Daniel Villegas’ settlement — Updates on his civil suit

Daniel Villega

Daniel Villegas spent 23 years and six months in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. In 1995, Villegas was convicted of killing Armando Lazo and Bobby England on 10th April 1993, murders known as the ‘Good Friday killings’ in El Paso. 

The Eighth Court of Appeals rejected his appeal in 1997. Ten years later, Villegas filed for a writ of habeas corpus based on ineffective assistance of counsel and a claim of actual innocence. 

Villegas’ appeal for a new trial exposed the illegal practices used by police officers to frame Villegas for the crimes. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted Villegas a new trial, in which he was acquitted and set free. 

A jury will specify the amount of compensation Villegas gets

In 2015, Villegas filed a civil suit against El Paso Police citing numerous constitutional rights violations. Villegas claimed the officers who investigated him used threats of physical assault and inmate rape to coerce false statements from him and other teenagers. 

Villegas accused the police officers named in the suit of ignoring procedures mandated by Texas law for the treatment of juvenile suspects. He also claimed that police didn’t have probable cause to arrest him. 

The suit claims that Villegas was taken into custody, handcuffed to a chair, and harassed for a confession. It adds that officers told Villegas he would get ‘fucked in jail’ if he didn’t confess. 

Investigator Alfonso Marquez reportedly said he would ‘drive him out to the desert, handcuff him to the car door and kick your ass’ and then make him walk back to town where Marquez told him he would ‘personally… put you in the tank with a bunk of fat faggots, and they’re going to rape you’. 

The lawsuit claims that investigators tore up Villegas’ statement of innocence. It reads:

“Defendant slapped Mr. Villegas and told him he would be executed, and that Marquez would pull the switch on the electric chair himself, if Mr. Villegas did not confess to being the shooter.”

“Eventually, at 2:40 am on April 22, 1993, the defendant officers’ coercion forced Mr. Villegas to involuntarily sign a one-page typewritten false statement that had been prepared by defendant Marquez,” it adds. 

The lawsuit states that Villegas recanted the statement almost immediately and told a juvenile probation officer that police had coerced him into confessing. 

The suit asks a jury to determine Villegas’ compensation. “This lawsuit can never repair the damage that was done to Daniel Villegas, but it’s an effort that he can do to get some modicum of justice for all that he’s lost,” Russell Ainsworth, Villegas’ attorney, told The El Paso Times

Villegas says adjusting to life as a free man has been difficult

When Villegas was exonerated, he’d spent more than half his life in prison. He’d missed the birth of his daughter in 1994 and missed the opportunity to watch her grow. Villegas had accepted that he would likely die in prison. 

“[Villegas suffered] numerous instances of physical abuse perpetrated by both guards and prisoners … and must now attempt to rebuild his life without the benefit of two decades of life experience that ordinarily equip adults for that task,” his lawsuit reads

In December 2021, Villegas talked about the challenges of adjusting to free life after spending decades in prison. KTSM reports that in the days and weeks following his acquittal, Villegas would wake up and knock on the walls of his home to confirm that he was truly free. 

“It’s an effect that lasts for a lifetime,” Villegas said during a discussion on ‘false confessions’ at the University of Texas. Villegas said that despite his acquittal, his initial conviction affects his life. He explained:

“I tell them, look, it says I am acquitted. And, they say it doesn’t matter ‘you’ve been charged with capital murder, we don’t want you on the school premises.’”

Villegas said his experience has made routine tasks, like getting a driver’s license, difficult. He said that people send him threats via emails and social media. “In my mind, I was going to die in prison,” Villegas said. “After like a year, or so, you start realizing how much they took from you.”

Villegas works at the Christina Montes Law Firm, KTSM reports. His Facebook shows that despite occasional struggles, he’s enjoying life with his family. As he concluded, Villegas told the people gathered at the University of Texas:

“We need to focus more on people before they go to trial and get convicted. Because once you get convicted and are in prison, you come out, and you’re never the same. That’s why it’s so important for all the defense attorneys, for everybody to do their job right.”

Prosecutors insisted that the jury erred in acquitting Villegas

Investigators got to Villegas after forcing his acquaintances to point accusing fingers at him. The statement the police forced Villegas to sign implicated him but had glaring inconsistencies. 

During Villegas’ first trial, a forensic psychiatrist testified that Villegas had possible mild retardation and emotional problems, which would make him susceptible to police pressure. Villegas was convicted, but a closer look at his case found that Police had ignored credible leads to the actual killers. 

At a party, Rudy Flores had threatened to kill England and Lazo two weeks before the party. His brother, Javier Flores, drove a vehicle similar to the one described by witnesses of the shootings. 

Javier owned a weapon similar to the one used in the shooting. Police confiscated the .22-caliber gun but never released the ballistic report. 

Further, a woman named Connie Martinez Serrano said she had gone to the Flores residence to pick up the weapon hours after the shooting. However, she refused to take the gun after learning it had been used. Connie added that Rudy had confessed to the murders to a friend. 

The Flores brothers reportedly said Villegas was being ‘locked up because he went down for something that they had did’. Connie called the police several times to report Rudy and Javier, but investigators insisted they had arrested the correct suspect. 

“Defendant officers had tunnel vision,” Villegas’ suit reads. “They ignored evidence and failed to pursue leads that might contradict their fabricated evidence implicating Mr. Villegas.”

Despite the overwhelming evidence showing Villegas was framed, prosecutors insisted he was the killer. After his acquittal, prosecutor James Montoya said:

“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, Villegas went to St. Mark Catholic Church to pray. He stated: “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.’”