By Brian Stull, Senior Staff Attorney with the ACLU Capitol Punishment Project
Imagine you are caring for a toddler and suddenly he stops breathing. You quickly get him medical aid, but it’s too late: the child dies at the hospital where medical personnel were unable to revive him. That would be a horrific nightmare for anyone, but things got even worse for Manuel Velez when this happened to him in Brownsville, Texas, on Halloween in 2005.
In a tiny home in a poor section of Brownsville, Manuel was watching two other small children and 11-month-old Angel Moreno for about 20 minutes when Manuel discovered Angel in distress. He awoke Angel’s mother, Acela Moreno, who was napping but who herself had been alone with the child only 20 minutes earlier. The two rushed to a neighbor’s home to call 911. Angel died at the hospital. Both Acela Moreno and Manuel Velez were charged with his murder.
Acela Moreno was a natural suspect. She had admitted to biting the child on the face, and burning him on his feet with cigarettes (she claimed accidentally); she was known for abusing her children. But she turned the tables on Manuel, and told the police that the child only started suffering various injuries — burns, bite marks, and bruises – when they had moved in with Manuel only two weeks before that fateful Halloween day. Before that, Moreno claimed, the child had no injuries. And before that, Manuel had been in Tennessee for weeks working construction.
By testifying against Manuel, Moreno escaped capital murder charges, and was able to plead guilty only to injury to a child with a 10-year sentence. She was out of prison in five years. Meanwhile, the state took Manuel to trial for capital murder.
The state’s case hinged not only on Moreno’s testimony but on medical experts who examined the child’s body and claimed there were no injuries older than two weeks. In particular, they focused on head injuries, including skull fractures. Again, this implicated Manuel, with whom the child and Moreno had been living for roughly two weeks. Manuel was convicted and sentenced to death in 2008. Moreno left prison in 2010.
The ACLU took Manuel Velez’s appeal to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which found the state had relied on false testimony of a so-called “prison expert” to convince the jury to return a death sentence. The court appeared skeptical about the state’s ambiguous evidence of Manuel’s guilt, but left intact his capital murder conviction. The case would be sent back to the trial court for a new jury to determine if Manuel could again be sentenced to death.
In the meantime, a second appeal has now shown the medical evidence on which the state relied was faulty, and went unchallenged at the first trial due to the incompetence of his defense counsel, a lawyer with a known drinking problem. The appeal is supported by the affidavits of numerous experienced experts who examined Angel Moreno’s records and determined that his pediatrician, in 2005, had documented a ballooning of the head circumference – a telltale sign of head trauma – more than three months before his death. Consistent with those records, microscopic examination of the child’s skull fractures done as part of the autopsy process showed the fractures to be significantly older than the two weeks the state had claimed at trial. If that is true, then these were injuries that could not have been inflicted by Manuel Velez, who was not in the state of Texas at that time.
Today, I am en route to Brownsville, via the Houston area, where I will visit other clients on Texas’s death row, and where just a few years ago I first met Manuel Velez, an innocent man.
Starting tomorrow, a Brownsville District Court Judge will hold an evidentiary hearing on the new evidence of Manuel’s innocence, as well as the reasons his incompetent trial attorney failed to produce this evidence at trial.
If the judge agrees with the defense case, Manuel could become the 13th prisoner exonerated from Texas’s death row.
I will be on hand for the hearing this week, in support of Manuel and the attorneys handling his innocence hearing.