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Man serving life sentence granted new trial

By: Melissa Gundersen
EL PASO, Texas - After nearly two decades into his life sentence, a man convicted of shooting and killing two teens is getting a second chance.

Wednesday, a Texas state appellate court ruled 36-year-old Daniel Villegas is granted a re-trial. 

"We got our wish come true," said family member John Mimbela.

In 1995, Villegas was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to life in prison.

Two years before that, teens Armando Lazo and Robert England were gunned down in a drive-by shooting in northeast El Paso. Hours after the shooting, Villegas admitted to the crime. He later said that confession was coerced by detectives. Villegas was just 16 at the time. 

Defense attorney Joe Spencer said getting to this point has taken a lot of hard work and a lot of luck. 

"I think it's fair to characterize the court of criminal appeals in Austin as being very conservative. So they don't often grant rights to habeas corpus that are filed by the defendants," said Spencer. 

Spencer said strong evidence helped. 

"We put on evidence for almost 10 days to the trial court of all the reasons we believed Daniel received ineffective assistance of counsel, but more important, why we thought Daniel was innocent and who we actually thought the perpetrator was," said Spencer. 

More than one year ago, Judge Sam Medrano told a packed courtroom Villegas deserved a new trial. But giving Villegas a second chance, isn't up to just him, it's up to the court of criminal appeals.

Spencer said after their decision was handed down Wednesday, he went to the prison and spoke to Villegas.

"He cried, he made me cry. He has not been able to touch his daughters. Girlfriend was pregnant when he got put in prison, and he's never been able to have personal contact with his  daughters, so there are many things in Daniel's life that he would love to get back to; some sort of a normal type of life," said Spencer. 

While Spencer was brought on board three years ago, Mimbela has put in the most effort.

"We never gave up," said Mimbela. 

Mimbela first heard about the case eight years ago, after he married into the family. 

"I would hear them mention about having a son in prison for a murder he didn't commit, and at first I said, 'Well, I'm sure every parent wants to think that,'" said Mimbela. 

Then he started doing his own research. 

"I'm like, 'My God, it's true -- he didn't do it,'" said Mimbela. 

He's spent $200,000 on signs, T-shirts, buttons and rallies, and he even hired his own private investigator. 

"His confession is full on impossibilities, full of facts that weren't correct," said Mimbela. 

Mimbela says looking back at all the hard work, it makes today even more special.

"The saddest thing about this whole ordeal is when I would go visit Daniel in jail or prison and I got to go home to my family and he didn't. And now he's going to get to enjoy that," said Mimbela. 

Family members are hoping Medrano grants Villegas bond so he can spend Christmas and his January birthday with his family. Villegas' bond hearing is scheduled for Friday at 10 a.m.

Spencer said his trial should start at the beginning of 2014.

 

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