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Chris Jan. 14, 2014

Congratulations to Daniel Villegas and his attorneys. Mr. Villegas was released on bond today after it was set following a Texas appellate court’s overturning of his murder conviction from 1995. He was imprisoned that entire time. A bond was set because in most cases when a conviction is reversed or vacated, the case goes back to where it was before the error occurred. In this case, that was trial. Mr. Villegas is back to just being an accused (rather than convicted) defendant and can be re-tried.

The reason for the vacatur was that Mr. Villegas proved that his attorney rendered ineffective assistance of counsel in violation of the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments. In addition to the ineffective assistance claim which he won, Mr. Villegas asserted actual innocence–that he did not commit the crime alleged. A key part of the evidence admitted against him in the original trials was his confession, which he claims was false–that he was coerced by the police into incriminating himself (to be accurate, the habeas claim that succeeded concerned third-party liability).

Whether Mr. Villegas’ confession were false or not, false confession is a real thing. According to the Innocence Project, 25% of people exonerated by DNA evidence falsely incriminated themselves. It sounds crazy to most people. While it makes sense to lie to get out of trouble, why would someone make untruthful statements that get him or her into trouble? I’ve written about why someone might stop answering questions. Confusion could be a reason why someone gives incorrect and incriminating answers. Coercion is the best known reason. There’s physical coercion by which a confession is literally beaten out of someone, and then there’s mental coercion, the classic “tell us and we’ll let you go.” This case includes the claim of coercion as well as a couple of other possible reasons. One is that Mr. Villegas was 16 years-old, a juvenile, at the time of his confession. Another is a learning disability. Although it is not clear what effect if any Mr. Villegas’ youth or mental condition had on his confession, young people and those with diminished mental capacity are more susceptible to falsely confessing.

In Connecticut, for interrogation statements to be admissible against juveniles in delinquency proceedings, the statements must be made in the presence of the juvenile’s parent or guardian after they were advised of their Miranda rights (or for 16 and 17 year-olds, after the the juvenile is informed that he or she has a right to have a parent present for the interrogation as well as his or her Miranda rights).

The best course of action is to not speak to the police without an attorney.

Criminal justice hall of famer Ernesto Miranda was convicted in his second trial after his original conviction was invalidated by the case which now bears his name.

Daniel Villegas fought and won himself another shot at freedom. Many lost the means to continue fighting.