Wednesday, April 17, 2013

El Paso case highlights need for recording custodial interrogations

Rep. Terry Canales' HB 1096 requiring law enforcement to record custodial confession in the most serious cases passed out of the Texas House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee yesterday. Then, as if on cue, reporter Jordan Smith has published a story in The Nation this week describing an apparent false confession case out of El Paso. In 1993, Daniel Villegas was arrested for a drive-by shooting. Wrote Smith:
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 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.

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.

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.
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.

See related Grits posts:


Steve Henderson said...

“For our justice system to work it must make two important promises to its citizens: a fundamentally fair trial and an accurate result. 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.”

So very true!

Anonymous said...

When I was a kid, there was a case in which a 17 year-old kid was accused of murdering an elderly woman.

The 17 year-old confessed to the crime, but the manner in which his confession was obtained has always bothered me.

After hours of interrogation, the police sent in an officer who was "known for his ability to get confessions". This officer talked to the 17 year-old alone and unobserved and emerged a short time later with a typewritten confession that the 17 year-old refused to sign.

That's an instance where a video would be incredibly helpful in determining what happened, but at the time especially (this was the early 1980s), no one questioned the confession.

Years later, cold case detectives used DNA evidence to solve a very similar murder of an elderly woman in a nearby neighborhood that happened three months before the one the 17 year-old "confessed" to.

Granted, we can't revisit the 17 year-old's conviction since the evidence was thrown away (including semen samples that were thrown away before the trial even began) and the kid was executed a long time ago, so the possibility certainly exists that the unusual confession simply resulted in a guilty man getting what he deserved.

But it sure would've helped prevent some (though not all) later questions had a videotape been made of the man's interrogation and "confession"

rodsmith said...

LOL someone needs to tell the judge that "eventually" hit about 2 decades ago.

as for the original case.

I know a number of cops are crooked...just like everyone else. But this buch was pitiful. They were so sure nobody would give a shit they didn't even bother to feed the kid the RIGHT info.

as for the original judge. For him/her to replace the paid lawyer who was willing to stay for the 2nd ILLEGAL retrial and replace him with a overworked unqualified public defended 60 DAYS before the 2nd ILLEGAL trial. He/she needs to be imprisoned for treason for violation of his/her oath of office. I'm sure the other inmates can then issue the appropriate punishment this asshole deserves!