In 1991 Tony was 18 years old. One night he gave a ride to two brothers – Van and Victor Belton. He drove the brothers at their request to a nearby residence and waited in the truck for them as they approached the house. The brothers forced their way into the house and once inside engaged in a heated dispute with one of the occupants, an 18 year old named Armando Murillo. Tony knew the brothers were going there to resolve a dispute over a debt, however he never for a second anticipated what followed. He waited and on the two brothers’ return he drove them home and proceeded home himself. He was aware that the brothers had taken property from the house and assumed it had been taken by way of payment of the debt.
The following day Tony was arrested and charged with capital murder. At the time of his arrest he was not told why he was being arrested but went willingly with the police. He was an innocent man and felt he had no reason not to do as they asked. Earlier the same day one of the brothers, Van Belton, who had been identified by Armando’s sister, had also been arrested. This sister had attended the same school as Van and so easily recognized him. At the time of Van’s arrest he had been hiding in the loft of his house hoping to evade the police. When he was found both his brother Victor and his father fought with the police in trying to prevent his arrest. Because of this Victor was also arrested. This was some 9 hours or so following the crime.
When Tony learned the charges against him he was horrified. He had had no knowledge up to that moment that someone had been killed the night before. Tony was told that Van Belton had made a statement alleging he had shot and killed Armando, and had shot at the three female occupants of the house – Armando’s mother and two sisters. Tony was also verbally abused and threatened with the death penalty and stories of what would happen to him when he went to jail by the detectives. He was not allowed to call his mother or a lawyer despite his repeated requests. He was told over and over that he MUST confess. He refused. And under threats and intimidation he also refused to make a statement because he knew nothing of what had occurred inside the house that night, and feared anything he did say would only be used by these overly aggressive detectives to lay the blame at his door for something he did not do.
Simply put Van Belton had a choice – he could tell the truth and see his brother face execution, or he could “save” his brother and blame the only other person he could. He chose to sacrifice Tony for his brother. Tony’s refusal to speak with the detectives at the time of his interview was used along with Van Belton’s statement, to seal his fate. His silence was assumed to be the silence of a guilty man with no remorse. The fact that he was 18 years old, terrified and refused any contact with anyone who could advise or support him through this traumatic experience, was never considered.
Armando’s two sisters were shown a photo spread from which to identify the man who had shot and killed Armando. That spread did not include Victor Belton and had Tony at position number 4. The first sister first picked out number 5 as the man who had shot and killed her brother, but this number is clearly shown as being crossed out and changed to number 4 on the photo spread by the detective carrying out the identification. No explanation is given to explain why this was done. The second sister identified Tony at a later time from the exact same photo spread her sister saw. By this time Tony’s picture had been spread all over the TV news, and newspapers as the prime suspect in the case, and so questions remain unanswered as to whether her identification was based consciously or subconsciously on her sister’s identification or because Tony’s face was already known to her as being the man accused of the shooting.
Tony’s subsequent trial held a catalogue of errors. No physical evidence linked Tony to the scene of the crime or the crime itself. By contrast property from the victim, and bullets consistent with those used in the crime were found at the Belton’s house. Tony did not have any blood on his clothing. By contrast Victor Belton’s clothing which was seized at the time of his arrest had multiple blood stains on it. This clothing was never tested despite it being retained by the police for over 14 years. Victor was never charged with any more than simply obstructing the police.
Tony was also denied the funds for a legal expert in the field of eye witness identification. Such identifications are the single most common reason for innocent people being wrongly convicted. This is an established and accepted fact. However Tony was not given the opportunity to argue against these extremely questionable identifications. At the time of Tony being found guilty a court journalist overheard police officers who had worked on the case talking. They were voicing their shock that Tony had been found guilty at all, because they had heard talk on the street that another man was known to be to blame. The same court reporter signed an affidavit saying that he had witnessed the prosecutors outside of the court room pre-trial point to Tony and ask the two Belton sisters did Tony “look like the man from that night”. After a long pause the sisters could only answer “Maybe”. And yet Tony was convicted solely on eyewitness testimony. Eyewitnesses who faced with the most biased physical line up possible could only answer “Maybe”. Other witnesses have at various times come forward to say Victor has “bragged” to them that he has gotten away with murder. Despite all this Tony remains on Texas Death Row waiting to die, for something he simply did not do.
After 16 years of unjust incarceration Tony has finally been granted the right to have Victor Belton’s clothing
But we are left with grave concerns still. Victor Belton’s clothing has not been stored in the manner one might expect of such a potentially vital piece of evidence. It has been simply thrown in a drawer along with other items seized at the time and forgotten. Testing results so far are inconclusive. And so while we pray that we be allowed further testing that will shine light on the truth we still must live with the worry that time and mishandling, and the prosecution’s reluctance to examine the possibility they have the wrong man may result in us not being allowed to present Tony’s case for review to the courts. Above all, our concern is that this is the state of