An almost-certainly innocent man was spared from death at the hands of the state of Texas yesterday when the highest criminal court in Texas threw out the death sentence of ACLU client Manuel Velez, ruling it was based on the false testimony of a state expert.
Velez was awaiting execution after the state’s expert witness falsely told the sentencing jury that, if sentenced to life without parole instead of death, Velez would be permitted lenient prison conditions and thereby pose a greater threat of danger to the public.
Yesterday the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed Velez’s death sentence – finding that both the expert and the prosecutor knew or should have known that this testimony was false but presented it anyway, leading to an unjust death sentence.
The court’s ruling relied on a previous precedent, State v. Estrada, in which the court found nearly identical false testimony by the same very same expert, A.P. Merillat, to be erroneous and cause for reversing a death sentence. Merillat has long been a fixture in Texas death-sentencing trials, testifying in numerous cases leading to death sentences.
While the court reversed Velez’s death sentence, his conviction for the 2005 murder of his girlfriend’s one-year-old son stands. But new evidence casts substantial doubt on his guilt.
In upholding Velez’s conviction, the appeals court cited evidence suggesting that the young victim was perfectly healthy before he and his mother moved into a home with Velez some two weeks before the child’s death due to apparent head injuries. The court (and the jury) therefore concluded that Velez must have caused the child’s head injuries.
What neither the appeals court nor the jury knew was that abundant medical evidence shows the child had suffered substantial head trauma before the two-week period he lived with Velez, including a subdural hematoma that was inflicted (according to the state’s own neuropathologist) at least 18 days before the child’s death, at a time when Mr. Velez was in Tennessee. Additionally, the child’s medical records, which were available to the prosecution and defense counsel but not presented to the jury, established that he had suffered serious head trauma much earlier, which caused a documented increase in head circumference that was not mentioned by the doctor who testified (inaccurately) that he was perfectly healthy before living with Velez.
This new evidence has been presented in a motion to set aside Velez’s conviction, but until then he sits behind bars, hoping to one day be counted among the hundreds of known innocents who spent years locked up, often because of the false testimony of witnesses or experts. Until then, at least we can celebrate that he has avoided the fate of many who have been executed despite considerable doubt of their guilt.
Read more about Velez’s case here.