After 25 Years in Prison, Local Man Exonerated for 1997 Deep Ellum Murder | Dallas Observer
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After 25 Years in Prison, Local Man Exonerated for 1997 Deep Ellum Murder

After being in prison for 25 years for a murder he didn't commit, a Dallas man is exonerated and set free.
A local man has been released from prison after serving 25 years for a murder he did not commit.
A local man has been released from prison after serving 25 years for a murder he did not commit. Adam Jones, Ph.D. / Creative Commons
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Martin Santillan walked out of a Dallas County courtroom on Wednesday as a free man for the first time in 25 years after being exonerated from a murder conviction in 1998.

Santillan, now 49, was found guilty of capital murder and sentenced to life in prison for the 1997 shooting death of Damond Wittman. A reinvestigation conducted by New Jersey advocacy group Centurion Ministries and the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office’s Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) concluded “that Mr. Santillan is actually innocent,” a press release said.

“It remains our job to correct past wrongs, which is what the CIU team in my office worked tirelessly to do,” said Dallas County Criminal District Attorney John Creuzot in the statement. “We owe it to Mr. Santillan to clear his name fully and completely. I sincerely apologize to Mr. Santillan and his family for this miscarriage of justice and I am proud to say that today justice has been done for him. Also, let’s not forget the victim, Damond Wittman, and his family. This office is committed to work to hold accountable who we feel to be the actual perpetrator of this heinous crime.”

On July 14, 1997, 21-year-old Wittman was shot and killed outside a club in Deep Ellum just after 1 a.m. Witnesses at the time say the shooter was a Hispanic male wearing a Dallas Stars hockey jersey who ran from the scene. The jersey was found with blood on it, discarded a few blocks away in the middle of a street.

Days after the murder, only one of the three witnesses, who had reportedly been drinking steadily that night, picked Santillan as the shooter out of a photo lineup. Santillen presented an alibi that, according to Paul Castelerio of Centurion, “was based on the testimony of five witnesses,” yet the jury relied more on the testimony of the lone prosecution witness picking Santillan’s photo.

According to Santillan's appeal filing in 2000, he was in Deep Ellum on the night of Wittman's murder, but was not near the scene of the crime. A bouncer at the bar Santillan said he was at with a group of friends, testified that Santillan was wearing "gang banger clothing," not a Dallas Stars hockey jersey, and did not leave that bar until 2:30 a.m., an hour after Wittman was shot.

Following his conviction, Santillan challenged his case on direct appeal and a previous writ of habeas corpus, both of which were denied, as was his request for post-conviction DNA testing. In 2008 and 2014, Centurion requested the CIU conduct updated DNA tests on the Stars jersey and a cigarette butt that the shooter had left at the scene. On each of those occasions, “forensic limitations prevented any new conclusions from being made,” the press release stated.

“We owe it to Mr. Santillan to clear his name fully and completely. I sincerely apologize to Mr. Santillan and his family for this miscarriage of justice..." – John Creuzot, Dallas County District Attorney

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The CIU reviewed Santillan’s case again in 2021, using a newer, more sophisticated DNA testing method on the hockey jersey. That test revealed biological deposits on the cuffs of the sleeves, yielding DNA profiles of a pair of unknown individuals. A match made through the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) led investigators to eventually identify a new suspect in Wittman’s murder, who was apprehended with the help of the Colorado Springs Police Department.

The press release notes the new suspect cannot be identified at this time because the suspect was a minor when the murder occurred. In February, on the strength of the new findings, the Criminal Court of Appeals agreed Santillan was innocent and granted him a new trial, which led to the final resolution this week.

“What happened to Mr. Santillan 25 years ago was a terrible injustice,” Dallas Police Chief Eddie Garcia is quoted as saying in the press release. “I am grateful for the hard work and dedication of our partners involved to clear this man’s name and make sure the true person responsible for this heinous crime is behind bars. This exoneration, and the arrest of the person responsible is the justice Mr. Santillan deserves, while providing true justice for Mr. Wittman and his loved ones.”

In the courtroom on Wednesday, Dallas County Judge Audra Riley apologized to Santillan on behalf of the county, the state and “the entire judicial system.” According to NBC 5, Santillan didn’t speak to the judge during the proceeding, nor to any members of the media after. In an email to the Observer, a representative of the Dallas County DA’s office confirmed that Santillan had no other charges against him and is no longer in custody.
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