Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Daniel Villegas granted habeas relief, but not home for Christmas

After a year and a half delay since a trial court recommended he be freed and declared actually innocent, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals agreed to grant habeas corpus relief to Daniel Villegas last week (see earlier Grits coverage). But they denied his actual innocence claim with only the barest of explanations in a terse ruling, instead basing relief on ineffective assistance of his trial counsel. The El Paso Times reported that the trial court won't have jurisdiction over the case until January 13, for reasons I don't completely understand, at which time he's expected to be released on bond until the DA decides whether to re-try the case. (Most observers consider that unlikely; a recanted, apparently coerced confession contradicted by other witnesses was the only evidence against him.) Until then, Villegas, who was sentenced to life in prison in 1995, is waiting in the county jail while he, his family and supporters await a belated Christmas present in January.

There were a handful of other interesting habeas corpus writs granted on the same hand down list.

Serena Staglin of Dallas County had a capital murder conviction overturned and reduced to a second degree felony, for which she will now face re-sentencing. See the court's ruling. Staglin pled guilty to a second degree felony to avoid the capital murder charge, but at sentencing continued to insist on her innocence, causing the court to throw out her plea deal and order the capital murder trial to go forward. She was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment, but in her habeas writ argued that "she would have withdrawn her problematic testimony" if her lawyer had advised her of the consequences. The CCA reinstated the original plea deal and ordered her back to Dallas County for re-sentencing based on ineffective assistance of counsel. The sentence range for a second degree felony is 2-20 years; her capital murder sentence was life without parole.

Jamal Ahmed of Harris County was granted relief by the court after he was sentenced to four years in prison for a state jail felony, a crime for which the maximum sentence is only two years. Oops.

The CCA did grant one actual innocence claim last week after laboratory testing proved that Jerrell Bell, who was convicted in Harris County of possessing less than a gram of cocaine, in fact "did not possess a controlled substance." Seems like the crime lab should have caught that one on the front end, but at least his conviction was overturned.


Anonymous said...

Perhaps Jamal Ahmed should pursue relief in civil court as well. If that ain't ineffective Court-appointed counsel then I don't know what is.

Anonymous said...

Hey Grits excellent blog. Can people whose convictions are vacated after doing time get any money from a 42 USC 1983 suit? Is there a set amount texas pays for each year served? Too many rumours. Just need clarification

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@11:53 - They only get statutory compensation if the CCA approves an actual innocence claim or if the Governor issues a pardon for actual innocence. So Villegas would not be eligibile, for example, under this ruling, just like Fran and Dan Keller, the SA4, etc.. Having the conviction overturned isn't enough. If the court had agreed to the actual innocence claim, the compensation amount is $80K per year incarcerated and a like amount in an annuity.

If they sue under Sec. 1983, they have to litigate to get anything and then the amount is whatever a judge or jury decides, just like in any other lawsuit.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@ 11:53, an attorney friend emailed me this morning and part of it addressed your question:

RE: "the question asked by the commenter who asks if one can sue for wrongful conviction via the fed civ rights action 42 USC1983 etc. Yes one can do that, however there are the problems of immunity that frequently attach to the actions of a state agency, so if you win you lose when it comes to money for the wrong one has suffered. Above and beyond that point, our law office gets several calls a month from folks who seemingly have very good claims of being held in TDCJ past the termination date of their sentence. Is there relief for that? Yes, technically there is relief via the same federal civil rights act, however, unlike the courts in the North Eastern part or the North Western part of the U.S.A where inmates who suffer such wrongs can get some fairly decent damages and attorney fees for these wrong doings, in Texas the cost of such litigation and the prospect of winning with the current "Hands off prison issues" approach that exists in the 5th Cir is small. (However good for the recent District Court decision on heat in the La Prison).

"I recently looked back into the history of such litigated claims and the 5th Cir. A few decades back a few won on such claims, but there seems to be a lack of lawyers to pursue these claims. First, federal civil rights suits are expensive, one's recently released from prison client will not have the funds to finance such an effort. Historically the published opinions from the 5th Cir reflect little value in the pursuit of such actions, and frankly until TDCJ gets 'pinned' and has to give up some money over this common error, they just do not seem to care much."

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the instructive response Grits. But how about somebody who did time in TDCJ but their statute of conviction was later ruled unconstitutional by the CCA. Is such a person technically "innocent"?

Anonymous said...

The good old Texas Department of Criminal Injustice System seems to have a pattern of convict at all cost, innocent or not. Then it's up to the accused to try to prove innocence after the fact.

As Grits posted, until such time as someone gets deep into the pockets of TDCJ, not much is likely to change.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I don't offhand know the answer to that, 11:47. IANAL. Perhaps some attorney reader(s) can offer an informed opinion.

@1:24, of course, to be clear, it's local prosecutors securing convictions, not TDCJ. They just house them; the locals send them.