DNA test exonerates a Dallas man who spent 25 years in prison over Deep Ellum murder

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A Dallas man convicted of capital murder in 1998 has been freed after new DNA testing exonerated him, authorities said.

Martin Santillan was accused of fatally shooting a man in 1997 after trying to rob the victim outside a Deep Ellum nightclub. Santillan, who was 23 at the time, had maintained his innocence while serving a life sentence.

A review of his case that started in 2021 used newer DNA technology to identify someone else, who has since been arrested in Colorado.

The Dallas County District Attorney’s Office apologized for a “miscarriage of justice.”

“It remains our job to correct past wrongs, which is what the (Conviction Integrity Unit) team in my office worked tirelessly to do” said John Creuzot, the criminal district attorney. “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.”

Prosecutors say they will continue to pursue a case against the real shooter who killed Damond Wittman.

On July 14, 1997, around 1:30 a.m., Wittman was standing in the parking lot smoking with friends when a man approached and asked for a cigarette. Wittman gave one to the man, who then showed a gun and demanded money. In an attempt to fight off the gunman, Wittman was shot multiple times.

A few blocks away, Dallas police recovered a bloody Dallas Stars jersey that matched a description of what the gunman was wearing. A lone witness identified Santillan as the shooter in a photo lineup, but none of the other three witnesses who viewed the lineup made an identification.

At trial, Santillan presented an alibi and insisted on his innocence. The jury convicted him on March 5, 1998, and he was sentenced to life in prison.

Santillan challenged his case on direct appeal and a previous writ of habeas corpus, both of which were denied, according to the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office. Santillan also sought post-conviction DNA testing, which was also denied.

In 2008, a nonprofit organization called Centurion, which seeks to free people wrongfully convicted of crimes, brought the case to the attention of the district attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit. At that time and again in 2014, DNA testing on a cigarette butt and the Dallas Stars jersey provided no conclusions due to forensic limitations.

The CIU was asked again in 2021 to review Santillan’s case. It submitted the jersey for testing using a more sensitive DNA testing kit that found profiles of two other people. Investigators were able to find them and identify the suspect in Colorado Springs.

Authorities aren’t yet publicly naming the suspect because he was a juvenile when the crime occurred, according to the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office.

“Thankfully, the District Attorney’s Office was willing to listen and take action on what we presented to them,” said Paul Casteleiro of Centurion, who represented Santillan with the assistance of Dallas attorney Gary Udashen. “Mr. Santillan should never have been convicted. He had no connection to the Dallas Stars jersey, a truthful alibi based on the testimony of five witnesses, and the State’s case was based on a lone eyewitness’s identification.”

Santillan was granted a new trial on Feb. 22, which the district attorney dismissed Wednesday.

Santillan’s exoneration is the 43rd in the Dallas County since 2001, when the post-conviction DNA statute went into effect. His case is the 70th that Centurion has succeeded in overturning.

“What happened to Mr. Santillan 25 years ago was a terrible injustice. 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,” said Eddie Garcia, chief of police at the Dallas Police Department. “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.”