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Deep Ellum nightclub murder case from 25 years ago leads to exoneration of Dallas man

Dallas Man Exonerated After Being Wrongly Convicted in Nightclub Shooting 25 Years Ago

After 25 years of wrongful conviction, Martin Santillan has been exonerated for the Deep Ellum nightclub shooting. Just last Wednesday, a Dallas County judge officially dismissed the capital murder charge, declaring Santillan innocent.

According to the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office, Santillan was named a suspect for the death of Damond Wittman in 1997. Wittman, a single mother, was smoking a cigarette with friends in the parking lot outside a nightclub in Deep Ellum when a man walked up to them and asked for a cigarette. After Wittman gave him a cigarette, the man pulled out a gun and demanded money. Wittman was shot and killed while struggling with the gunman.

Investigators at the time recovered a bloody Dallas Stars jersey that witnesses said the suspect was wearing. One of four witnesses then picked Santillan, who was 23 years old at the time, out in a lineup. Despite having an alibi, he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

However, this year, his case went before the Court of Criminal Appeals, and he was declared innocent. Santillan had an authentic alibi based on the testimony of five witnesses, and the State’s case was founded on a lone eyewitness’s identification. Santillan had no connection to the Dallas Stars jersey.

Centurion, an innocence organization, helped Santillan reopen the case, and they brought it to the Dallas District Attorney’s attention. In 2008 and 2014, they performed DNA tests on the evidence, including the cigarette butt and the bloody Dallas Stars jersey. In both instances, the tests were inconclusive. In 2021, the evidence was tested again with newer and more sensitive forensic technology. The outcomes showed DNA profiles for two unknown men, not Santillan.

Investigators were able to find one match for the DNA in a police database. That person helped lead investigators to the identity of the man police now suspect was the real killer. That man was arrested and will now stand trial for Wittman’s murder. His name has not yet been released because he was a juvenile at the time.

“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. 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,” said Dallas Police Chief Eddie Garcia.

Santillan’s exoneration is the 43rd in Dallas County since 2001, when the law began allowing inmates to request post-conviction DNA tests. He’s the 70th innocent person Centurion has helped to free. Santillan’s case is a remarkable example of the justice system recognizing and correcting its errors, paving the way for true justice for all.

Mark Long

At Dallas Metro, Mark has the freedom to explore his interests and delve deep into stories that matter. Whether he's investigating corruption in local government or writing about the latest trends in technology, Mark brings his own brand of wit and insight to every piece he writes.

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