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Daniel Villegas

Other El Paso Exonerations
Just after midnight on April 10, 1993, four young men – Jesse Hernandez, Juan Medina, Armando Lazo, and Robert England – were walking home from a party in northeast El Paso, Texas. They were at the intersection of Transmountain Road and Electric Street when a car pulled up beside them and someone from the passenger side began shooting.

Medina and Hernandez ran. England, who was 18, was shot once in the head and died in the street.  Lazo, who was 17, was shot in the abdomen and thigh. He made it about 100 yards to a house up the street, where his body was found after the residents called 911.

Witnesses said they heard a burst of gunfire -- five or six shots all at once -- and police recovered six .22 shell casings in the street.

In their initial statements to police on April 10, Medina and Hernandez said they could not identify the shooter or give a detailed description of the car, although they said it was probably red or maroon.

The investigation was led by Detective Alfonso Marquez of the El Paso Police Department. He brought Hernandez back for questioning on April 12. When Hernandez repeated what he knew and did not know, Marquez became angry and said that Medina had already told police that Hernandez had killed their friends. The interrogation continued, and Hernandez would later say he was close to confessing to a crime he didn’t commit.

Three days later, after receiving a tip, Marquez and other officers arrested Michael Johnston, who was 15. He was handcuffed to a chair, interrogated for eight hours, threatened with the death penalty, and told that his friends had already implicated him in the shooting. Marquez told the boy that he would be raped in jail if he did not confess. Johnston then gave a statement saying he shot Lazo and England. He was never charged, and Marquez would later acknowledge the confession was false.

On April 21, Marquez brought in David Rangel, who was 17, for questioning. Again, Marquez said that others had implicated Rangel in the shooting, and that if he didn’t come clean, he would spend the rest of his life in prison and be sexually assaulted because he was young and pretty. Rangel told Marquez that his cousin, Daniel Villegas, said he had shot Lazo and England with a sawed-off shotgun.  He added, however, that he was sure Villegas, who was 16, was joking, as he was always boasting about things that in truth he hadn’t done. After Rangel wrote down a statement that included the shotgun, Marquez told him to do it again, this time leaving out the type of weapon used.

The final statement Rangel signed was inconsistent with the statements of Medina and Hernandez, as well as the evidence gathered at the crime scene.  Rangel said that Villegas was in a black car, not a reddish car, and that Villegas had told him he chased Lazo and shot him a second time at the house, although no shells were found there.

That same day, Rodney Williams, who was 15, was brought in for questioning. A detective interviewed him but said the boy had nothing new to offer. Then Detective Scott Graves took over. Williams asked to see his mother. Graves refused the request. The interrogation lasted around six hours. Williams initially said he and Villegas were not involved with the shooting; they had been watching television at a nearby apartment. Graves said that was a lie. He told Williams he would go to prison where he would be raped, but that if he signed a statement implicating Villegas, he could go home.

In his statement, Williams said he and Villegas went out on the night of April 9, which was Good Friday, with Fernando Lujan, Marcos Gonzalez, and Enrique Ramirez, who was driving a white sedan. He said they stole a case of beer from a convenience store and just after midnight came upon the four young men on Transmountain Road. Some words were exchanged, and then Villegas started shooting. Williams said Villegas killed England first and then shot Lazo in the back as he ran away. Williams was charged with murder, although the charges were later dismissed for insufficient evidence.

At 10:00 p.m. on April 21, Gonzalez and Villegas were arrested at Villegas’s home. At the time, the police only had an arrest warrant for Gonzalez, who was 18.

After a delay of about an hour, Villegas was taken to Juvenile Investigative Services. He was handcuffed to a chair and questioned by Marquez, who threatened him and said he would take him to the desert and “beat his ass.” Villegas had never been interrogated before and would later say he was “terrified out of his mind.” Finally, Villegas agreed to give a statement. First, he said Williams did the shooting. Marquez slapped him and told him that was wrong and that he would die in the electric chair if he didn’t confess. During the next hour or so, Marquez and Villegas worked on Villegas’s confession. Marquez was also in communication with Graves, who was interrogating Gonzalez at police headquarters. The officers kept adjusting the two statements until they nearly matched (although still contained inconsistencies) and also more closely lined up with the statement given by Williams. Gonzalez was charged, but the case was later dismissed.

Villegas recanted his confession a few hours after signing his statement. He told a juvenile probation officer that “he didn’t do it,” and that he had confessed because he was tired and the police “were harassing him.” By then, it was too late. He was charged with capital murder.

Villegas’s first trial was in December 1994. He was represented by Jaime Olivas. Williams, Gonzalez, and Rangel all testified for the prosecution. Rangel maintained that Villegas had been kidding about his involvement with the shooting. Williams and Gonzalez said that their statements implicating Villegas were false and obtained through threats. Villegas also testified about Detective Marquez’s interrogation tactics. In addition, several defense witnesses said that Villegas was easily manipulated and had a history of lying. Villegas had dropped out of school in the seventh grade, and a forensic psychiatrist who examined him said he had emotional problems and possible mild mental retardation, conditions that would make him susceptible to police pressure. The trial ended with a hung jury, deadlocked at 11-1 in favor of conviction.

Villegas’s second trial was in August 1995. Jaime Esparza, the district attorney for El Paso County, was again the lead prosecutor, but Villegas, who had been declared indigent, now had a new attorney. Olivas had offered to again represent him, but that request was denied. Barely two months before the trial was to begin, the case was assigned to attorney John Gates. He had little time to prepare and didn’t ask for a continuance. Gates called only one witness, a sharpshooter who testified about how difficult it would be to shoot the two young men in the manner suggested by Villegas in his confession. In his closing statement, Gates said that Villegas had no intention of killing anyone; he had just been reckless.

On August 24, 1995, Villegas was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. He appealed his conviction, but his appeal was rejected by the Eighth Court of Appeals in 1997.
In 2007, Villegas filed for a writ of habeas corpus, seeking a new trial on the basis of ineffective counsel. The petition would later be amended to also include a claim of actual innocence, after two potential witnesses came forward. The Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth at Northwestern University School of Law assisted his team of local attorneys on the petition.

Judge Sam Medrano Jr. held hearings in 2011. On Aug. 6, 2012, he recommended that Villegas receive a new trial. Judge Medrano said Gates had provided ineffective counsel.
Judge Medrano said that Gates should have attacked the inconsistencies in the statements and testimony given by Villegas, Rangel, Williams, and Gonzalez. First, there was no evidence of beer being stolen that night from any of the convenience stores the young men mentioned. Second, Lujan and Ramirez couldn’t have been involved. Ramirez was in jail at the time, and Lujan was under electronic house arrest. Third, their statements about the shooting itself didn’t match the forensic and physical evidence.  Witnesses only recalled one burst of gunfire; there were no shell casings found near Lazo’s body; and nothing to suggest he had been shot while running away.

But rather than noting these inconsistencies, Gates had cut off his line of questioning in this area. Moreover, at the prosecutor’s request, he had stipulated to the state’s account of what the autopsy report concluded, although this account contained an error and an omission. It said Lazo had been shot three times, not twice, and it failed to note that the bullets had struck Lazo in the front. In closing arguments, Esparza used this misinformation to argue that Villegas had shot Lazo three times, which he said indicated an intent to kill (At the first trial, Esparza had correctly said Lazo was shot twice.).

In addition, Gates failed to challenge both the truthfulness of Villegas’s confession and the manner in which it was obtained. Marquez, Judge Medrano found, violated Villegas’s rights by delaying his intake at the juvenile center and not reading him his Miranda rights until more than an hour after he was in police custody.

The judge also found that there was new evidence of innocence.  Early in the investigation, police had interviewed Rudy and Javier Flores, two brothers who knew England and Lazo. Javier Flores, who was 20, and Lazo had fought at school. Rudy Flores, who was 15, had gotten in a heated argument with England and Lazo at a party two weeks before the shooting and threatened to kill Lazo. In addition, Javier Flores’s car, which Rudy occasionally drove, was similar to the one described by Medina and Hernandez, and he was seen just a few hours later firing a .22-caliber gun. Officers responded to that shooting and confiscated the weapon, but the ballistics tests were never released. Despite these leads and others, Marquez and the other officers dismissed the Flores brothers as suspects.

There was extensive publicity in El Paso about Villegas’s habeas motion. Jamarcquies Graves heard about the hearings and came forward at the urging of his girlfriend. He testified that he had heard the Flores brothers say that Villegas was being “locked up because he went down for something that they had did.”  Separately, a woman named Connie Martinez Serrano said she had gone to the Flores’s house after the shooting with another woman who was going to pick up a gun there. It was a .22, and the woman refused to take it after she learned it had been used. Serrano also said that a close friend of Rudy Flores had told her that Flores had admitted shooting Lazo and England. Serrano said she called Crime Stoppers several times, but was repeatedly told that the police had the right suspect in custody.

The state appealed Judge Medrano’s ruling, but the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled on Dec. 18, 2013 that Villegas was entitled to a new trial because of ineffective counsel. The court disagreed with Judge Medrano’s finding that Villegas had met the standard to show actual innocence. Villegas was released on bail on Jan. 14, 2014. The state prepared for a third trial.

That trial was supposed to begin in early 2015 but was delayed for several reasons. Villegas’s attorneys had moved to suppress his 1993 confession, and Judge Medrano ruled in late 2014 that it was inadmissible, obtained by “coercive conduct by police officers.” The state didn’t appeal that decision, but instead moved to have recorded prison telephone conversations between Villegas and his friends and family admitted into evidence. Judge Medrano ruled that those conversations could not be admitted, as did the Eighth District Court of Appeals, and then the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. 

The third trial began Oct. 1, 2018, after Villegas had rejected an Alford plea that would have allowed him to remain out of prison. This time, prosecutors couldn’t use his confession, and much of the police’s investigative work had been discredited. Instead, the state relied on Rangel, who again testified that Villegas had said he had shot the men. Under cross-examination, Rangel also said he knew his cousin was joking. In addition, a childhood friend, Oscar Gomez, testified that he told police in 2014 that Villegas had hinted to him in 1993 that he shot the men, although Gomez also testified that he only said that because the police were pressuring him, and he was afraid he would be put in jail over some traffic warrants. The jury deliberated for eight hours over two days before finding Villegas not guilty.

Prosecutor James Montoya said that despite the verdict, the El Paso County District Attorney's Office still believed that Villegas was responsible for the two deaths. “There are no other suspects. There is no one else to investigate. We believe when the defendant confessed to his cousin, to his friend that those were truthful confessions and that he was admitting his guilt.”

After the verdict was announced, Villegas went to pray at St. Mark Catholic Church. He said, “Even in court when we were waiting, people were coming up to us and saying, ‘We are rooting for you.’ Even law enforcement in the courtroom, I can’t say who they are, were even saying, ‘We are rooting for you. We are rooting for you.’”

Villegas filed a civil lawsuit in 2015 in U.S. District Court against the City of El Paso and several police officers, including Marquez and Graves, for violating his civil rights. That litigation was stayed pending the outcome of his third trial, but now is scheduled to move forward.
– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 10/15/2018
Last Updated: 8/5/2021
County:El Paso
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1993
Age at the date of reported crime:16
Contributing Factors:False Confession, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No