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Man convicted of 1997 Dallas murder and robbery exonerated more than 25 years later

Dallas man Martin Santillan cleared of '97 murder
Dallas man Martin Santillan cleared of '97 murder 02:48

Dallas —  Martin Santillan always insisted he didn't commit a July 1997 murder and robbery he was convicted of. More than a quarter century later, the state of Texas finally agrees, CBS Texas' Robbie Owens reports.

On Wednesday, Santillan, now 49, became Dallas County's 43rd exoneration since 2001.

An elated, breathless Santillan told CBS Texas freedom finally feels real.

As he made his way through a sea of emotional hugs from the family members and friends, Santillan eventually pulled off the heavy ivory sweater he'd worn to court.

Underneath was a T-shirt emblazoned with the words "I didn't do it."

Still, it took years and advances in DNA technology to prove it.

"Bottom line is Mr. Santillan's DNA was never on the jersey that we know that the perpetrator of the crime was wearing," said Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot.

Martin Santillan after winning his freedom on March 22, 2023. CBS Texas

Creuzot faced reporters and a crowd of onlookers and read from a prepared statement that said, "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 is 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."

Santillan was found guilty of capital murder and sentenced to life in prison for the slaying outside nightclub in the Dallas entertainment district known as Deep Ellum even though he had several alibi witnesses, CBS Texas says.

"Their evidence really consisted of a lone eyewitness," says Paul Casteleiro, an attorney with Centurion Ministries.  

The New Jersey-based innocence organization has championed Santillan's case – insisting for years that shoddy police work had put the wrong man in prison.  

"He couldn't make an identification when he first looked at a photo array. [Santillan's] photo was only in there because someone made an anonymous call. ... That was the investigation," Casteleiro said of that witness.

Centurion Ministries first approached the the Dallas County DA's Conviction Integrity Unity about the case in 2008.  

According to the DA's office, "At that time and again in 2014, DNA testing was done on a cigarette butt and the Dallas Stars jersey found at the scene, but in each instance, forensic limitations prevented any new conclusions from being made."

Finally, in 2021, newer, more sensitive DNA technology revealed profiles of two unknown people.

"When you don't investigate and you don't question your own evidence," says Casteleiro, "you wind up with a wrongful conviction."

Creuzot says the same DNA evidence that cleared Santillan has also led them to the person they believe is the real killer.  

His office is now working to extradite the suspect from Colorado but couldn't release his name because he was a juvenile at the time of the murder. The DA's office plans to try the accused killer as an adult.

Meanwhile, Santillan will be eligible for compensation from the state for being wrongly convicted and later found not guilty.

But nothing can give him back the time and moments he missed.

"It's been very hard, very hard," says Mayte Cantu, Santillan's sister, tears filling her eyes. "Sad [that] he wasn't able to be here when family members passed, especially my mom."

So, what now? Unbridled joy.

"That's the reaction – smiles," a beaming Santillan said as he posed for pictures with his family on the courthouse steps. "(A) whole bunch of smiles."

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