Martin Santillan

Time Served: 25 Years

Martin Santillan listens to Paul Casteleiro of Centurion Ministries after the exoneration hearing of the 1997 capital murder of Damond Wittman on Wednesday, March 22, 2023, at Frank Crowley Courts Building.
Source: Yfat Yossifor | KERA
20 Years


Martin Santillan was represented by Centurion Ministries, with IPTX serving as local counsel. On July 14, 1997, Damond Wittman was shot and killed outside of a nightclub in the Deep Ellum entertainment district of Dallas. Wittman was standing in the parking lot smoking with friends when a young Latino male wearing a Dallas Stars hockey jersey approached them and asked for a cigarette. Wittman gave the perpetrator a cigarette who then turned back, produced a gun and demanded money. A struggle ensued and Wittman was shot multiple times. The perpetrator ran from the scene. Wittman was later pronounced dead at the hospital.

Witnesses stated that the perpetrator was young, possibly 17 or 18, with short hair and either clean shaven or only a day’s growth of facial hair.  A Dallas Stars jersey was found several blocks away and shell casings and a cigarette butt were recovered from the scene.

Arrest & Trial

Within a few days of the Wittman’s death, a reward of $5,000 was offered by the Deep Ellum Association and a call was made to Crime Stoppers stating that Martin Santillan was the perpetrator.  A photo lineup was created and shown to four eye witnesses.  Only one of the eye witnesses identified Martin Santillan as the gunman despite the fact that a number of physical characteristics did not match the original eye witness descriptions. At the time, Santillan had a mustache, goatee, and a full head of hair and wore earrings. None of the witnesses had listed any of those features in their initial descriptions of the gunman.

Mr. Santillan was arrested on July 22, 1997 and charged with first-degree murder.  He went to trial in March of 1998. DNA testing of the hockey jersey indicated the victim’s blood was present but no evidence of Mr. Santillan’s DNA was detected. A cigarette butt that was tested also showed no evidence of his DNA.  The prosecution maintained that this was because the cigarette was not the one given to Mr. Santillan by the victim.  Mr. Santillan presented five eye witnesses who testified that he was at another nightclub in a different area of Dallas at the time of the shooting.  The jury convicted Mr. Santillan of first-degree murder and he was sentenced to life in prison.


Mr. Santillan challenged his case on direct appeal and a previous writ of habeas corpus, both of which were denied. Mr. Santillan also sought post-conviction DNA testing, which was also denied.

In 2008, the case was brought to the attention of the Dallas County DA’s Office’s CIU by Centurion. 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, the CIU was again asked to review Mr. Santillan’s case and agreed to submit the jersey for testing using a newer, more sensitive DNA testing kit. DNA technology finally yielded results and biological deposits found on the cuffs of the jersey sleeves revealed DNA profiles of two unknown individuals. A CODIS hit identified one of the individuals who gave information leading to the identity of the actual perpetrator, and a joint investigation between the CIU and the Dallas Police Department ensued. On December 13, 2022, the district judge recommended that Santillan’s conviction be vacated.  He was releases on bond the next day.


On February 22, 2023, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted the writ of habeas corpus and remanded the case to Dallas County for a final resolution. On March 21, 2023, the case was dismissed in Dallas district court.

Martin Santillan embraces friend Angie Bell after his exoneration on March 22nd, 2023.
Source: Shafkat Anowar | Dallas Morning News

Media Coverage

Systemic Failures Have Wrongly
Imprisoned Thousands of
Innocent Texans.

The Generosity of Their Fellow Citizens Can Provide Them
The Freedom They Deserve.

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