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AUSTIN, Texas – The highest criminal court in Texas today threw out the death sentence of an American Civil Liberties Union client, ruling it was based on the false testimony of a state expert.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the death sentence of Manuel Velez after finding that the state’s expert on prison classification falsely told the jury in the case that, if sentenced to life in prison instead of death, Velez would be permitted lenient prison conditions allowing him to work outside the prison’s fence line.
The court found that both the expert, A.P. Merillat, whose false testimony resulted in the reversal two years ago of the death sentence given to another ACLU client, and the office of Cameron County District Attorney Armando Villalobos, who last month was indicted by federal prosecutors in connection with a bribery and extortion scheme, should have known the testimony was false, but presented it anyway, leading to an unjust death sentence.
“The Court once again has corrected an unjust death sentence based on untruth,” said Brian Stull, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Capital Punishment Project. “We applaud the Court’s decision and hope this is the beginning of the end of wrongful death sentences based on Merillat’s false testimony.”
Today’s decision reverses Velez’s death sentence, but his appeals are far from over. Based on the record the court received from the trial court, it upheld Velez’s conviction for first-degree murder in the killing of the infant son of his girlfriend. But new evidence – which the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has neither seen nor ruled on – casts substantial doubt on his guilt.
What neither the appeals court nor the jury knew was that abundant medical evidence shows that the child victim had suffered substantial head trauma before the two-week period he lived with Velez, including a subdural hematoma that, according to the state’s own neuropathologist, was inflicted at least 18 days before the child's death, when 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 inaccurately testified that the child was perfectly healthy before living with Velez.
“In future appeals, we look forward to proving Velez’s innocence of the crime, and seeing his release from prison,” said Stull.
This new evidence was presented in a January motion to set aside Velez’s conviction filed by pro bono lawyers from the Dallas law firm of Carrington, Coleman, Sloman, and Blumenthal and Rothberger, Johnson, and Lyons, a Denver firm.