Dallas man exonerated after spending 25 years in prison for murder
Martin Santillán was 23 years old when he was arrested and charged for the murder of Damond Wittman. He was finally found actually innocent Wednesday.
A Dallas man who spent more than two dozen years in prison for a murder he didn't commit was officially found innocent at a court hearing Wednesday.
Judge Audra Riley apologized to Martin Santillán on behalf of Dallas County and the State of Texas for what she called a "miscarriage of justice."
Santillán stood somberly in the courtroom as the prosecutor read the motion to dismiss his murder indictment.
Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot says Santillán was exonerated after an extensive investigation by his office and Centurion Ministries — a New Jersey-based organization dedicated to innocence cases.
Santillán was accused of murdering Damond Wittman in 1997. Wittman was shot and killed outside of a nightclub in Deep Ellum in the early morning hours of July 14. Santillán was convicted of capital murder for Wittman's death and sentenced to life in prison in 1998.
Creuzot says during the investigation, Dallas Police found a bloody Dallas Stars jersey that matched the description of what the perpetrator was wearing. Santillán was identified by one witness in a photo lineup, but maintained his innocence in court. Prosecutors say he had an alibi at the time, but was found guilty anyway.
"The evidence really consisted of a lone eyewitnesses who maintained he could make an identification to an event that occurred at two o'clock in the morning after leaving a bar and being faced with a gun in his face and being held up," said Paul Casteleiro, the legal director at Centurion Ministries.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the highest criminal court in Texas, ruled in February that Santillán should get a new trial, and remanded the case to Dallas County, which led to Wednesday's ruling.
At a press conference after the hearing, Creuzot announced another suspect was recently arrested in Colorado for the 1997 killing. The suspect was not identified because they were a juvenile at the time of the killing, but Creuzot said the DA's conviction integrity unit worked with Dallas police and the Colorado Springs Police Department to obtain a DNA sample that led to the arrest.
Casteleiro said the wrongful conviction was not only a disrespect to Santillán and his family, but to the victim who died.
"The bottom line is Mr. Santillan's DNA was never on the jersey that we know the perpetrator of the crime was wearing," Creuzot said.
Santillán declined to say anything to the judge or the media but his sister Mayte Cantu says she always knew he was innocent.
"It's been very hard," Cantu said. "He wasn't able to be here when two of my family members passed away and that was the hardest, especially my mom."
Cantu said she and her family continued to support Santillán as he served time in prison.
Santillan's case is the 43rd exoneration in Dallas County since a post-conviction DNA statute went into effect in 2001. That law allows inmates to request a DNA test to appeal a conviction.
Cantu says now that Santillán is free, she hopes to make up for the lost time with her brother.
"We're just gonna spend all the time that we can with him that we have lost because it's been a long time," Cantu said.
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