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 11.32 pm 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 unraveled. 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.
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 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 31 October 2005. Two weeks earlier the construction worker had moved into the Brownsville home of his new girlfriend, Acela Moreno, then aged 25.
She had a boy, 11 months old, 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.
Initially, both Velez and the victim’s mother, Acela Moreno, were charged with capital murder. But before the trial began, the mother accepted a plea bargain with the state of Texas in which she pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of having injured her child by hitting him or slamming his head against a wall.
For that she was sentenced to 10 years in prison. She was released in 2010, and immediately deported to her home country, Mexico.
As part of the plea deal, Moreno agreed to testify against her boyfriend. Despite the fact that she had told police in a recorded interview at the time of her arrest that Velez had never struck Angel or mistreated him in any way, she did not say that to the jury. Instead, she told the court that her son’s physical problems had only started when Velez moved in to her home two week’s before the child’s death.
The state’s case against Velez was that Angel had died of a head trauma that had been inflicted on the child within the final two weeks of his life. The final fatal blow, caused by swinging or slamming the infant into a hard surface, occurred no more than a few hours before he was found unconscious, prosecutors told the jury.
But 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 neuro-pathologist had examined Angel’s body and recorded blood on the brain caused by a hematoma 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 neuro-pathologist, 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 neuro-pathologist who made the finding was similarly never called as a witness.
As the lawyers, working alongside the ACLU, delved further into the case they began to find other evidence relating to Angel’s mother, Acela. Members of her family testified that they had seen Moreno neglect and abuse her young son; her sister revealed that Moreno had admitted to her that she had bitten Angel on the face.
In her own videotaped interrogation by police – again fully available to defence lawyers at the time of the trial – Moreno had admitted that she had burned Angel with a cigarette. She also told detectives: “I may have burned Angel’s foot when I carried him, but only once.” Another witness recalled seeing Acela fling her baby son five feet onto a couch when she grew incensed by his crying.
The Texas criminal court of appeals, that set aside Velez’s murder conviction last October and ordered a re-trial, observed that “family members and neighbors 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.
Velez will travel on Wednesday more than 400 miles from Huntsville back to Brownsville, where he will be reunited with his two sons, Jose Manuel, now 15, and Ismael, 1