The public relations guy walked up to Manuel Velez’s legal team, smiling. He wanted to let them know Velez would be released with several other parolees in about another hour. “It’s not a fast process,” he said, still smiling. The team smiled back. Waiting was fine. They—four pro bono civil litigants and a lead attorney from the American Civil Liberties Union—had waited plenty already. For the past five years, they’d worked to free Velez from death row, where he was serving his 2008 sentence for killing his girlfriend’s baby. Now the day had come. Another hour was fine.
Besides, it wasn’t an unpleasant wait. It was overcast on Wednesday in Huntsville, still morning, around 11. The group took turns sitting at a concrete picnic table under an old tree in the patchy grass beside the enclosure where loved ones of prisoners waited, across a residential street from the prison. They talked logistics. None of Velez’s family could attend his release, but the whole team would drive him straight home to South Texas, piled into a black SUV with the back window painted to read, “Free and Innocent – Brownsville Bound!”
Jacklyn Casey Brown, an attorney from the Colorado-based firm of Lewis Roca Rothgerber LLP, had a special treat for Velez ready in the car: a case of Dr Pepper on ice. “When we were in trial,” Brown explained, “we got to have lunch with [Velez]… Somebody was drinking a Dr Pepper. He was staring at it longingly. The man hasn’t had a Dr Pepper in eight years. He said something like, ‘I love Dr Pepper.’ I said, ‘Manuel, I promise you, the day you walk out of jail I’ll get you a case of Dr Pepper.’ His face lit up. He got a big old grin. So over the last couple of years, every time I see him, we chat about that. I’d say, ‘I’m going to have your Dr Pepper waiting for you Manuel!’ So it’s good. It’s become a reality.”
After the PR guy, Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman Jason Clark, delivered his news, he lingered. Along with the five lawyers, there were three journalists, a photographer, and a videographer milling around, waiting for Velez. That’s the kind of situation a PR guy is obligated to monitor. But he looked so friendly, so eager to be helpful, to be seen as something other than a chaperone. I felt a little sorry for him. It must be strange to represent TDCJ on days like these, which happen both too often and not often enough, when an innocent person is released. Texas has already exonerated a dozen people from death row, though Velez will not be counted among them. When Velez was granted a new trial in April 2013, he accepted a plea deal for time served rather than risk a new trial and a fresh miscarriage of justice.
On October 31, 2005, Velez was 40 years old, a construction worker with children of his own, who had only lived with his girlfriend, Acela Moreno, for two weeks. That day, Velez discovered that Moreno’s 11-month-old son, Angel, had stopped breathing. Doctors removed Angel’s ventilator a few days later and he died, the apparent victim of child abuse. His autopsy revealed two skull fractures and a subdural hematoma—blood on the brain—resulting from blunt force trauma.
At the original trial, the state’s forensic expert testified that Angel’s injuries had been inflicted in the two weeks Velez lived with them, but in the new evidentiary hearing in 2012, she admitted the injuries might have been older. Seven other medical experts also testified that Angel’s wounds predated Velez’s entrance into his life, likely while Velez was working out of state. Further, the original trial ignored evidence that Angel’s mother, Moreno, was likely guilty. She had a history of child abuse and admitted striking Angel on the day of his death, but testified against Velez in exchange for having her capital murder charges reduced to injury of a child, to which she pleaded guilty. Jurors in Velez’s trial never heard that she’d confessed to hitting Angel, but did see a written statement from Velez, taken in English, in which he admitted throwing, squeezing and biting the baby. Velez can only read at a kindergarten level, and several different versions of the statement exist. In short, the evidence against Velez, in civil court, “would have been thrown out in a heartbeat,” said Lyndon Bittie from the Dallas firm Carrington Coleman, another of Velez’s lawyers.
After a few seconds, one of the lawyers, Brian Stull of the ACLU Capital Punishment Project, asked Clark, the PR guy, what Velez would be wearing when released. He replied that they supply clothes bought in bulk from Goodwill or thrift shops. “But you know,” Clark said with a chuckle, “some of them will walk down to the thrift shop on the corner and trade them in for just different thrift shop clothes.”
“That they chose,” Stull said. Everyone was quiet for a moment. Stull didn’t think it was funny that free men exercised what sliver of agency they had the first moment they could. Stull didn’t smile. Clark looked at his phone.
That was the order of the day—Velez choosing. Should they eat in Huntsville or get on the road? “Let’s ask him.” Would they have time to talk to a reporter when they got to Brownsville? “Let’s ask him.” It’s hard to say why this was the part of the day that made me want to cry. I guess it reminded me that taking away choice, denying agency, is indivisible from dehumanization, and so every time this educated, non-poor, largely white group remembered not to make decisions for their client, a man nearly dehumanized to death, it seemed as if they were piling up gifts in wait for him: respect, dignity, Dr Pepper.
The men emerged not from the front door we’d been watching, where two inmates in white had spent an hour polishing a brass handrail, but from around a red brick corner in the distance, topped with a turret and barbed wire and a guard. Velez’s team fell into a line to look for their man. “Is that him? Is that—no,” Jaclyn Brown narrated, reaching her hand out nervously. “In the plaid? I think that’s him, but he’s behind a tree.”
Now the wait was very long. Freedom is never guaranteed. Velez’s innocence had not kept him free, and it felt, for the few long minutes that the men walked through the noonday sun in their ill-fitting thrift-store clothes, that perhaps something had gone wrong.
But it hadn’t. Not this time.
After the embraces, a reporter from Univision interviewed Velez in Spanish. I understood only, “Angeles,” which he said looking at his team. “Herr—her—heroes.”
A reporter from the Associated Press asked what he wanted to do first. See his mom, Velez said, then his kids.
“Are you not angry or bitter?” asked the AP reporter.
“No,” said Velez.
“No se.” He said a little more in Spanish. Tamara Goodlette, Brown’s partner, translated: “I’m happy, but before I wasn’t, because I thought I was going to die.”
Velez continued in English. “But now, thanks to these guy, and thanks to all these people, supporting for years—they did a great job, right? A super job. Every day, nights, for years,” he said. “Now I’m a free man. Now I can be with my family.”