AUSTIN, Texas — Shortly before noon today, Manuel Velez was a free man for the first time in nine years, leaving a Huntsville prison after being sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit. Velez, 49, was arrested in 2005 after the infant son of his girlfriend, Acela Moreno, died from head injuries. Both Velez and Moreno were charged with capital murder. Moreno accepted a plea deal in which she agreed to testify against Velez, and her testimony to the jury contradicted statements she had made to police that exonerated Velez. Most importantly, Velez’s original defense counsel missed key scientific evidence that proved his innocence.
Two weeks before the child died, Velez had moved into Moreno’s Brownsville home with her and her three children. On the afternoon of October 31, 2005, Velez noticed that the youngest, an eleven month old boy named Angel Moreno, was having trouble breathing. They called 911 and Angel was rushed to the hospital where he died two days later. After the child died, both Velez and Moreno were arrested. In a videotaped interview with police after her arrest, Moreno told them that Velez had never struck Angel or mistreated him, but her testimony in court omitted this and she testified that the child’s physical problems had only begun after Velez moved in with them. Moreno, an illegal immigrant from Mexico, ended up pleading guilty to a charge of having injured her child by hitting him or slamming his head against a wall, served ten years in prison, was released in 2010 and immediately deported back to Mexico.
In Velez’s case, the prosecutor’s argued that Angel had died from head trauma within the last two weeks of his life, when Velez was in the home, with the final fatal blow being caused by swinging or slamming the child onto a hard surface a few hours before he lost consciousness. However, a crucial report from a neuropathologist who had examined Angel’s body and brain tissue found a “well-developed” subdural hematoma, or buildup of blood outside the blood vessels, on the child’s brain. The neuropathologist’s report stated that this hematoma was at least two weeks old, specifically, between 18 and 36 days before the child’s death. In other words, the fatal injury occurred before Velez moved into the home. At the time, Velez was more than a thousand miles away, working on a construction job in Tennessee.
The critically important medical report from the neuropathologist was not mentioned by the prosecutors, Velez’s court-appointed attorneys failed to recognize its significance in the autopsy report, the neuropathologist was never called as a witness. Moreno’s relatives and other witnesses had also given statements that they had witnessed Moreno committing acts of abuse and neglect against the child, and Moreno herself admitted in the police interview that she had burned the child with a cigarette. Additionally, while the police had videotaped Moreno’s interview, they had not used the video camera when they took Velez’s statement. Instead, the police typed up two different statements in English after interviewing Velez, a native speaker of Spanish and seventh grade dropout who is functionally illiterate in both English and Spanish, and had him sign them.
After Velez was sentenced to death in 2009, Maurie Levin, a University of Texas law professor with UT’s Capital Defense Project, became aware of the case, and forwarded information about it to two law firms as well as the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project. The attorneys at the two firms, Carrington, Coleman, Sloman & Blumenthal and Lewis, Roca Rothgerber, and Brian Stull from the ACLU, agreed to represent Velez pro bono. The Texas Criminal Court of Appeals overturned Velez’s murder conviction last October and ordered a retrial. Despite the evidence that showed that Velez was more than a thousand miles away when the child’s fatal injuries occurred — evidence that the prosecutors have not disputed — the state was still pushing for a retrial and Velez’s attorneys advised him that there was a risk he could still be convicted. Velez accepted a plea deal for a lesser charge of reckless endangerment to a child, and was released today for time served.
>Breitbart Texas spoke to one of Velez’s attorneys, Stull of the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project, earlier today about the case. Stull posted a blog post on the ACLU website earlier today about the case and is traveling with Velez today from Huntsville to Brownsville, where he will be reunited with his family. Stull told Breitbart Texas that his immediate first impression of the case was that it was “a very, very thin circumstantial case and I [was] very concerned that an innocent man may be in jail for something he didn’t do,” and his very next thought was that Velez’s original defense attorneys did a “very, very, poor job” in representing him.
Stull also shared with Breitbart Texas his view of the combination of factors that led to Velez’s conviction, calling it “a complete system failure” that led to an innocent man being sent to death row. “The defense lawyers, who were supposed to defend him, fell down on the job. The prosecutors, who took an oath to do justice, committed misconduct. The science, that was supposed to inform the jury, was based on false premises and ignored evidence of innocence. The judge, who was supposed to preside over a fair trial, committed errors and then was sent to prison for taking bribes in other cases.”
Even worse, added Stull, was that it was a “complete fluke” that Velez was able to get “an army of lawyers” from the two firms and the ACLU to work on his case, a benefit that many indigent defendants never get. Had Professor Levin not noticed the case, and the lawyers not had the resources to work pro bono on Velez’s case, he would likely still be sitting on death row.
Because Velez did plead guilty to a crime as part of plea deal for his release, he leaves prison today with a criminal record and will have to report to a parole officer, among other restrictions. Stull told Breitbart Texas that he did not yet know whether they would seek to appeal to the governor for clemency or other relief. Today, however, Velez is focused on his happiness at being reunited with his family, especially his elderly parents and children. While in prison, Velez feared that he would be put to death before he could prove his innocence and would never see them again as a free man, and now he is heading for, as Stull described in his blog post, “one joyous reunion.”
Follow Sarah Rumpf on Twitter at @rumpfshaker.