DALLAS (CN) - An innocent man walked from Texas' Death Row to freedom Wednesday after spending nine years in prison for a murder he did not commit.
Manuel Velez, of Brownsville, was released Wednesday morning from the Huntsville Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. He spent four of his nine years behind bars on death row, convicted of killing his girlfriend's infant son.
"Manuel never belonged in prison, let alone on death row," said Velez's attorney Brian Stull, with the ACLU's Capital Punishment Project.
"He is indisputably innocent.
"My joy for him and his family today is tinged with sadness for the years our criminal justice system stole from him, all because he was too poor to afford better counsel than the lawyer the state appointed to him."
Velez was arrested in 2005 and convicted in 2008. The ACLU claims his court-appointed attorney failed to discover or use medical expert records that contained "clear proof" that Velez was working construction in Tennessee at the time and could not have possibly caused the child's head injuries.
"Nor did the lawyer discover and present the testimony of the many witnesses who said the girlfriend threw, hit, and dropped the baby and abused her children, while Manuel was never physically rough and always peaceful," the ACLU of Texas said in a statement.
"The lawyer also bungled his challenge to the typewritten statement that police persuaded Velez to sign, which said he had mistreated the child. Velez was unable to read the statement, which was written in English. Velez's primary language is Spanish; he is functionally illiterate in both English and Spanish. His IQ is 65."
County District Attorney Luis V. Saenz could not be reached for comment Wednesday evening.
He told CNN, however, that Stull's statement was "factually inaccurate and full of half-truths."
Velez's attorneys say he was given the death penalty because a state prison expert falsely testified that Velez would pose a danger to society if given life without parole.
That false testimony resulted in the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals tossing Velez's death sentence in June 2012.
The state's high court upheld his murder conviction, however, resulting in Brownsville County District Judge Elia Corenjo Lopez ordering a new trial in April 2013 based on evidence of lack of quality counsel.
Saenz responded that the high court rejected all but one of Velez's defense team's 45 points of error in the conviction.
Velez's attorneys say that prosecutors still refused to dismiss the first-degree murder charges against Velez, so he pleaded no-contest to a lesser charge of injury to a child rather than face a new trial.
"We should be ashamed of the errors that put Manuel on the brink of execution," Stull said. "He is far from the only innocent person to receive a death sentence. A recent study estimated that, conservatively, one in every 25 people sentenced to death in the United States is innocent. In such a broken system of justice, we are foolish and cruel to continue capital punishment."
The ACLU says that it and the American Bar Association were alerted to Velez's case in 2008 by Maurie Levin, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law.
The ABA's Capital Representation Project then notified Dallas law firm Carrington, Coleman, Sloman & Blumenthal, and Denver law firm Lewis, Roca & Rothberger to help free Velez.
Lewis Roca partner Tamara F. Goodlette spoke with Courthouse News after Velez's release as his attorneys were driving him home to Brownsville.
She said Velez "is really excited" about his newfound freedom.
"He's looking forward to being at home with his family tonight, mostly because his mom and dad are elderly," Goodlette said. "He's happy as can be. He just had his first meal outside of prison in nine years."
Velez is "unfortunately not eligible" to file a claim against the state for wrongful imprisonment under the Tim Cole Act due to the circumstances of his case, Goodlette said.
Passed in 2009, the law allows those that are falsely convicted to seek $80,000 in compensation from Texas for each year of their incarceration, and free college tuition.
Saenz steadfastly asserts Velez "did contribute to the death of Angel Moreno, and he was and is being punished for that crime."
"At no point did any court, trial or appellate, or any jury make any finding that Mr. Velez was actually innocent of murdering Angel Moreno," Saenz said in a statement Wednesday. "In fact, every time the issue was brought up, it was found to be without merit."
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