Victoria murder conviction overturned 18 years later
Oct. 11, 2017 at 10:18 p.m.
Updated Oct. 11, 2017 at midnight
After spending almost two decades in prison for murder, a Victoria man could be set free.
"It has been a long, long road," said David Adler, a Houston attorney who was appointed by a federal judge to represent the man.
Wednesday, Senior U.S. District Judge Nancy Atlas ordered David Mejia, 37, be released unless prosecutors initiate retrial proceedings within 180 days. According to court documents, Atlas made the decision because Victoria defense attorney Alex Luna, who was court-appointed, provided ineffective assistance to Mejia.
"You are entitled to an effective assistance of counsel under the 6th Amendment," Adler said.
District Attorney Stephen Tyler said that although he planned to take Mejia back to trial, a lack of evidence or witnesses could convince him otherwise.
"First, are my witnesses alive?" he said.
Neither Mejia, who remained in prison Wednesday nor his relatives, could be reached for comment.
Adler said Luna should have requested the inclusion of homicide charges less severe than murder, such as manslaughter or negligent homicide, for jurors to consider.
Instead, jurors found Mejia guilty of murder in February 1999, about a year after the crime, and sentenced him to life in prison. Mejia must serve 30 years in prison before he is eligible for parole.
According to court documents, Mejia on the morning of April 17, 1998, fatally stabbed Marcos Torres, a 20-year-old Bloomington man and former high school football player, in the parking lot of Alicia's Place, 805 S. Delmar Drive.
According to court documents, "Torres swung at him, and he pushed Torres back twice. Torres lifted up his shirt, revealing a gun. As Torres approached him and started pulling out the gun (Mejia) pulled out a knife and stabbed him. His testimony was that he did not mean to stab him."
While a murder conviction requires proving a defendant committed the crime purposefully, manslaughter and negligent homicide do not. And although murder, a first-degree felony, carries a sentence of five to 99 years or life in prison, manslaughter carries a sentence ranging from two to 20 years in prison. For criminally negligent homicide, the range of punishment is six months to two years in state jail.
According to court documents, "At Mejia's trial, the jury heard ample testimony that would have supported a finding of recklessness (manslaughter)."
For example, Mejia testified that he had gone to the bar that night to protect his brother, who anticipated getting into a fight with Torres.
But Luna said that his omission of those charges was part of a broader strategy in which he attempted to show Mejia stabbed Torres to protect himself. Luna also said he lacked sufficient evidence to support manslaughter or negligent homicide charges.
Tyler, who admitted he is a friend of Luna's, agreed.
"It's quite likely the defense attorney had a strategy," he said.
Presenting lesser homicide charges, Tyler said, could imply a defendant's guilt to a jury, making an acquittal less likely.
But Adler disagreed, and so did the federal judge who handed down Wednesday's decision.
"The judge talks about the fact that asking for a manslaughter instruction does not preclude the self-defense finding," he said. "They are not mutually exclusive."
Despite the good news for Mejia, Adler said his client likely had no knowledge of the decision as of Wednesday morning. The attorney said he has been unable to reach him through prison communications or family members.
Despite the good news, Adler said the possibility of trial prevents premature celebration.