Monday, April 21, 2008

A falsely accused man can face never-ending torment because of the lie

Freedom isn't free: Wrongly convicted of rape, facing decades in jail, broke -- Armand Villasana turned to his fiancee Wanda. He asked for her trust; she asked her brother for money. A loan of $25,000 led Villasana to aggressive defense lawyers and -- eventually -- his now-well-ocumented vindication. DNA proved his accuser Judith Ann Lummis a liar.
Sounds like a great ending, right? It's not. Villasana never got a dime for his wrongful conviction. No compensation for 21 months in jail on false charges. Nothing to help with his legal bills.

Adding sting to his humiliations, he said he still owes $16,000 on the $25,000 loaned to him in 1998 to get defense attorneys Shawn Askinosie and Teresa Grantham involved in his case. Villasana said he is trying to pay back $1,000 a year through money he earns cleaning houses with Wanda, now his wife. Wanda's brother had only come into the money through good fortune at the time, due to the settlement of a land dispute. Villasana has received no money from a civil suit he filed against Missouri Highway Patrol evidence collectors in his case, and Greene County officials have not offered any sort of reparation for his wrongful prosecution. "We can't take a vacation or nothing," he said. "I'm not asking for sacks and sacks of money, just a little bag."
Villasana filed suit against the Highway Patrol in 2002. But that died at a federal appeals court level in June 2004, when judges ruled the patrol had not acted in bad faith in failing to notify Villasana's defense of all materials available for DNA testing.

Villasana, 54 and now living near Seymour, has a civil lawyer, Greg Aleshire of Springfield, working on a contingency basis on possible further legal action. But Aleshire has had trouble getting transcripts of Villasana's 1999 trial. The court reporter, who used an older style of recording information, died some time ago and a replacement transcriptionist was hard to find.
Villasana, though hopeful, worries he will not ever win any sort of compensation. Why? Partly because Lummis, who falsely identified him three separate times in court, doesn't have any assets. Aleshire would probably have to show wrongdoing by the county sheriff's department or prosecutor to get damages.

Villasana, who is Hispanic, believes he was wronged by more than Lummis' lies. The sheriff's department used an unorthodox lineup of photos (he was the only dark-complected person in them) through which Lummis identified Villasana and got him charged. That lineup was eventually disallowed in the criminal trial. The department also used voice ID, a process in which the woman claiming rape listened to Villasana -- and only Villasana -- speaking from outside a room. Aleshire said that type of ID is highly suspect and suggestive. Also at the criminal trial, several witnesses, including one who was incarcerated at the time, offered information that appeared to corroborate the lying woman, Aleshire said. Villasana sees that as a setup; the county prosecutor's office says it was just happenstance, with the witnesses testifying to things like the type of clothes Villasana wore, and his habits and actions toward women.
Darrell Moore, county prosecutor, acknowledges mistakes in Villasana's case. But he points to Lummis, and her alone, as liable.

"It was a travesty," he said. "I feel for him, but the primary person who was responsible was her." Moore said he wishes some type of compensation could come to Villasana, perhaps from an empathetic community group. He added that his office worked hard to get to the bottom of the case once DNA testing pointed away from Villasana. Moore said the county spent about $4,000 for extra testing, to prove Lummis' fabrication. She lied to cover up an extramarital affair. Time had run out to prosecute her for perjury, though. It's little consolation to Villasana, but Moore said the case helped change the way the Highway Patrol notes evidence it collects.

Moore also said he will push for a change in the law to allow more time to file perjury charges because, as this case shows, a lie could send someone to jail for a long time. That's great. But it doesn't help with Villasana's $16,000 debt, or his hope for a little reprieve from work, or his goal of taking Wanda away for a vacation. Villasana admits he isn't a saint. A 10-year veteran of the Air Force, he said he drank heavily in the service, continued drinking when he got out, had run-ins with the law for theft and drunken driving and spent time in prison -- all before Lummis' tale ensnared him. Still, he's cleaned up. He turned his life around. He said he's been sober five years. "I don't want a million dollars or nothing," he said. "I just want them to do the right thing." Sure seems like he deserves something -- from someone, somehow -- for all he's been through. Freedom, in this case, just isn't enough.