Texas forced, once again, to release an innocent man from death row

Manuel Velez – a free man

A building worker from Texas, who was sentenced to death for a murder he did not commit, was released on Wednesday after spending nine years in prison, four of them on death row.

Manuel Velez, 49, emerged from Huntsville prison a free man at 11.32pm CT. He was arrested in 2005, and sentenced to death three years later, for killing a one-year-old who was partially in his care.

But over the years the conviction unravelled. Tests on the victim’s brain showed that Velez could not have caused the child’s head injuries. Further evidence revealed that the defendant, who is intellectually disabled, had suffered from woeful legal representation at trial, and that the prosecutor had acted improperly to sway the jury against him.

Golly – there’s a surprise.

Brian Stull, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union who has represented Velez since 2009, said that “an innocent man went to death row because the entire system failed him. The defence 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 recognised on appeal…”

…When lawyers with the private firms Carrington, Coleman, Sloman & Blumenthal, and Lewis, Roca, Rothgerber took up Velez’s case after he was put on death row, they were astonished by what they found. They discovered that expert opinion had been given in 2006 – fully two years before the trial – that destroyed the state’s case against him.

A neuropathologist had examined Angel’s body and recorded blood on the brain caused by a haematoma that was “well developed”. Crucially, the brain injury was at least two weeks old and was almost certainly inflicted between 18 and 36 days before Angel died.

The timing was critical, as Velez was not in contact with Angel until he moved into the Moreno home on 14 October, 17 days before the boy died. In fact, within the 18- and 36-day period specified by the neuropathologist, Angel was some 1,000 miles away in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was on a building job.

This key detail went unnoticed by Velez’s original defence lawyers who made nothing of it at trial, even though it had been prominently incorporated into the official autopsy report on Angel Moreno. The neuropathologist who made the finding was similarly never called as a witness…

The Texas criminal court of appeals, that set aside Velez’s murder conviction last October and ordered a retrial, observed that “family members and neighbours testified that they witnessed the victim’s mother neglecting and abusing [Angel] and his siblings in the months and weeks before his death.”

The team of defence lawyers also discovered other disturbing aspects about the case. When police officers interrogated Velez after his arrest in 2005 they did not record the interview on videotape, even though equipment was available in the police station. Instead, he was made to sign two separate statements that were written out in English, an odd requirement as Velez was a Spanish speaker with rudimentary English and was functionally illiterate.

Velez leaves prison with a criminal record. Despite the conclusive evidence that he was not in Brownsville at the time Angel received his head injuries, and despite the fact that the state of Texas has not disputed any of the facts in his appeal, the state continued to demand a retrial.

The ACLU advised him that he could not be guaranteed an acquittal, and that a further injustice was always possible. So Velez agreed to plead guilty to reckless injury to a child, leading to his release on time served.

He wanted to fight for his innocence. But even more he wanted to see his children who are almost grown up, and his parents who are getting old,” Stull said.

Texas justice continues to be a contradiction in terms. The same old story of cops, prosecutors, judges and politicians who just can’t stand to admit they do a crap job of overseeing justice.

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