The fate of an El Paso man accused of two murders in 1993 could hinge on the outcome of the Democratic primary in the race for El Paso County district attorney on March 1.
Daniel Villegas is accused of gunning down two teenagers in a drive-by shooting as they and two friends were leaving a party early April 10, 1993. Robert England, 18, and Armando Lazo, 17, died from gunshot wounds. Jesse Hernandez, 17 at the time, and Juan Medina, who was 18, survived.
At the time, El Paso police went through several persons of interest, according to court papers, but focused on Villegas, who was 16, after his cousin said during an interrogation that Villegas jokingly bragged about killing the teens with a shotgun. Villegas himself confessed after interrogation. His supporters say the confession was coerced and did not match the actual details of the crime or survivors' statements.
District Attorney Jaime Esparza twice personally prosecuted Villegas, now 39. After a mistrial in 1994 and an overturned conviction from a life sentence in 1995, Esparza is pushing for a third trial and conviction that will stick, though assistant district attorneys are handling the case directly this time.
His pursuit of a conviction has been called into question by his two primary opponents. Challenger Yvonne Rosales said she would review the case before taking a position. But Leonard "Lenny" Morales said after years of following the case, if elected he would send the case back to El Paso police to investigate others or build a stronger case against Villegas.
"I would not pursue it," Morales said.
Morales shares the position of many people in El Paso who, if they missed a 2015 episode of NBC's Dateline about Villegas, have likely attended, seen or heard about a rally or billboards throughout town proclaiming his innocence. El Paso businessman John Mimbela is behind that campaign and funds Villegas' legal defense.
Mimbela became invested after marrying the mother of Villegas' nieces. He's amassed the help of expert witnesses, exonerated individuals, lawyers, investigators and innocence group Proclaim Justice.
"There's no way that the kid could have done that," he said he recalled thinking after reviewing the case. Mimbela and supporters point to a shooting in the same area before April 10. The same type of weapon used to kill England and Lazo was used in the previous crime, they say. The actual killer might have been involved in both crimes, they allege.
But police have clung to the confession, said Joe Spencer, Villegas' lead attorney. And police used physical, mental and emotional abuse to get that confession, his client alleges. As a new trial looms, Villegas' attorneys have advised him to not give interviews.
"When you don't have forensic evidence, when you don't have physical evidence, when you don't have eyewitness testimony, the easy way for the police department to solve a case is through a confession," Spencer said. "And once they beat this young boy's confession out of him, in their mind, case closed."
Villegas told his cousin that he committed the murders, Esparza said.
"They have said now he was bragging, but he did tell his cousin that he committed the murders and that's why the investigation focused on him," the district attorney said. "And after all of these years, the alibis still don't match."
On the campaign trail, Esparza and Rosales have hit Morales on his position.
"I don't know how anybody who wants to be district attorney can make a decision on such a complicated and important case on day one," Esparza said.
Rosales said she's the only one of the three who hasn't taken a side in the Villegas case.
"I'm the only candidate who's neutral," she said. "I don't have anything at stake in this case."
Rosales said if elected, Villegas' case would be one of the first to get her attention.
"I need to read the transcripts from A to Z," she said. "I need to read the case from beginning to end and see and make an independent evaluation if I in fact think that that case merits going to trial, if there's sufficient evidence. If there is not, I will not have a problem dismissing the case. But if there is sufficient evidence, then we need to do the right thing and pursue with trial."
Both Esparza and Rosales have also criticized Morales' position because Mimbela has endorsed him. The businessman said his support was not contingent upon Morales taking a position.
"Leonard is not a politician," Mimbela said. "He said what he felt was correct. And like he said, everybody in El Paso's seen this case. It's open record."
Morales said the public deserves to know what he thinks about cases and shouldn't have to wait for him to get into office to reveal his opinions. In Villegas' case, unless more information is introduced, there is no case, he said.
"Right now," Morales said, "we have nothing."
A state district judge recommended in 2012 that Villegas get a new trial after determining he had ineffective legal counsel during his second trial and that he was actually innocent. Villegas had a public defender.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals agreed the following year that Villegas had a bad lawyer but did not agree that he was actually innocent, saying Villegas should have a new trial to determine innocence or guilt. Villegas was released on bond in 2014.
The third trial was set to begin last January but has stalled after the judge ruled that Villegas' telephone conversations from when he was in jail and prison cannot be used at trial. The judge ruled that the confession could not be used at trial, either. Esparza's office has appealed the suppression of the telephone conversations to the 8th Court of Appeals.
"There are no more direct links between Daniel Villegas and the victims here," Morales said. "It just doesn't match up."
Villegas has lost two decades of his life to the case, Rosales acknowledged.
"But by the same token," she said, "in the end, we still have two dead teenagers."