Martin Santillan, 49, was officially exonerated on Wednesday after recent DNA testing cleared him of a wrongful murder conviction dating back to 1997.

The Dallas-based man spent 25 years imprisoned for a murder he did not commit, which occurred in front of a Deep Ellum nightclub. After spending more than two decades attempting to reverse the false conviction, Santillan explains, “There were a lot of disappointments, and it takes a toll on you.” He told the Dallas Morning News that he’s been waiting for this day “since July of 1997.”

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Only one witness pointed to Santillan as the perpetrator

Damond Wittman was murdered at 21 years old outside a nightclub on July 14, 1997 at around 1:30 A.M. The man was smoking outside with two other people when a Hispanic male came up and asked for a cigarette. At that point, the perpetrator pointed a gun at Wittman and demanded money, leading the two to fight. The man shot Wittman and fled the scene.

The perpetrator was wearing a black Dallas Stars jersey, which police later found with blood on it a few blocks away. Witnesses described him as a young Hispanic male who was around six feet tall.

Police asked witness Brian Mackin to pick the murderer out of an array of photographs. It took him two times to finally pick Santillan, and Mackin was the only witness who identified him. Even more, Mackin admitted he had been drinking at the time, and had barely slept.

Paul Casteleiro, legal director at Centurion Ministries who assisted in exonerating Santillan, put it like this: “The evidence really consisted of a lone eyewitnesses who maintained he could make an identification to an event that occurred at two o’clock in the morning after leaving a bar and being faced with a gun in his face and being held up.”

He was sentenced to life in prison at just 23 years old

Santillan was convicted of capital murder in 1998, even though DNA results did not link him to the murder. Even more, a total of five people testified that Santillan was several miles away at the time at a different nightclub. He was just 23 years old when injustice changed his life forever. He received a life sentence.

By 2002, Santillan requested to have the DNA evidence tested, but it was rejected. However, he didn’t lose hope, and reached out to the nonprofit Centurion Ministries, which is an organization that fights to “free the innocent.” As per their website, they have freed 67 people serving wrongful life or death sentences.

Centurion Ministries took on the case in 2008, with District Attorney John Creuzot describing how they “owe [Centurion] a tremendous debt for sticking with this and keeping this in front of us.”

In fact, Santillan himself said they always “believed” in him, explaining, “They kept fighting.”

New DNA testing finally led to new evidence — that pointed to someone else

Centurion pushed for DNA testing on the Dallas Stars jersey and a cigarette butt found near the crime scene. These DNA tests took place in 2008 and 2014, both coming back inconclusive.

However, by 2021, DNA technology had improved — and a new test linked the evidence to two other people instead of Santillan. It proved his innocence for once and for all, since Santillan’s DNA was indeed not on the jersey.

In fact, forensics linked DNA found on the jersey’s cuffs to another man and a woman. The new test brought police to a man living in Colorado who they believe is the murder’s real perpetrator. He has now been detained and will go to trial in Dallas, Texas. The man was allegedly a minor when the murder was committed, so his name has not been released.

Meanwhile, the woman also linked to the jersey said the now-accused perpetrator “used to wear a lot of Star jerseys.” She allegedly remembered him coming home one night without his jersey on and with blood on his hands.

Police found the actual DNA match in a police database. The DA’s conviction integrity unit, Dallas police, and Colorado Springs police all worked together to obtain the man’s DNA sample and arrest the man.

The District Judge apologized to Santillan

This case’s injustice cannot be overstated — Martin Santillan lost 25 years of his life he will never get back. That fact does not go unnoticed, particularly by him and his family. His older sister, Mayte Cantu, always knew he was innocent, and cried about the extreme lack of justice her brother went through.

Cantu explained, “He wasn’t able to be here when two of my family members passed away and that was the hardest, especially my mom.”

Dallas Police Chief Eddie Garcia stated, “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.”

Meanwhile, District Judge Audra Riley apologized to the 49-year-old: “Mr. Santillan, at this time, I would also like to apologize to you on behalf of Dallas County, the State of Texas, and the entire judicial system. I wish you well and best of luck in your future path.”