(CNN) — An intellectually disabled construction worker was freed Wednesday after nine years in a Texas prison, including four of them on death row, after his initial conviction for murdering a year-old infant was overturned.
Manuel Velez, whose IQ is 65 and who is functionally illiterate in his native Spanish as well as English, was convicted in Brownsville in 2008 for murdering the year-old son of his then-girlfriend. But the American Civil Liberties Union, which represented Velez in his appeal, said Velez was 1,000 miles away working construction in Tennessee when the child was injured.
Velez’s initial court-appointed attorneys failed to discover that evidence, and “after his conviction, Manuel received the death penalty, largely because a state prison expert presented false testimony to persuade the jury that Manuel would pose a danger to society if given life without parole instead,” the ACLU said.
On Wednesday, an ACLU attorney described Velez, now 49, as an innocent man who was put on death row for a crime he didn’t commit.
“Manuel never belonged in prison, let alone on death row waiting to be executed. He is indisputably innocent,” Brian Stull of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Capital Punishment Project said in a statement. “My joy for him and his family today is tinged with sadness for the years our criminal justice system stole from him, all because he was too poor to afford better counsel than the lawyer the state appointed to him.
“We should be ashamed of the errors that put Manuel on the brink of execution. He is far from the only innocent person to receive a death sentence,” Stull said.
Cameron County District Attorney Luis V. Saenz called Stull’s statement “factually inaccurate and full of half-truths.”
“Nowhere near the child”
Attorneys for the ACLU contended that prosecutor’s medical expert’s records showed “clear proof that the head injuries the baby sustained occurred when Velez was nowhere near the child,” the ACLU said.
During the trial, Velez’s court-appointed lawyer also failed to “discover and present the testimony of the many witnesses who said the girlfriend threw, hit, and dropped the baby and abused her children, while Manuel was never physically rough and always peaceful,” the ACLU said.
Velez’s attorney also “bungled his challenge to the typewritten statement that police persuaded Velez to sign, which said he had mistreated the child,” the ACLU said.
In fact, Velez was unable to read the statement, written in English, as he is functionally illiterate in both English and Spanish, the ACLU said. Also, Velez’ primary language is Spanish, and he is a seventh-grade dropout, the ACLU said.
Child’s mother pleaded guilty
The child’s mother, Acela Moreno, also was indicted for intentionally or knowingly causing the death of her son, Angel, by striking the boy’s head with a hand or unknown object or against a hard surface in October 2005, according to court papers provided by the ACLU.
Moreno accepted “a plea bargain offer” and pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of intentionally or knowingly causing bodily injury to her son, and she was sentenced to 10 years in prison, the court papers said.
In exchange for the reduced charge, Moreno agreed to testify against Velez, but stated that Velez didn’t strike her son on the day he was rushed to the hospital, where the child died two days later, the documents said.
A jury convicted Velez of capital murder and sentenced him to death.
An appeals court reversed the death sentence but affirmed the conviction in 2012, the court papers said.
Saenz, the district attorney, said the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals rejected all but one of the Velez legal team’s claims of 45 points of errors in the conviction. That one point of error was the testimony by A.P. Merillat, a prosecution expert on the death penalty.
‘Ineffective’ defense attorneys
Merillat, a former police officer, was condemned by Texas’ highest criminal court in 2012 for giving false testimony, the New York Times reported.
“In October 2008…Mr. Merillat testified that after 10 years of serving life without parole for Capital Murder, an inmate could gain a less restrictive classification from the Texas Department of Justice Institutional Division,” Saenz said in a statement.
“In September 2005, Texas Department of Justice Institutional Division changed its regulations and no longer allowed for a less restrictive classification for inmates serving life without the possibility of parole in Capital Murder cases. Based on that testimony, and based on that alone, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned the punishment of Manuel Velez,” Saenz said.
In 2013, Judge Elia Cornejo Lopez granted Velez a new trial “on the grounds of ineffective assistance of counsel because of the actions and conduct by both Hector Villarreal and O. Rene Flores,” the court papers said.
Villarreal was deceased at the time of the ruling, and Flores wasn’t immediately available for comment Wednesday.
The ACLU continued to criticize prosecutors Wednesday, saying that “after Velez’s conviction was overturned, and in the face of overwhelming evidence of his innocence, the State refused to dismiss the murder charge against him unless he took a plea,” the ACLU said.
Velez pleaded no contest to a lesser charge of injury to a child “rather than face a new trial that could be plagued by the same injustices that sent him to death row,” the ACLU said.
But in his statement Wednesday, Saenz pointed out that “at no point did any court, trial or appellate, or any jury make any finding that Mr. Velez was actually innocent of murdering Angel Moreno.
“In fact, every time the issue was brought up, it was found to be without merit. It was and continues to be the position of the Cameron County District Attorney’s Office that Manuel Velez did contribute to the death of Angel Moreno, and he was and is being punished for that crime,” Saenz said.
By Michael Martinez