Daniel Villegas spent 18 years in prison and went through three trials before being exonerated. When the judge read the “not guilty” verdict, Villegas collapsed to the floor with relief.
Surrounding him were his loved ones, who were along for the 25-year nightmare, which also included many appeals. After the verdict was read, they joined Villegas to pray at a nearby church.
Outside the church, Villegas addressed a group of people — his supporters, who believed in his innocence.
“Thank you to all of El Paso,” Villegas said. “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. I just wanted to thank all of El Paso for having my back. Thank you for being there because that helped me a lot. That helped me have strength.”
In 1993, Villegas was up for capital murder charges involving the deaths of two teens. Out of the three trials, one ended in a mistrial, another sentenced him to life in prison and the third was the one that exonerated him.
Villegas’ case is not unique, either. The United States has the highest mass-incarceration rate in the world and a very broken system. Combine the two and you have a lot of innocent people spending their lives in prison.
“I am thankful for Daniel and his family,” Villegas’ lawyer Joe Spencer said. “I can’t even imagine what that young man and his family have been dealing with for a quarter of a century.”
According to the American Bar Association, “…the vast majority of wrongful convictions in the United States are not caused by mere accidents within the legal process. Instead, much more troubling patterns of police or prosecutorial misconduct, use of knowingly false testimony, and racial bias emerged.”
Proving racial bias is a factor in wrongful convictions, the Death Penalty Information Center found that 63.8 percent of wrongfully convicted death-row exonerees are people of color. And at the root of it are the people “upholding” the law, with 95 percent of wrongful conviction cases involving misconduct or perjury.
Villegas is just one example of how the United States justice system is not as just as it likes to say it is.