A construction laborer who spent nine years in prison — four on death row — was freed Wednesday after a judge ruled that the man's pro bono lawyers in South Texas did a shoddy job defending him.
"An innocent man went to death row because of a complete system failure," says Brian Stull, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney who represented Manuel Velez, 49, in the successful effort to overturn his 2008 murder conviction.
Velez was convicted and sentenced to death for the 2005 beating death of Angel Moreno, the 1-year-old son of a woman Velez was living with in Brownsville, Texas. The prosecution relied heavily on a timeline asserting that the fatal injuries occurred within the two weeks before the child died. Before those two weeks, Velez had been working in Tennessee for several weeks.
The jury never heard about a prosecution expert's report indicating that autopsy results showed that the critical head injury occurred more than two weeks before the child died.
The death sentence was overturned in 2012 in an appeal arguing that a witness on the subject of Velez's future capacity for being dangerous was no longer credible. The conviction stood.
Lawyers for Velez then sought to overturn the conviction on the grounds that his original lawyers, appointed by the court, made mistakes.
At a hearing for a new trial in December 2012, prosecutors argued that those lawyers — Hector Villarreal, who has since died, and Rene Flores — did the best they could and that the standard for good lawyers and top experts was lower in South Texas.
The judge hearing the motion for a new trial, Elia Cornejo Lopez, rejected the standards argument, writing that "a (defendant's) life in Cameron County is worth just the same as a life in other parts of the United States."
She granted a new trial. Earlier this year, prosecutors said they would no longer seek the death penalty in the case
The ACLU's Stull said Velez wanted to get out of prison as soon as possible and agreed in August to plead "no contest" to reckless injury of a child, allowing him to go free based on time already served and good behavior.
The case began on Halloween 2005, when Angel Moreno was found not breathing and was rushed to a hospital, where he died two days later, according to court records.
His mother, Acela Moreno, later pleaded guilty to striking her son on Oct. 31, 2005, and served five years of a 10-year sentence. She agreed to testify for the prosecution against Velez but never said she saw him strike her son.
The evidence portion of Velez's trial lasted seven days. In reviewing the record seven years later, Lopez found that Villarreal and Flores did a poor job representing Velez. They offered no medical evidence about the age of the child's injuries and failed to contact a neuropathologist who had examined the brain tissue for prosecution experts.
The neuropathologist concluded in a report that a crucial head injury had clearly occurred two weeks to six months before death.