A Texas man is free Wednesday after spending nine years in prison for a crime he did not commit, four of them on death row.
Manuel Velez, 49-year-old native Spanish speaker with little knowledge of English and an IQ of 65, was convicted in 2008 of killing his girlfriend’s baby son. Despite evidence that Velez was not with the child when he suffered the injuries that led to his death, and evidence that his girlfriend had been abusive to her children, Velez was found guilty.
After new lawyers took on Velez’s case, they discovered that his original attorney failed to present evidence, both that Velez was in Tennessee when the child was fatally injured, and of his girlfriend’s behavior. Velez’s girlfriend was also charged with capital murder, but she was given a plea deal in exchange for her testimony against Velez.
An appeals court also eventually found that the state’s expert witness whose testimony was used to convince the jury to sentence Velez to death had been false.
A judge ruled in 2012 that Velez, like many who receive death sentences, received inadequate representation from his court appointed attorney. Velez pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of reckless injury to a child in order to avoid the risks that would come with a new trial. The state of Texas had insisted on going forward with a new one.
A recent report released by a bipartisan commission of criminal justice experts recommended a massive overhaul of the death penalty system, in part because of the risk that innocent people would be executed.
Of the 144 death row inmates exonerated since 1976, 12 of them have come from Texas. There is also strong evidence that Texas executed an innocent man in 2004, although prosecutors and Gov. Rick Perry deny any wrongdoing in the case. A recent study estimated that one in 25 people sentenced to death are innocent.