NewsChannel9 is waiting on the Criminal Court of Appeals to decide this month when the man – once tried and found guilty of double murder – goes back to trial for the third time. It was a capitol murder case that put two names the national spotlight: District Attorney Jaime Esparza and Daniel Villegas.
After his convictions were overturned nearly 2-years ago, Esparza had the choice to let Villegas go, or take him to trial one last time. NewsChannel9’s Faran Fronczak asks why is Esparza unwilling to let Villegas go?
It was Good Friday, 1993. Around midnight, 4-teenage boys walking in Northeast El Paso were gunned down.Two made it out alive, and two were killed: Robert England and Armando Lazo. It was 10-days later that 16-year old Daniel Villegas was brought in for questioning, and never walked out. Villegas confessed to murder.
District Attorney Jaime Esparza had just been elected. Committed to putting a stop to the recent uptick in the city’s gang violence, Esparza chose to try the case personally. It was his first case as D.A.
Villegas’ first trial ended with a hung jury. In 1993, Esparza said, “It’s unfortunate that we weren’t able to convince that one juror of the defendent’s guilt.” So, Esparza chose to try the case again, but the second time around, Villegas had an appointed defense attorney. The jury found him guilty and sentenced him to life in prison at just 18-years old.
When the Villegas family and John Mimbela, an advocate for Daniel’s innocence, walked into the law offices of Joe Spencer, Villegas had been behind bars for most of his life. Spencer says, “They go, ‘You don’t understand, he’s innocent.’ And I go, ‘Even if he is, this is going to be very difficult.'”
Villegas has always maintained he was coerced to confess to the murders of England and Lazo by then El Paso Detective Alfonzo Marquez. Spencer says during the trial, “[Esparza] relied on the detectives that did the investigation. He believed what Detective Marcus was telling him and had no idea of Detective Marcus’s reputation at the time when he took office. So I think when Jaime Esparza prosecuted Daniel Villegas, he did so in good faith because he believed that’s what the facts were.”
After an appeal and an evidentiary hearing in 2014, Villegas was granted a new trial by Judge Sam Medrano, and walked out of prison on bond. At the time, Assistant DA John Briggs said, “We can either continue on towards trial or at some point if we decide if that’s not the appropriate thing in this case, then I suppose we could ask the court to dismiss the charges.”
But Esparza, refusing to give up, plans to take Villegas back to trial. Spencer says, “The problem they’re going to have is they have no evidence going forward… I was stunned by the lack of physical evidence, witness identification, forensic evidence to tie Daniel there.”
Some of the evidence Esparza wants is in jeopardy. Last year, he brought to Judge Sam Medrano nearly 1,400 hours of prison calls that the prosecution says incriminates Villegas. Spencer describes the phone calls, “It’s just like if you opened up a book and you got words from different chapters to form a sentence and said, ‘This is what the book really says.’ It’s a ridiculous concept.”
Judge Medrano ruled the calls can’t be used as evidence. Esparza appealed to the Court of Appeals, and they, too, dropped the calls. Spencer says, “The surprise I think I had as well as the District Attorney is that the court of appeals agreed with us.”
But still, Esparza pushed forward, appealing to the Court of Criminal Appeals. So far, Esparza has appealed just about everything; however, the one thing the DA’s office did not appeal was Villegas’ confession being thrown out. Spencer says, “What that tells me is they’ve acknowledged that the confession was a coerced confession. So they’re aware of that.”
Spencer says there have been many prosecutors throughout the country, even in Texas, that have admitted to making a mistake, and go back and fix their mistakes. He says, “It has put a strain on the working relationship I think the court has with the DA’s office. It’s kind of like the elephant that’s in the room. The Villegas Case when anything else comes up.”
With no confession and no physical evidence, Esparza has appealed and appealed what some say is an “unwinnable” case. Why? It may go back to his election promise in 2015, where Esparza said, “You know one of the things I’ve talked about is my experience and my judgements which I think it does make a difference. I have a record of accomplishments that’s been nationally recognized. The work we do in this courthouse benefits the community in countless ways and I’m glad to be part of team that makes this community safe.”
Spencer says, “I think the DA wants to be fair. I think the District Attorney is concerned in justice. I think the District Attorney’s office is blinded by the Daniel Villegas case. They have tried this case twice. They fought us tooth and nail on the habeas corpus. I think they have so much invested that they are blinded by their own investment.” He adds, “At this point in time, I think they’ve gone so far down that road that they are very biased. They are not objective. He has said so as much, he’s just not objective in this case. He’s lost his judgment with respect to Daniel Villegas.”
With only a decision on the jailhouse calls to be made, Spencer says he wants to start the case immediately and says, “We’re ready. We’re absolutely ready. We have been ready. We’re on the verge of let’s get this case tried.” He adds, “And there is a lot of pressure to get it right because this is our last opportunity. And I absolutely believe in Daniel’s innocence. Jaime Esparza’s a good person. He’s done good things for the community as district attorney. But he got it wrong on Daniel Villegas, and he needs to accept that.”
District Attorney Jaime Esparza was asked for an interview, but says he does not discuss cases that are pending. We will continue to follow the Villegas case and bring you the Court of Criminal Appeals decision as soon as it’s handed down.
After the City of El Paso hearing about this case for almost 25-years, Spencer says, “I think the community wants closure. And I know Daniel’s family wants closure.”