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.Villegas was a juvenile, interrogated for hours late into the night, and got many facts wrong in his recitation of events, from where he shot the victim (in the back, he said, but in reality it was the front) to what sort of gun he used (Villegas said he used a shotgun; it was a .22 caliber pistol) and what kind of car he was in (he said a white sedan; witnesses said it was maroon). Then in 2011, in response to billboards placed around town asking for help, a witness came forward who saw the shooting and named the alleged real culprits, two brothers who police had questioned about the shootings but stopped pursuing after Villlegas' confession. One is now dead, the other is in federal prison on drug trafficking charges. The latter man was called to testify at Villegas' habeas corpus hearing but took the Fifth, refusing to testify because his testimony might tend to incriminate him. Remarkably, he did testify that the DA's office had never interviewed him in preparation for the habeas hearing.
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.
Often false convictions stem from a confluence of error as opposed to a single, well-defined cause and Villegas' case is no exception, combining pretty blatant ineffective assistance of counsel with the apparent false confession. Wrote Smith:
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.HB 1096, which if in place at the time would have required Villegas' entire interrogation to be recorded instead of only his confession statement, is one of two bills moving this session implementing key recommendations of the Timothy Cole Advisory Panel on Wrongful Convictions. Now the bill heads to the House Calendars Committee which so far has been extremely picky about which bills it's been posting for floor votes. This legislation, however, deserves an up or down vote by the full House sooner than later.
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 [John] 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.
See related Grits posts:
- Canales: Record custodial interrogations
- Record interrogations, reduce false confessions
- Police arguments against recording interrogations allow fear to impede self interest
- Latest exoneration highlights problem of false confessions
- Are false confessions 'coerced' or 'persuaded'?
- CCA orders Yogurt Shop retrial based on possibility of false confessions
- Jurors from false confession case call for recorded interrogations
- Recording interrogations makes loads of sense
- Expert: Yogurt Shop case a prime example of false confessions
- False confessions a "systematic feature of American justice"
- Recording confessions saves much grief for police
- Police interrogation a 'guilt presumptive' process
- Would you confess to a crime you didn't commit to save your life?
- If CIA can record interrogations, so can police
- Abilene PD requires recording interrogations
- El Paso conference brought together top minds to prevent false confessions
- Why record interrogations?
- Juries need more, better information to prevent false convictions