In 2005, a Texas jury concluded that Manuel Velez had viciously murdered his girlfriend’s baby. Their verdict sent him to Texas’s death row.
Earlier that year on Halloween 2005, the day before Angel Moreno’s first birthday, his blended family began their day at home. Acela Moreno, 25, an illegal immigrant; her three small children (all by different men); Velez, 40, her boyfriend of four months; and Velez’s son by another woman ate breakfast together. Angel began crying. Velez picked Angel up and shook him, Moreno told the jury. When Angel continued crying, Velez brought him into the bedroom, shook him again, and put him to sleep, she said.
Later that afternoon, Moreno put Angel on the living room couch next to four-year-old half-sister Emily while she put his two-year-old half-brother, Alexis, down for a nap. Twenty minutes later, while lying next to Alexis, Moreno heard noises in the other bedroom: Three strong breaths, some blowing, and then water running in the bathroom. She met Velez at Alexis’s bedroom door. He was visibly upset, and told her something was wrong with Angel. Moreno rushed to her baby, and discovered he had stopped breathing. She shouted at Velez to do something.
“What can I do?” he asked, alarmed. Moreno told him to borrow the neighbor’s phone to call 911.
Their next-door neighbor, Veronica Aparicio, heard Moreno screaming outside. Aparicio stepped outside and saw Moreno holding Angel’s limp, pale body. Velez asked to use Aparicio’s phone because the baby was “choking.” She immediately handed it over. He returned it a few moments later, saying it didn’t work. That made her suspicious and, as she dialed 911 herself, Aparicio noticed that Velez “did not look worried as a person should be in that situation.”
When Constable Lt. Jesus Coria arrived on the scene several minutes later, he, too, saw Moreno wailing loudly, with Angel “dangling” in her arms. It took him several minutes to take Angel from her, and the “distraught” mother could give him no helpful information. Coria performed CPR until firemen arrived, and they continued until an ambulance arrived to rush Angel to the hospital.
“But where is [Velez]?” the prosecutor’s appellate brief asks. “What is [he] hiding that he refuses to dial 911 and lies about the phone not working? Why is [he] not stepping in and giving the required information to a uniformed police officer who is doing his best to save Baby Angel’s life, a child residing in [his] household and who is in his care, custody, and control? Where is [Velez]? [He], according to Lt. Coria, is standing in the background, watching, with his arms crossed.” Several other police officers also testified in court that Velez acted “indifferent” and never asked about Angel’s condition.
At the hospital, doctors discovered massive internal bleeding and fractures within Angel’s head. His brain and skull literally bled him to death. Doctors placed little Angel on life support. He never woke up.
A Home Full of Chaos
A one-year-old baby had died, violently. But how? And who did it?
As doctors worked in vain to resuscitate Angel, Velez and Moreno agreed to visit the sheriff’s department for questioning. There, Velez admitted that he had bit Angel three days before, while “playing with him.” He had also “pulled” and “smashed” Angel’s nose with his hand. On the day of Angel’s death, Velez said he laid on the bed while throwing Angel into the air and catching him. He called this playing, too, but admitted it and “squeezing Angel a little hard” the week previous could have caused the bruises doctors observed on Angel’s ribs.
The state connected the dots this way: Not only did Velez admit he had injured the child, he had motive for inflicting death-inducing injuries. Angel’s father, Juan Chavez, was Velez’s foe. He had beaten Velez’s girlfriend and threatened Velez after discovering their relationship, which began before Moreno broke up with Chavez. Surely, Velez was taking out his anger towards Chavez on Chavez’s son. Besides, Velez himself testified that Angel’s white skin “caused him to get anxious.”
Moreno and Velez had lived together from July through September 2005, when Velez left for a job in Memphis. After Velez left, Moreno was evicted from their apartment for failing to pay rent, so she moved in with a friend. Velez returned from Memphis on October 14, and rented a new home for the entire family.
That’s four different homes that Angel, Emily, and Alexis, lived in during the four months between his unmarried parents’ breakup and his death. Four days after Velez had returned from Memphis, Angel attended a checkup where, his pediatrician testified, he had showed no injuries. After Velez returned from Memphis in September, injuries began to appear on Baby Angel’s body, Moreno testified, including cigarette and cigarette lighter burns, bite marks, and abrasions.
Angel’s Deathly Head Injuries
The doctor who performed an autopsy on Angel after his death found violent contact with a blunt object had caused skull fractures and brain hemorrhages in two separate episodes. On the day Angel died, examiner Dr. Norma Jean Farley concluded, the first head injury was about seven to 14 days old and the second happened the day his neighbor called 911. The injuries were not like those a child would get from an accident, such as falling off a bed or tripping while learning to walk, she testified: They were consistent with abuse, such as being beaten or slammed against something. A forensic pathologist who testified for the state agreed with Dr. Farley’s assessment.
Why didn’t Acela hear Angel cry if Velez had been beating him that day? Farley said he could have easily been knocked unconscious with one blow.
For the jury, the evidence seemed clear: There were only two adults in the house that day. Velez was the one who was in town when observers noticed Angel had vicious injuries, while absent when Angel had none. And Velez had signed a confession in the presence of police saying that he had, indeed, bit, shaken, and thrown Baby Angel that day. Case closed: death row for the baby killer. Velez was convicted in October 2008 and sent to prison to await a lethal injection.
A Visit to Death Row: ‘This Guy Actually Might Be Innocent’
Affiliated law firms in Colorado and Texas had been looking for a pro-bono death penalty case to challenge, and fellow lawyers with the American Civil Liberties Union flagged Velez’s case immediately as one where the convicted man may have been mentally challenged (Velez has a seventh-grade education and speaks broken English).
After reviewing court documents, Texas lawyers Lyndon Bittle and Neil Burger drove the three and a half hours from Dallas to Livingston, Texas, to meet Velez during their first visit to death row. Getting in requires being locked into a cage-like area and patted down, and passing a sign that says “No Hostages Beyond This Point”—meaning, if you’re taken hostage, you’re not getting out. Guards bring inmates in wearing shackles on one side a thick glass window with a telephone on either side as the only means of contact.
Paper money is not allowed, but “you show up with a roll of quarters so you can buy your client a Dr. Pepper,” Burger said. Visitors—mostly parents—line up along the approximately 20 visitation cubicles. The two lawyers spent six hours with Velez—more than his court-appointed lawyers had in their three years together. They communicated in Spanglish this time, and later brought lawyers who knew Spanish fluently.
“A lot of that first visit was to gain his trust,” Burger said. “Velez was extremely let down by his attorneys. He couldn’t believe where he was. He claimed he was innocent. He couldn’t believe he could be convicted of something he didn’t do. I remember when I left, thinking, ‘Wow, this guy actually might be innocent.’”
Attorneys trying to get a guy off death row take as a matter of course that their client is guilty, Berger said. They just want him not to die for his crime.
It took three years for a pack of lawyers to compile a 392-page habeus corpus brief to the state. It argued Velez had received utterly incompetent counsel, was prosecuted by a district attorney and convicted by a judge who were themselves convicted of throwing the book at defendants who wouldn’t pay them bribes, and submitted new evidence from ten expert medical witnesses that suggested Velez was actually innocent. Those are just the highlights.
The First Speaker Seems Right—Until His Cross-Examination
As for Angel, the copious evidence Velez’s pro-bono team dug up indicated he was indeed a victim of constant abuse—by his mother. It started before Angel’s birth, as a neighbor testified Moreno smoked and drank copiously while pregnant with him. Another neighbor who regularly used the Velez family shower while her running water was out testified that Moreno “would stay in bed all morning. She never changed the diapers of her children and never fed or bathed them. Manuel performed these tasks and cooked for the children every day.” Two other neighbors corroborated these descriptions.
More disturbing are reports from the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, which took the children from Moreno twice in a fourteen-month span. One of the children’s foster parents reported that little Alexis was “a biter” who bit other children, including his siblings. Moreno’s next-door neighbor said Angel’s mother would scream and throw things at her children—once, neighbor Ivonne Salazar saw Moreno hit Emily with a shoe. When one of Manuel’s other children stayed with Moreno, she locked the six-year-old in the closet, his mother reported. Velez told the police Moreno “has hit her kids pretty bad including the baby,” and once she pushed Emily against a ceramic statue, making Emily’s head bleed.
In July 2005, Salazar saw Moreno drinking alcohol while holding Angel and a cigarette. As Moreno tried to walk down the stairs to her apartment, she fell and dropped the baby. In August 2005, Brownsville emergency services arrived at Salazar’s home, where she and two other neighbors had seen Moreno pick up Emily by the arm and throw her into a tiger statue, which cut Emily’s head again. Moreno was angry because the toddler had paint in her hair. She refused medical treatment on Emily’s behalf.
The neighbors also testified that Moreno would leave Angel on the couch, sometimes telling Emily to watch him, although little Emily—a preschooler, remember—frequently dropped her brother. He also often fell from the couch onto the floor. Moreno’s sister testified that Moreno had admitted to biting Angel while Velez was in Memphis. During her interrogation with police, Moreno admitted that “perhaps” she had burned Angel with a cigarette. His autopsy showed a raw burn mark on his foot, and several neighbors likewise said they had regularly seen cigarette burns on baby Angel.
None of this evidence was presented to the jury in Velez’s case. His lawyers did not even demand their client’s right to things like the ability to be present during negotiations about the case and private discussions of objections during the trial. They did not present testimony demonstrating Velez could not speak English and so had no idea what was in the confessional papers police pushed at him to sign. During the trial, the prosecutor actually took a baby doll, held it by its legs, and slammed it on the table repeatedly as he discussed Angel’s abuse: “If I was representing him, I would have been all over that objecting,” Burger said. Indeed, in the first favorable judicial activity on Velez’s case, Brownsville District Court Judge Elia Lopez agreed the evidence showed that his court-appointed representation was negligent to the point of incompetence, and approved a retrial in April 2013.
“We have a society that, the differences between rich and poor in society are pretty stark, and it gets reflected in the judicial system,” Bittle said, discussing how a person’s ability to defend himself in the judicial system essentially depends on his ability to pay for legal counsel. Some court-appointed lawyers are sharp, and some stand by while the opposition’s lawyers slam baby dolls on the table. People who are poor or don’t speak English well can’t supplant a lackluster defense with money or connections. The two law firms involved estimate they spent 11,000 man-hours worth $3.5 million on Velez’s case. Velez’s profession? Day laborer, and sometimes fix-it man.
In Lopez’s order granting a retrial, Burger noted, “there is a line in there that says a life in [poverty-stricken] Cameron County is worth just as much as a life elsewhere.”
Who Slammed Baby Angel’s Head?
Perhaps the most gaping hole in Velez’s defense was that his lawyers never called their own medical witnesses to counter the state’s strongest point, the medical testimony agreeing that the head injuries that caused Angel’s death could only have been inflicted when Velez was in town. The pro-bono team sent Angel’s medical records and autopsy to several doctors with expertise in pediatrics and head injuries. They uncovered evidence that Angel was a sick baby long before the night he died. Although his pediatrician said Angel was healthy at his checkup nearest to Velez’s return from Memphis, the pediatrician never actually saw Angel at this checkup. His practice was too big. A nurse practitioner handled Angel’s checkup.
Also perhaps because of that, the pediatrician apparently overlooked an alarming increase in Angel’s head circumference between doctor’s visits in June and August 2005. Angel went from a head circumference in the fiftieth percentile to one above the ninetieth percentile in three months. “Such a dramatic growth in such a short period indicated a serious condition—either hydrocephalus, a brain tumor, or severe head trauma—and standard pediatric protocol required further tests to determine its cause,” says the habeus corpus brief. Angel received no further tests, let alone treatment, even though his medical records show he was under medical care almost constantly—for sores on his mouth, fevers, coughs, colds, pinkeye, respiratory infections, stomach infection, lung infection, and constipation.
Especially notable to doctors in conjunction with the head ballooning were Angel’s repeated hospitalizations for violent, constant vomiting. We’re talking vomiting that lasted as long as five days. Those two symptoms, plus reports from friends and neighbors that Angel “was a slow baby” who rarely blinked and often would not respond to people, indicated to the pro-bono team’s doctors that Angel had a serious, long-term head injury.
Crucially, the more experienced experts Velez’s new defenders called agreed, after reviewing the medical evidence, that Angel had a slow-moving brain hemorrhage caused by two earlier incidents that could only have happened during the time period Velez was working 900 miles away from Angel, in Memphis. Angel could have easily died from even a minor fall that exacerbated his massive pre-existing head trauma, or from another bout of abuse. This eevidence could have been teased out of the medical witnesses prosecutors called against Velez during the trial, and was implied in their reports (they concluded the onset window of the existing hemorrhage was between two weeks and six months), but Velez’s state-appointed defense showed little interest in this linchpin of the case against him.
The Persistent Injustice of Our Justice System
This from page 82 of the habeus corpus application about sums the story: “The story told by the prosecution, shaped to fit the small window of time they identified as the only opportunity Manuel Velez had to abuse Angel, ignored important evidence that was inconsistent with the only story the police or prosecutor ever considered. Instead of actually investigating the event, within hours the police leapt to their judgment, the prosecutor embraced it, and defense counsel, in a display of gross incompetence, never adequately challenged it.”
This story of man’s near-consignment to an unwarranted death could be one of collective incompetence. Of one unfortunate accident after another. Of a legal system that teems with literally murderous bureaucracy. Or even of a legal and child welfare system that immediately assumes the man of the house must be at fault for all abuse that occurs within it, despite any and all evidence to the contrary. Or of some high-priced lawyers who surprised themselves when they took on a free client with a big case. Or all of the above, and more.“If we’re dealing with a multimillion-dollar commercial lawsuit, we can put this much time and effort into it,” Bittle said. “The difference is most people don’t put this same time and effort into a pro bono case. It’s not a situation that attracts lawyers who have lots of other options.”