EL PASO, Texas (CN) - Exonerated in the murders of two teenagers after almost 20 years in prison, Daniel Villegas claims El Paso police suppressed evidence of his innocence, coerced a false confession and "completely corrupted the investigative process."
Villegas, 38, sued El Paso, former Chief of Police John Scagno, investigators Alfonso Marquez, Scott Graves, Earl Arbogast, Joe Laredo and four other officers who worked on the case, on Thursday in Federal Court.
He claims the officers used threats of inmate rape, death by electric chair and actual physical assaults to coerce a false statement from him and other teenagers who corroborated their bogus account of the 1993 crime.
Villegas was released from a Texas prison on bond last year after a judge threw out a confession and the state's highest criminal court overturned his capital murder conviction and ordered a new trial.
Villegas was 16 years old in 1993 when Armando Lazo,17, and Robert England,18, were murdered walking home from a party around midnight on Good Friday. The drive-by killings shook the border town already besieged by gang violence, and filled the community with even more fear.
The case has drawn national attention and was featured on a recent episode of the NBC news show "Dateline."
Although the jury hung at his first trial, a second jury convicted Villegas of the slayings in 1995 and sentenced him to life in prison.
Villegas says in his lengthy complaint that he was in an apartment watching a movie at the time of the murders and had nothing to do with the crime. He says officers used "violence, threats of violence, and false promises of leniency to coerce" false statements from him and three other teenagers.
His lawsuit says police botched the case against him from the start, that they lacked probable cause to justify his arrest and did not follow procedures mandated by Texas law for the treatment of juvenile arrestees.
The El Paso Police Department did not return a phone call seeking comment Monday afternoon.
Villegas says police began by pointing the finger at Jesse Hernandez, an eyewitness and friend of both dead teenagers, who was walking alongside them when shots rang out.
He says that Marquez threatened Hernandez with "the electric chair if he did not confess," but when police were unable to secure confessions from Hernandez or from two other teenagers, they zeroed in on Villegas, "desperate to pin the crime on someone in the face of mounting public pressure to solve these high-profile murders."
Villegas, who says he had never before faced a police interrogation, claims that when he was taken into custody, he was handcuffed to a chair and harassed repeatedly for a confession.
"Defendant Marquez struck Mr. Villegas on the back of the head while telling him 'we know you did it.' Defendant officers told Mr. Villegas that he was going to get 'fucked in jail,'" according to the lawsuit.
He says Marquez told him that if he did not confess he would "drive him out to the desert, handcuff him to the car door and 'kick your ass,' and then make him walk back to town where Marquez told him he 'would 'personally ... put you in a tank with a bunch of fat faggots and they're going to rape you.'"