Dallas man freed after 17 years in prison for wrongful murder conviction

After serving 17 years in prison for the murder of a Dallas teenager, Quintin Alonzo is now a free man.

The real killer confessed to the crime years ago and was eventually executed for also murdering a Dallas police officer. But it would still take years for Alonzo to be exonerated.

It's hard to say one thing led to this man spending nearly half of his life behind bars. Attorneys say there was false testimony in the trial, legal restrictions that kept the real killer's confession from becoming public and a lengthy investigation to prove Alonzo was, in fact, innocent.

“It's the court's hope that the next 17 years are happier than your last 17 years,” said Dallas County Judge Carter Thompson.

A 10-minute hearing concluded nearly two decades behind bars for 38-year-old Quintin Alonzo, who got a tearful hug from his mother before the two left the courthouse.

There were few words from Alonzo himself.

“The person who inspires me the most is my mother because she's been there through the good and hard times,” he said.

On June 9, 2001, Santos Gauna was a Molina High School graduate who was days away from joining the Marines. He was gunned down outside his West Dallas home at his send-off party. His mother and father also shot, but they survived.

Alonzo's attorney says it was an eyewitness to Gauna's murder who mistakenly identified Alonzo in a photo lineup. It was followed by a shoddy police investigation that began his long, unfortunate tangle with the legal system.

“For the most part, that was the end of the investigation when an eye-witness identified my client,” said Julie Lesser, Alonzo’s attorney.

The man who opened fire was then-19-year-old Licho Escamilla, who was infamously captured on video throwing a pitcher of water at the jury during his capital murder trial for the shooting death of Dallas Police Officer Kevin James.

Even though Escamilla had confessed to his attorneys to also killing Gauna, it was never revealed because of attorney-client privilege. Along the way, attorneys say there was also false testimony in Alonzo's trial.

It wasn't until the eve of Escamilla's execution in 2015 that he confessed again. This time, he confessed to prosecutors with the Conviction Integrity Unit which launched their own investigation into Alonzo's innocence.

“That's why it's so critical for us to have this kind of unit,” said Dallas County District Attorney Faith Johnson. “So that if something happened and it was wrong, that we have a unit that can now go back and investigate and say we are going to undo this.”

The head of the Conviction Integrity Unit says proving Alonzo's innocence was also trickier than most cases because it lacked DNA evidence. His case was fast-tracked at the end with attorneys on both sides working around the clock to make things happen so he could attend his daughter's high school graduation.