Daniel Villegas stands smiling in front of reporters after being released on bond in 2014.
Daniel Villegas talks to reporters after a court hearing in El Paso in 2014. (AP Photo/Juan Carlos Llorca)

A 30-Year-Old Wrongful Conviction Is Shaping the El Paso DA Race

Daniel Villegas was acquitted of a crime for which he served nearly 20 years in prison. James Montoya, one of the prosecutors who tried to keep him locked up, is running for district attorney.


May 28 Update: James Montoya beat out Alma Trejo in a close runoff contest for the Democratic nomination for El Paso District Attorney. Montoya will face incumbent Republican Bill Hicks in the general election in November. The winner of that race will shape the future of the ailing office, which faces a staffing shortfall and case backlog.

Daniel Villegas stood shakily behind the defendant’s table, held up by his attorneys. He was already in tears as the bailiff handed the judge the jury’s written decision, trying to catch his breath with heaving gulps. When the judge read the words, “not guilty,” Villegas dropped like a stone. 

It was October 2018, and Villegas had just been acquitted by an El Paso jury after spending nearly two decades in prison for a double murder he was convicted of when he was a teenager. 

It was the third time he’d stood trial for the killings. His first trial in 1994 resulted in a hung jury, but a second jury convicted him in 1995 and sentenced him to life in prison. Villegas’ original conviction was overturned in 2013, after the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals upheld a lower court’s ruling, but then-El Paso District Attorney Jaime Esparza decided to try the case again. This was despite a judge’s determination that the confession Villegas signed when he was 16 years old was coerced and inadmissible.

One of the attorneys in the DA’s office tapped to prosecute Villegas in the 2018 trial was James Montoya, who maintains that, despite the acquittal that October, the prosecution had the right guy. 

James Montoya speaks in a courtroom in a candid image
James Montoya is vying for the El Paso DA seat. (Courtesy/James Montoya Campaign Website)

“There were multiple prosecutors who worked on that case. … Our motivation throughout the entirety of that process was figuring out who murdered [the victims],” Montoya told the Texas Observer this month. “Our collective review of the case … [supports] that Mr. Villegas is the one who killed them.”

Now Montoya, a Democrat, is running for district attorney in El Paso, a position that oversees criminal prosecutions in El Paso County and two adjacent counties. He’s facing another Democrat, Alma Trejo, in a May 28 runoff election to determine who will go up against Republican incumbent—and Governor Greg Abbott-appointee—Bill Hicks in November. 

Montoya’s stance regarding Villegas’ trial has raised alarm bells for some prominent El Pasoans. Democratic state Representative Joe Moody, who is supporting Trejo, told the Observer he’s extremely invested in who takes the DA seat, given the office’s discretion and policymaking ability. He said the office has been “decimated” in recent years by staff turnover and leadership changes. Although he supported Montoya’s unsuccessful 2020 primary bid for the same office, Moody has reservations about Montoya’s judgment, in large part because of the latter’s stance on Villegas’ case. 

Villegas’ defense attorney in the 2018 trial, Joe Spencer, told the Observer he was “disappointed that [Montoya] did not see what everybody else saw. … I question his judgment because of that,” he said. “This evidence was so overwhelming.”

Villegas, one of eight people exonerated after being convicted of felonies in El Paso County since 1990, is also speaking out against Montoya’s run this year and highlighting the need for a critical eye on past cases. 

On April 10, 1993, 17-year-old Armando Lazo and 18-year-old Bobby England were shot and killed while walking home from a house party in northeast El Paso. The murders outraged the community, and police were eager to get someone in custody. Based on a tip from Daniel Villegas’ cousin—who later said police threatened to charge him with the crime—Villegas was arrested 11 days after the murders. That same night, detective Alfonso Marquez got him to confess.

Later, Villegas testified that Detective Marquez had threatened him into confessing, allegedly telling him if he didn’t, he’d be sent to county jail to be sexually assaulted. The same detective also allegedly threatened to “take him to the desert and beat him if he did not admit to the shooting,” according to Villegas’ testimony

Shortly after signing his confession in April 1993, Villegas told a social worker it wasn’t true. But the state relied heavily on it during his first and second trial. A recently elected Jaime Esparza, who held the DA’s office from 1993 until 2020, turned the case into a valuable bit of political theater.

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After he was convicted in 1995, Villegas’ appeal was denied. He sat in prison, with no hope until local El Paso businessman John Mimbela, who married the mother of Villegas’ nieces in 2005, got involved in the case. Between 2007 and 2018, Mimbela told the Observer he spent “well over $500,000” on attorneys, investigators, expert witnesses, court documents, and promotional materials and events—all in an attempt to get Villegas out of prison.  

“It shouldn’t take this amount of money to get justice,” Mimbela said. “It never would have, had [prosecutors] not fought so hard with taxpayers’ money to keep an innocent person behind bars.” 

In 2007, Villegas filed a writ of habeas corpus, asking for a new trial. El Paso District Judge Sam Medrano Jr. took up the case and held a hearing in 2011. The next year, Medrano recommended Villegas get a new trial, saying his original lawyers erred in failing to try to get the coerced confession thrown out. The conservative Texas Court of Criminal Appeals upheld Medrano’s decision after the state appealed, granting that Villegas’ defense counsel had been ineffective. Villegas was let out of prison in 2014, and he and his legal team waited to see if Esparza would take him to trial a third time. In the meantime, Medrano ruled that the confession would be invalid for any future trial. 

In 2018, ahead of the long-awaited third trial, the DA’s office offered Villegas an “Alford Plea,” which would have guaranteed he wouldn’t get any more prison time but wouldn’t have allowed him to clear his name. Villegas rejected the offer. 

In the third trial, prosecutors weren’t permitted to bring up Villegas’ coerced confession. Spencer, Villegas’ defense attorney, said that without it, the state had nothing to pin on Villegas—no physical evidence. Spencer said when the state rested its case, he looked at the jury box. “Every one of those jurors looked at [them] with disbelief and shock.” 

Since his 2018 acquittal, Villegas has kept a close eye on the local court system. Villegas hasn’t thrown his support behind a DA candidate yet, but he urges El Paso residents to cast their vote and have a say in who holds the powerful office in the next term. “Once you vote this person in, we’re going to be stuck with them for four years,” Villegas told the Observer. “And it may be you who gets the wrongful conviction next time. ”

Ideologically, the two Democratic candidates on the ballot this month have many overlapping views: They both want to focus resources on violent crimes, beef up staffing in the ailing DA’s office, and divert mental health-related crimes from the court system. But the gaps between their platforms show on the issue of past convictions.

Alma Trejo's official headshot
Alma Trejo is running as a Democrat for El Paso County District Attorney. (Courtesy/Alma Trejo Campaign Website)

Both candidates worked at one point under former DA Esparza, and both highlight their courtroom experience in their campaigns. Trejo spent time as a prosecutor before becoming a judge, and she says she tried around 80 felonies in her career. Montoya, who has worked as both a prosecutor and a defense attorney in his ten years as a lawyer, highlights some of his past cases by name on his campaign website. Villegas’ case isn’t listed. 

Montoya told the Observer that he’s in favor of conviction integrity units, but that wrongful convictions aren’t a big problem in El Paso. He said the county doesn’t have the history of prosecutorial misconduct some other large counties have. He said he doesn’t believe there are many El Pasoans serving time in Texas on wrongful convictions. 

When asked about Villegas’ case, Montoya emphasized that prior to 2014 multiple appeals courts failed to rule Villegas’ adolescent confession invalid. He also pointed out that there have never been findings of prosecutorial misconduct in the case. 

Trejo told the Observer that Villegas’ case—which she was never involved with—proves the need for a “strong” conviction integrity unit in El Paso. She said she’d welcome review of past cases she’s tried, especially given major improvements in forensic technology in recent decades. 

“I would encourage it because, at the end of the day, it’s our duty to make sure justice is served,” Trejo said. “And you know what? The public doesn’t benefit by having the wrong person in custody, because all that means is the person who committed the offense is walking the street. It doesn’t benefit anybody.”

Villegas filed suit against several El Paso officials in 2015, seeking damages for his wrongful conviction, but the process has been slow-moving. The civil trial was supposed to take place last October, but it was postponed until May 28—the day of the runoff in the DA election. It’s since been further pushed to an undetermined date.