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Martin Santillan

Other Dallas County, Texas exonerations
Shortly before 2 a.m. on July 14, 1997, after a day of golf, dinner and drinks with friends, 21-year-old Damond Wittman and some friends were smoking cigarettes in the parking lot adjacent to Club 212, a nightclub in the Deep Ellum music and arts district of Dallas, Texas.

A young Hispanic man approached and asked for a cigarette. Wittman obliged and lit it with his own cigarette. The man turned away and then turned back holding a gun. He pointed the handgun toward Wittman’s friends, Brian Mackin and Lori Fields, and demanded money.

Wittman attempted to kick the gun away, and then he and the gunman struggled. The gun was fired several times during the struggle. The gunman wrestled free and fled. Wittman had been shot several times. He died at the hospital.

The witnesses, which included two others who were also in the parking lot, all said the gunman had short hair, was 17 or 18 or “pretty young.” All said the gunman was wearing a black Dallas Stars hockey team jersey. A few blocks away, police found a black Dallas Stars jersey in the street. Five shell casings and a live bullet were found in the parking lot as well as a cigarette butt.

Two days later, the Deep Ellum Association offered a $5,000 reward for information. Not long after, a caller to Crime Stoppers said that the gunman was 23-year-old Martin Santillan.

Police created a photographic lineup containing Santillan’s photograph. Mackin viewed it and set aside Santillan’s photograph, but did not say he was the gunman. About 15 minutes later, Mackin identified Santillan as the gunman.

At the time, Santillan had a mustache, goatee, and a full head of hair, and wore earrings. None of the witnesses had listed any of those features in their initial descriptions of the gunman. They had described the gunman as either clean shaven or with a day’s growth of facial hair.

On July 22, 1997, Santillan was arrested and charged with first-degree murder.

He went to trial in Dallas County Criminal District Court in March 1998. Mackin identified him as the gunman.

The prosecution presented evidence that DNA testing performed on bloodstained areas of the Dallas Stars jersey identified Wittman’s DNA profile. DNA testing performed on the cigarette butt recovered from the scene excluded Santillan. The prosecution maintained that the cigarette was a Marlboro Lite and not the cigarette Wittman gave the gunman, which was a regular or Marlboro Red cigarette. There was no evidence connecting Santillan to the Dallas Stars jersey.

Santillan presented five witnesses who testified that he had gone with friends to the La Fantasia, a nightclub in a different part of Dallas. The witnesses said he arrived between 11 p.m. and midnight, and stayed until the club closed at 2 a.m. Afterward, Santillan went with family members to a different club.

Brian Smith testified he worked as a security guard at the La Fantasia bar. He said Santillan arrived there with two women. Smith said Santillan was wearing “gang-banger” clothing, which differed in style from what the club's other patrons were wearing. Smith testified he was suspicious of Santillan until Santillan’s sister, who was a waitress at the club, vouched for him. Smith said that Santillan’s brothers, Pedro and John, came to the club later. Smith said Santillan left after 2 a.m. Smith said Santillan was not wearing a Dallas Stars jersey.

Santillan testified and told the jury that, on the night of the shooting, his brothers had invited him to go to La Fantasia. He said he wore black pants, a black shirt, and a Duke [University] baseball cap. He denied being in Deep Ellum that night and denied shooting Wittman. He also denied knowing anything about the offense, owning a gun, or owning the Stars jersey recovered by the police.

Amber Chambers, Santillan’s ex-girlfriend, testified she used to launder Santillan’s clothes and had never known him to own or wear a Dallas Stars jersey. She testified she did not know where Santillan was at the time of the shooting, but admitted that she had previously told the police that Santillan had been with her the entire weekend of the shooting.

In rebuttal, the prosecution presented testimony from Mike Rodriguez, the former manager of Club 212, who testified that after the shooting, he had a phone conversation with Chambers, whom he had known for some time. Rodriguez said Chambers told him Santillan could not have done the shooting because Santillan had been involved in a car wreck that night. The defense contended, unsuccessfully, that this conversation happened after Santillan was arrested and charged with the murder and should not have been admitted in evidence.

Chris Corso, Rodriguez's brother, testified he was with his brother at their parents’ house the afternoon of July 14, 1997—about 12 hours after the shooting. Corso said that as he and Rodriguez were talking about the shooting, Chambers called. Corso testified that after listening to Rodriguez's portion of the conversation with Chambers, Corso was surprised how much Chambers knew about Wittman's shooting. (Corso subsequently made the call to Crime Stoppers and received the $5,000 reward.)

On March 5, 1998, the jury convicted Santillan of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to life in prison.

In May 2000, the Fifth District Court of Appeals affirmed Santillan’s conviction and sentence.

In 2002, Santillan filed a pro se motion for DNA testing. The motion was denied in 2004.

In 2009, the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) agreed to DNA testing, and Dallas-based Orchid Cellmark, one of the leading laboratories in DNA testing at the time, was retained to test the jersey and the cigarette butt. Using the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and AmpFISTR Identifiler™ Amplification Kit, Orchid Cellmark was unable to obtain a DNA profile from scrapings and swabbings of the inside neck area of the Dallas Stars jersey or obtain a DNA profile from the cigarette butt.

Thereafter, Santillan sought help from Centurion Ministries, a New Jersey-based non-profit organization that investigates wrongful convictions. In 2014, Centurion once again brought the case to the attention of the CIU, asking for more DNA testing, arguing that the technology had improved. The tests were performed. A partial DNA profile was identified by Bode Technology Laboratory, but no conclusions could be made.

In 2020, Alan Keel, of Forensic Analytical Crime Lab (FACL), was commissioned to reanalyze Bode's results. Keel concluded that Bode's results excluded Santillan as a contributor to the DNA profile on the jersey.

Keel also recommended further DNA testing based on new advances in the field. Specifically, Keel noted that in 2017 the FBI's Combined DNA Information System (CODIS) database had expanded the number of genes used in its profiles from 13 to 20. The FBI also began allowing more partially-degraded DNA samples to be searched in CODIS. Keel said that these changes made it possible to “produce DNA profile investigative leads from almost any human biology that can be recovered from physical evidence.” Moreover, probabilistic genotyping software now offered a way to interpret complex mixtures of small amounts of DNA from multiple contributors, like the profile on the jersey.

In 2021, Paul Casteleiro, Centurion legal director, and Cynthia Garza, head of the CIU, agreed to try more DNA testing. This round of tests was conducted by FACL using the Investigator 24plex STR kit and STRmix™ probabilistic genotyping software. FACL concluded that the samples from the jersey were mixtures containing DNA from between two and four people. However, there were two "major unknown contributors," one male and one female. The profiles of the two major contributors were submitted to CODIS in December 2021. The male profile did not turn up. However, analysts reported that a woman in the database was the source of the female profile.

At the request of the CIU, Dallas police located and interviewed the woman. She recalled that when she was 17 or 18, a boy she was dating, who was 16 or 17, wore a Dallas Stars jersey. She said that on one occasion, she saw him with blood on his hands, and he was not wearing the jersey he always wore. She said that he told her he got into a fight and threw the jersey away.

On December 13, 2022, a judge recommended that a state writ of habeas corpus vacating Santillan’s conviction be granted. On December 14, Santillan was released on bond.

On February 22, 2023, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted the writ and vacated Santillan’s conviction.

On March 21, 2023, the prosecution dismissed the case and announced that the person whose DNA was found on the jersey had been arrested in Colorado. Because the youth had been a juvenile at the time of the crime, his identity was not disclosed.

Dallas District Attorney John Creuzot, acknowledging the work of Garza and the CIU, said, “It remains our job to correct past wrongs, which is what the team in my office worked tirelessly to do. We owe it to Mr. Santillan to clear his name fully and completely. I sincerely apologize to Mr. Santillan and his family for this miscarriage of justice and I am proud to say that today justice has been done for him.”

Casteleiro, who was assisted by Dallas attorney Gary Udashen, declared, “Thankfully, the District Attorney’s Office was willing to listen and take action on what we presented to them. Mr. Santillan should never have been convicted. He had no connection to the Dallas Stars jersey, a truthful alibi based on the testimony of five witnesses, and the State’s case was based on an identification by a lone eyewitness who admitted to drinking throughout the day and night of the shooting.”

Santillan subsequently was awarded $2,033,333 in compensation by the state of Texas.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 3/28/2023
Last Updated: 1/12/2024
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1997
Age at the date of reported crime:23
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes