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Postconviction Testing of DNA Evidence Exonerates Texas Man Imprisoned for 25 Years

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Postconviction Testing of DNA Evidence
© Syda Productions/Shutterstock.com (see reuse policy).

Around 1:30 in the morning on July 14, 1997, Damond Wittman was shot and killed outside a nightclub in Dallas, Texas. Wittman had been standing in the parking lot smoking with friends when a Hispanic male approached the group and asked for a cigarette. After Wittman gave him a cigarette, the Hispanic male produced a gun and demanded money. While attempting to fight off the gunman, Wittman was shot multiple times. The perpetrator ran from the scene.

A few blocks away, investigators from the Dallas Police Department recovered a bloody Dallas Stars jersey that matched the description of what the gunman was wearing. A lone witness identified Martin Santillan as the shooter in a photo lineup. Despite the fact that Santillan had an alibi and none of the other three eyewitnesses identified Santillan as the gunman, the then-23-year-old was charged with and convicted of capital murder and sentenced to life in prison.

In 2008, Centurion—an innocence organization based in Princeton, New Jersey—brought the case to the attention of the Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) in the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office. At that time and again in 2014, DNA testing was conducted on the Dallas Stars jersey found at the scene. However, forensic limitations prevented any new conclusions from being made.

Finally, in 2021, CIU agreed to submit the jersey for testing using a newer, more sensitive DNA testing kit, which finally yielded results. Biological deposits found on the cuffs of the jersey sleeves revealed DNA profiles of two unknown individuals. A hit in the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) identified one of the individuals, who provided investigators with information that led to the possible identity of the assailant. The DNA results also excluded Santillan as a contributor.

In February 2023, the Texas Court of Appeals vacated Santillan’s conviction and ruled that he should receive a new trial. Prosecutors dismissed the case against Santillan in March 2023.

"It remains our job to correct past wrongs, which is what the CIU team in my office worked tirelessly to do. We owe it to Mr. Santillan to clear his name fully and completely." — John Creuzot, Dallas County Criminal District Attorney

In November 2023, a Texas grand jury indicted a different man for the death of Damond Wittman.

The postconviction DNA testing conducted by the District Attorney’s Office CIU was funded in part by the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) Postconviction Testing of DNA Evidence Program. BJA grant funding helps defray costs associated with postconviction DNA testing—such as additional personnel, staff overtime, and testing supplies—for violent felony offenses (as defined by state law) in which actual innocence might be demonstrated. The Postconviction Testing of DNA Evidence Program provides funding to ensure that the right person is convicted, and justice is done.

To learn more about BJA’s Postconviction Testing of DNA Evidence Program or how your agency can apply for funding, visit the program webpage.

Subscribe to receive updates about BJA programs and funding opportunities.


Date Published: April 2, 2024