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Texas man free on bond after murder conviction is overturned

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HOUSTON — A Texas man was released on $50,000 bond  Tuesday in El Paso, nearly 20 years after he was imprisoned for a pair of fatal drive-by shootings he insists he did not commit.

Prosecutors were deciding whether to retry Daniel Villegas, 36, who had been serving a life sentence for the 1993 murders of Robert England, 18, and Armando Lazo, 17. His 1995 conviction was based almost entirely on a confession that he quickly recanted, saying he had been coerced. An appellate court vacated it last month.

After El Paso District Judge Sam Medrano ruled that Villegas could be released while prosecutors considered a retrial, Villegas turned to his attorney and said, “Thank God.”

“Then he told me that he wanted to go to a church,” said the attorney, Joe Aureliano Spencer Jr.

Villegas was freed about 11: 30 a.m. and greeted by a crowd of family and friends, some of whom accompanied him to St. Pius X Catholic Church, then to lunch to celebrate his belated birthday.

“They’re very grateful, so thankful to finally get Daniel home and get justice for him, and this is just the first step,” Spencer said.

Medrano gave prosecutors a week to decide whether to retry Villegas. The judge set a hearing for Jan. 21 and said that if prosecutors have not made up their minds by then, he will set the case for trial.

Prosecutors spoke with Spencer after Tuesday’s hearing.

“They indicated to me they are looking at the case again and evaluating their position, what they’re going to do,” he said.

Villegas was a 16-year-old high-school dropout from a low income neighborhood at the time of his arrest. He had never been booked for a crime more serious than breaking curfew.

The conviction was based almost entirely on his one-page dictated confession, which did not match the facts of the case. Villegas claimed that he rode in a car driven by a man who, it turned out, was in prison at the time of the killings. Villegas said the car was white; the one used in the killings was red. He bragged to a cousin about using a shotgun, but evidence indicated the weapon was actually a small-caliber handgun.

When Villegas recanted, he said police had told him that if he did not confess, he would be raped in prison and would receive the death penalty. The only physical evidence was shell casings. There was no DNA.

“When you do have DNA, it makes it much easier to argue there was a false confession or that it was coerced,” Spencer said. “But the public have to realize that DNA and other evidence are completely controlled by law enforcement. So if they don’t collect the DNA evidence, there isn’t anything left to exonerate.”

El Paso County Dist. Atty. Jaime Esparza, who was newly elected when he tried Villegas, did not return a phone call Tuesday, but has told The Times  that Villegas received a fair trial.

Esparza’s spokeswoman, Renee Railey, did not return calls or email Tuesday, but has said prosecutors will need to carefully review the case before determining whether to retry Villegas.

At trial, Villegas’ attorney failed to call key witnesses, the appellate court ruled, including a young woman who was prepared to testify that Villegas was baby sitting at the time of the shooting.

As Villegas and his family appealed, they attracted numerous legal professionals and advocates, including some from the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth at Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago.

Villegas drew support from hundreds of people in El Paso,  including two men who survived the shooting and the foreman of the jury that convicted him. His case drew attention to the number of suspects nationwide who were convicted after false confessions.

Nationwide, 1,284 people have been exonerated since 1989, including 158 that involved false confessions, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.

Advocates for the wrongfully convicted say false confessions are a persistent problem nationwide, particularly among juvenile suspects like Villegas, and have lobbied states to pass laws requiring that interrogations be recorded. A Texas proposal failed last year.

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

Staff writer Scott Gold in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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