on a confession he made at the time. Villegas later recanted, saying he was coerced to confess. According to Villegas, he was told that if he didn’t confess, he would be raped in prison and get the death penalty. There were several discrepancies in the confession that landed Villegas the life sentence. One discrepancy was when he claimed that he was driving a white car at the time of the shooting but the vehicle involved at the shooting was red. There was also no DNA evidence linking him to the crime.
Witnesses also refuted the claim that Villegas was the one who committed the double homicide. In 2012, Jesse Hernandez, a witness to the killing, said he believes with all his heart that Villegas is innocent. “I always thought I knew who else might have done it from the beginning. I had never heard of Daniel before,” Hernandez told Fox News
Villegas was released on a $50,000 bond, about an hour after the hearing ended. El Paso District Judge Sam Medrano made the release ruling at about 10:30 a.m. and Villegas was freed at about 11:30 a.m. he was greeted by a jubilant crowd of friends and family. He later went to St. Pius X Catholic Church to pray and celebrate his release.
Prosecuting attorneys have a week to decide whether or not to dismiss Villegas’ case. Judge Medrano set a hearing for Jan. 21, if prosecutors remain undecided the case will go back to trial.
Villegas drew support from hundreds of supporters who strongly believe he is innocent. Some supporters include ‘The Innocence Project,’ an organization by Northwest University Law School that advocates justice for youth who have been wrongfully convicted. According to Proclaim Justice Villegas even got support John Mimbela, an activist from El Paso, who donated over $200,000 to help him win back his freedom.
Image via NDN video