AUSTIN, Texas — Earlier this month, Manuel Velez was released from prison in Huntsville, after being sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit, the murder of his girlfriend’s infant son. Breitbart Texas had the full story on the day of Velez’s release, including an exclusive interview with Brian Stull, one of Velez’s attorneys. Velez’s original defense attorneys had failed to notice the significance of a report by a neuropathologist that showed that the child’s fatal head trauma had occurred when Velez was known to be out of state. However, because of the plea deal that was struck for Velez to be released, he will be unable to collect anything under the Texas law that compensates those who have been wrongly convicted.
The Texas law, signed by Governor Rick Perry in 2009, provides $80,000 per year for every year wrongfully spent behind bars, as well as an annuity payment for the lifetime of the exonerated person (ranging from about $40,000 to $50,000 per year), plus benefits like medical and dental services, job training, and tuition assistance. This law provides one of the most generous compensation packages in the country for the wrongly convicted. According to the Austin-American Statesman, Texas has paid over $65 million to the wrongly convicted since 1992, with over eighty percent of that figure being paid out since the 2009 law was passed.
As Breitbart Texas previously reported, despite the evidence that showed that Velez was more than a thousand miles away when the child’s fatal injuries occurred, the prosecutors never stopped pushing for a retrial. In fact, the prosecutors were so insistent on their view of the case, District Attorney Luis Saenz released a statement on the day Velez was released, still maintaining that Velez played a role in the child’s death and accusing Stull of making statements that were “factually inaccurate and full of half-truths.” In an email to Breitbart Texas, Stull responded to Saenz’s statement: “We stand on our statements, and each and every one of them is amply supported by the record.”
Considering the position taken by the prosecutors, Velez’s attorneys advised him that there was still a risk of getting convicted for the crime, and he accepted a plea deal for a lesser charge of reckless endangerment to a child, to be released for time served.
That plea, according to University of Texas law professor Jennifer Laurin, disqualifies Velez from receiving compensation. “In Texas, a precondition to obtaining compensation [under the law] is a declaration of innocence,” Laurin told Breitbart Texas, and Velez “legally admitted some guilt.” Laurin also noted that generally exonerees have two routes to compensation: federal and state. Because Velez is not eligible under the Texas statute, his only available remedy is under federal law, by filing a lawsuit alleging a violation of his civil rights.
These federal civil rights actions involve complex legal arguments that an exoneree’s constitutional rights were violated by the government’s actions and are “not a slam dunk,” according to Laurin. “There’s an awful lot of bad stuff that’s not unconstitutional.” Even the way the police had Velez, a native speaker of Spanish and seventh grade dropout who is functionally illiterate in both English and Spanish, sign confession statements in English, would be challenging to prove rose to the level of a violation of constitutional rights.
At the time of publication of the original Breitbart Texas article on this story, we had not been able to verify Velez’s immigration status. Velez’s girlfriend had been in the country illegally and was deported back to Mexico after her sentence ended in 2010. Stull, Velez’s attorney, has confirmed for Breitbart Texas that Velez is an American citizen.
Velez is now reunited with his family in Brownsville. In an interview with the Texas Observer after he was released, Velez expressed gratitude for the pro bono legal team that had helped get him released, and joy at his freedom and getting to be with his family again. “But now…thanks to all these people, supporting for years–they did a great job, right? A super job. Every day, nights, for years,” he said. “Now I’m a free man. Now I can be with my family.”
Follow Sarah Rumpf on Twitter @rumpfshaker.