Manuel Velez was on death row in Texas for four of the nine years he had been incarcerated. Last week it was disclosed he should never have been in jail, let alone facing the death penalty.
The 49-year-old building worker from Texas was released from Huntsville prison a free man last week. He was arrested in 2005, and sentenced to death three years ago for killing a one-year-old who was partially in his care.
Over the time he had been in jail his conviction has unraveled. CNN reported Velez has an IQ of just 65 and is functionally illiterate in his native Spanish as well as English. He was convicted in Brownsville, Texas in 2008 of murdering the son of his then-girlfriend. The American Civil Liberties Union, which represented Velez in his appeal, said Velez was 1,000 miles away at the time of the crime, working construction in Tennessee.
It seemed like a major flaw in the case, but ACLU said Velez’s initial court-appointed attorneys failed to discover his whereabouts and, after the conviction, Manuel received the death penalty, largely because a state prison expert put forward false testimony to persuade the jury that he would pose a danger to society if given life without parole instead.
Furthermore, tests on the victim’s brain showed Velez could not have caused the child’s head injuries.
Brian Stull, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, has represented Velez since 2009. He said “an innocent man went to death row because the entire system failed him. The defense counsel who are meant to defend him let him down, the prosecutor who is meant to secure justice committed misconduct, and even the judge made errors that were recognized on appeal.”
The event that would put Velez on death row occurred on Oct 31, 2005. Two weeks earlier the construction worker had moved into the Brownsville home of his new girlfriend, Acela Moreno, then aged 25.
She had an 11-month-old boy called Angel Moreno, and that Halloween the two adults were between them caring for the child. At a point in the afternoon Velez noticed that Angel was having breathing difficulties, and they called 911. The infant was rushed to hospital where he died two days later.
Both Velez and the victim’s mother, Acela Moreno, were charged with capital murder. The mother accepted a plea bargain with the state of Texas before the trial in which she pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of having injured her child by hitting him or slamming his head against a wall.
She was sentenced to 10 years in jail. She was released in 2010, and immediately deported to her home country, Mexico.
If the system had worked as it should have done, Velez’s supporters argued the court-appointed attorneys would have realized that Velez could not have possibly delivered the blows that killed the infant. Records kept by the prosecutor’s own medical examiner contained clear evidence that the baby had sustained the injuries when Velez was 1,000 away, on a construction site in Tennessee. There was also evidence that Moreno routinely hit her children. On one occasion she had thrown Angel onto a couch from five feet away. But the lawyers failed to call any of the witnesses with this information to testify.
Miscarriages of justice are discovered with alarming regularity in Texas. In fact, Texas leads the nation in exonerations. If you are charged with a serious crime, it’s vital to hire an experienced defense attorney who will leave no stone unturned to ensure all of the evidence is presented in the case.