The legal system in Texas is littered with wrongful convictions and the sad stories of defendants who have languished in prisons for crimes they did not commit.
The case of Daniel Villegas appears to fall into an all too familiar pattern. As a young and vulnerable suspect he claimed detectives intimidated him into confessing to a double homicide he did not commit.
Villegas, 37 of El Paso, was released from prison on bond this month. He had been behind bars since 1995, reported NBC News.
He was imprisoned for half his life for a double homicide that “he, witnesses, and hundreds of supporters all maintain he did not commit,” the channel reported.
His conviction was largely based on a confession he made when he was 16 about a 1993 drive-by shooting in northeast El Paso that killed two people. Villegas claimed his confession was coerced by detectives who told him he would be raped in county jail and that he would get the death penalty.
He was released from prison after a hearing on Jan. 14. District Court Judge Sam Medrano set bond at $50,000 for Villegas.
“I never thought this day would come,” Villegas said in a report in the El Paso Times.
The District Attorney’s office has not yet said if it will seek a new trial for Villegas.
The NBC report referred to numerous discrepancies in the confession that led Villegas to receive a life sentence. For example, Villegas claimed he was riding in a white car the night of the crime, when the vehicle involved in the shooting was red, The Los Angeles Times reported.
Villegas quickly recanted his confession to the murders of Robert England, 18, and Armando Lazo, 17, but it was kept on file.
Villegas’ case attracted the support of a number of organizations including The Innocence Project, Northwestern University Law School’s Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth, and Proclaim Justice, as well as John Mimbela, an El Paso businessman who spent more than $200,000 trying campaigning for Villegas.
Paul Cates, communications director for The Innocence Project, told NBC “young people and people with mental disabilities are more susceptible to false confessions.”
Texas leads the nation in terms of the number of exonerations for wrongful convictions. Last year, Texas Governor Rick Perry signed Senate Bill 1611, more commonly known as the Michael Morton Act, which aims to reduce the number of wrongful convictions in the state.
Few cases illustrate the deficiencies in the state’s criminal justice system more that of Michael Morton. Morton wrongly spent 25 years in jail for the murder of his wife Christine.
Eventually DNA revealed another man committed the murder. In March 2013, a jury convicted Mark Alan Norwood of the crime.
A report released last year highlighted 117 exonerations in Texas, the highest number for any U.S. state.