- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 8, 2014

HUNTSVILLE, Texas (AP) - A former Rio Grande Valley construction worker walked out of prison Wednesday, nearly six years after being sent to Texas’ death row for the fatal beating of his girlfriend’s young son.

Manuel Velez was allowed to be paroled after pleading no contest to a lesser charge of injury to a child. His attorneys insist he is innocent in the 2005 death of Angel Moreno a day before the boy’s first birthday.

An appeals court threw out Velez’s death sentence two years ago because of faulty testimony at his 2008 trial in Cameron County.

“I’m very happy being free, thanks to you guys,” the 49-year-old Velez said after receiving hugs from his legal team outside the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Huntsville Unit. “In the beginning I was mad, because I knew I was going to die.

“But now I’m a free man - like from the beginning. Now I can be with my family.”

The child’s mother, Acela Moreno, who had been Velez’s girlfriend for a few weeks at the time of the death, was charged with capital murder like her boyfriend but agreed to a plea deal in exchange for her testimony. She served five years of a 10-year sentence for injury to a child, then was deported to Mexico.

Velez had been jailed since his 2005 arrest. He had made the 911 call to report the boy had stopped breathing at a Brownsville home.

In August, a judge gave Velez credit for his nearly nine years in prison and he became eligible for mandatory supervision, a form of parole in Texas.

On Wednesday, the former death row inmate said he was eager to talk to his mother and visit his two sons, who are 11 and 15. His lawyers said his only request of them was to have some cold Dr Pepper ready for him.

“He’s 100 percent innocent of everything,” said one of Velez’s lawyers, Brian Stull of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Capital Punishment Project. “The only way we could get him released is to take the plea and time served and get out.”

Stull, who’s from Durham, North Carolina, and lawyers from firms in Denver and Dallas who also took on Velez’s case collected evidence they said showed Moreno was responsible for her son’s death and had a history of abusing her children. The attorneys also said the timing of the fatal injuries could not be tied to Velez because he was working 1,000 miles away in Tennessee when they occurred.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, in reversing the death sentence, pointed to a prison expert’s faulty testimony about how Velez would be a continuing threat.

The Cameron County district attorney’s office, which prosecuted Velez, did not respond to phone messages from The Associated Press on Wednesday.

Velez said he would tell those who remain on death row to “be strong and keep their head up.”

“I got out and they can get out, too. Just don’t give up. Just pray and God will open the doors. He did it for me, right?”

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