Thursday, October 24, 2013

Capital case overturned because ineffective counsel failed to challenge flawed forensics

The Court of Criminal Appeals yesterday granted a habeas writ from Manuel Velez, a capital defendant out of Brownsville whose case was the subject of an investigative report by Pam Colloff at Texas Monthly earlier this year. They found Velez's defense counsel were ineffective, improperly failing to investigate the case or to call rebuttal experts to challenge questionable scientific evidence establishing the timing of abuse to the victim, 11-month old Angel Moreno. Here's Colloff's description of the disputed evidence:
Velez’s attorneys won the right to hold an evidentiary hearing, which took place last December. During the weeklong proceeding, not one of the seven medical experts who testified supported the state’s theory of the case. The state’s own expert witness, Dr. Norma Farley—who conducted the autopsy back in 2005—backed away from much of her original trial testimony, in which she stated that all of Angel’s injuries had taken place within two weeks of his death. Some, she allowed, could be 20 to 36 days old. Two forensic pathologists and a neurological surgeon testified that Angel’s skull fractures were more than two weeks old, and perhaps months old. Forensic pathologist Dr. Janice Ophoven explained that not much trauma was needed to push Angel into a critical state on October 31, 2005, if his brain was already swollen from head trauma. A rapid increase in head circumference is evidence of “increased intracranial pressure,” she said, which made the boy “a time bomb.”
The CCA's ruling suggested that the victim's mother - who Colloff noted received a lenient plea deal in exchange for her testimony against Velez, though his lawyers did not disclose that to the jury - may have been the real culprit: "Family members and neighbors also testified at the habeas hearing that they witnessed the victim's mother neglecting and abusing him and his siblings in the months and weeks before his death. during tht time they also observed that he displayed symptoms, such as lethargy, that were consistent with head trauma."

The high court ruled that the record supported the district judge's conclusion that "there is a reasonable probability that, but for defense counsel's failure to investigate and present evidence, the outcome [of the case] would have been different." The case now heads back to the Cameron County DA who must decide whether and how to proceed.

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