Published August 11, 2012
Daniel Villegas was just 16 when he admitted killing two men in a drive-by shooting in El Paso, but after nearly two decades of professing his innocence from behind bars, he may be on the brink of a new trial.
Now 35 years old, Villegas continues to insist the recanted confession that helped a jury find him guilty was coerced. But as he awaits a judge's decision on whether he'll get a new trial, he has more than just his jailhouse claims to back up his story. A private investigator hired by friends of his family, a team from Northwestern University Law School's Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth and a pair of men exonerated after serving time for murder have taken up his cause. And Jesse Hernandez, who survived the shooting, says Villegas is not the killer.
"I believe with all my heart he is innocent," Hernandez told FoxNews.com. "I always thought I knew who else might have done it from the beginning. I had never heard of Daniel before."
Supporters of Villegas' innocence filed a writ of habeas corpus, citing ineffective assistance of counsel and actual innocence as their reasons for retrial. Texas 409th District Court Judge Sam Medrano plans to rule on Thursday on whether Villegas will get one last shot at freedom in what would be his third murder trial.
It was back in 1993, when four men, including Hernandez, Juan Carlos Medina and murder victims Armando "Mando" Lazo, 18, and Robert England, 17, were walking along Electric Avenue. A car with three occupants rolled up, and one passenger demanded "Que Barrio?" - slang for "what gang are you with?" Two men fled, two were left dead in a trash-strewn vacant lot.
England suffered a single gunshot wound to the head and died on scene. Lazo was shot once in the abdomen and once in the thigh. His body was found on the doorstep of a home across the street, where he'd managed to knocked on the door for help as his life slipped away.
Cops zeroed in on Villegas, a high school dropout and gang member who grew up in a tough neighborhood called the "Devil's Triangle" and told fibs to boost his street cred. They went to his house and arrested him.
“He was on the phone with his girlfriend in his bedroom when detectives came to our home," remembers Villegas' sister, Michelle Pena, who was 13 at the time. "It was totally unexpected. My mom and I were out. When we got back, the detectives walked in with us. I was very much in disbelief."
Hours later, cops had a confession from Villegas, who wrote and read at the third-grade level. In it, he noted the detective gave him a Coke and apologizes to the families of the victims. Villegas' team says he was threatened and slapped into a confession by then-detective Al Marquez, now a bailiff in another El Paso judge's court.
Beyond the confession, there was no physical evidence to tie Villegas to the crime. His first trial ended in a hung jury, but in the second trial, in 1995, the jury deliberated for three hours before announcing a guilty verdict. Villegas sentenced to life in prison.
Jaime Esparza, the district attorney for El Paso who has been working on this case since 1993, declined comment until after Thursday's hearing. But El Paso Assistant District Attorney John Briggs told FoxNews.com the jury got it right, and dismissed Villegas' claims of ineffective counsel.
"He has provided no new evidence, which is required for someone who is claiming actual innocence," Briggs said.
The driving force behind the campaign to win a new trial for Villegas is local contractor John Mimbela. After marrying a woman he met at a bank and adopting her three daughters, Mimbela learned the girls' uncle was in prison for a crime the family didn't believe he committed. He delved into the case, reading thick case files, hiring a private detective, and spending - by his count - more than $200,000 trying to prove Villegas was innocent.
"These overwhelming facts were never presented," Mimbela said. "He used to boast about a lot of things. That's what got him into this big old mess. He told his cousin 'I blew them away with a shotgun.' They never mentioned the shotgun part in court. I know that the crime was with a .22."
The detective Mimbela hired, Freddie Bonilla, reported back to his client that Villegas' court-appointed lawyer, John Gates, had dropped the ball, spending just 40 hours preparing for his trial. Gates even signed an affidavit saying he had not done his best to argue Villegas' case. Bonilla, a former El Paso Police Department homicide detective, said he doesn't take calling out his former department lightly.
"I wouldn't get involved with a case disputing the work of policemen unless it is something I knew didn't happen," Bonilla said. "I'm willing to bet my life on his innocence."
The story of a coerced confession rang true for Hernandez, who was also questioned following the murders.
"They tried to do that to me, but I kind of put things together," said Hernandez, now a city mechanic for El Paso. "They pushed him. They had other leads but they just dropped the ball and wanted the easy way out."
Joshua Tepfer, project director at the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth, told FoxNews.com evidence shows the murders were committed by are two brothers, Rudy and Javier Flores, who allegedly told a witness Villegas was in jail for a crime they did. Javier Flores has since died and Rudy is currently serving jail time for drug-related charges.
"We have new evidence from a third party witness for a prime suspect. This third party is a clear suspect in this crime and the evidence we have overwhelmingly meets the standard for a retrial," Tepfer said.
Medina, the other witness who was there that night, seems to believe Villegas is innocent, but he doesn't much care about what happens at the hearing.
"He took the rap for it for whoever it was," Medina told the El Paso Times. "But that is not going to get my friend out of the grave, that was my thought. It's hard to have feelings for him (Villegas), but I'm only human, too. I'm willing to give him that chance to prove himself ... if everything stays the same, that's OK, too."