I watched Dateline last night and saw a program about Jon-Adrian Velazquez. His story is in the papers today.
Like so many other stories of wrongful convictions I have watched, I am amazed at the strength these people have to keep fighting their uphill battle. As one D.A. commented on last night’s program, once you are convicted, it is next to impossible to have that conviction overturned – even when everything points to the fact that the case was mishandled and the evidence was manufactured.
When Jon-Adrian heard the police were looking for him, he knew there was a mistake. A retired police officer, Albert Ward, had been shot and killed in a numbers parlor (illegal gambling) during a botched robbbery.
Jon-Adrian voluntarily walked into the police station, agreed to talk to the police and even agreed to stand in a lineup. He felt he had nothing to worry about since he did nothing wrong. He couldn’t have been more wrong. Velazquez was fingered in that lineup.
Police honed in on Velazquez, now 36, after one witness, Augustus Brown, identified him after sifting through 1,800 mugshots. Jon-Adrian, although now a family man attending school to become a computer programmer, had been arrested on a minor drug bust when he was younger; hence, his photo was in police records.
In the Velazquez case, the witnesses said the man who killed the retired police officer was a black man with a light complexion and braids, a description that led police sketch artists to create a wanted poster. The man with braids in the poster looks nothing like Velazquez.
Dorothy Canady said she would never forget the man who shot a retired New York City police officer, but at trial she identified Juror No. 6 as the assailant. Another witness to the crime said the attacker was a black man with braids, yet he picked a Hispanic man with short hair out of a photo lineup.
Three of the six witnesses who viewed that lineup chose Velazquez and three did not, including the woman who later picked out juror No. 6 at the trial. However, days later she returned to the police station and said she had decided it was the man in position two — Velazquez.
“Every eyewitness … said the shooter was a male black with braids, so how in heaven’s name is the shooter ultimately said to be a male Hispanic with short cropped hair?” Gottlieb, Velazquez’s attorney, asked rhetorically. “Something went wrong in the process.”
The police station lineup that resulted in Velazquez’s identification as the suspected killer was equally “absurd,” he said.
“Everyone looks either Hispanic or Caucasian; there isn’t one male black with braids in that lineup, so you start off with a rotten lineup,” Gottlieb said. “And then you have eyewitnesses who identify a Hispanic male and each of those eyewitnesses were vulnerable individuals — drug dealers, drug users, down and out individuals — who were very vulnerable to police manipulation, police suggestiveness.”
In fact, in last night’s program, one of the men who identified Velazquez has since recanted and has signed an affidavit stating he was coerced into identifying Velazquez. His name is Phillip Jones. In his affidavit he says:
“I told the police this was the guy and I was sure, but this was not the truth. I felt pressured because the police were threatening to arrest me and my brother Robert for stealing money that Albert dropped on the floor after being shot. I was arrested some time after Albert Ward was killed and two detectives came to visit me upstate in Groveland Prison. The detectives told me they got the right guy and would help me get parole. I decided to testify at the trial because I felt pressured by the police. When I saw the deft. (defendant) in court, I looked in his eyes and knew I had picked out the wrong guy, and the guy on trial I had never seen before.”
There was no physical evidence tying Velazquez to the shooting and he had an alibi – a 75 minute phone call from his apartment to his mother’s number. The crime took place during the call. The police could not make any connections between Velazquez and those who were at the numbers parlor where the retired police officer was shot and killed.
Even in cases where DNA can exonerate a person, it is still an uphill battle to get the conviction overturned. Here, you have a case of questionable witnesses who made questionable identifications amidst a questionable police investigation.
The Innocence Project, a nonprofit group dedicated to freeing the wrongfully convicted through DNA testing and to criminal justice system reform, has helped win freedom for nearly 300 prisoners in 35 states — including 17 who spent time on death rows — in its 20 years of existence.
In 75 percent of those cases, the leading factor in their convictions was witness identification; in 36 percent of those cases, convictions were in part based on an identification made by more than one person, said Karen Newirth, eyewitness identification litigation fellow at the Innocence Project.
Fortunately, there may be hope for changing the way the justice system works to help avoid future wrongful convictions.
Some jurisdictions have opted for “blind administration” of a lineup – where the officer conducting it has nothing to do with the case and does not know who is the suspect. The officer is also instructed to tell witnesses that the suspect may not even be in the lineup and record statements on how confident the witness is about their selection.
Due to the problems with wrongful convictions, states, courts, district attorneys and police have worked to implement changes. At least 13 states have enacted some form of legislation implementing many of the Innocent Project lineup reforms.
Also, in the Dateline program, the Manhattan D.A.’s office said it has created a program to review questionable cases where individuals may have been wrongfully convicted. That is a step in the right direction and I say Kudos to the D.A.’s office for looking into those cases. New York County District Attorney’s Cyrus R. Vance Jr. began the program when he took office in 2010.
District attorneys in Chicago, Santa Clara County, Calif., Dallas and Houston have also created units to review questionable cases. Dallas County was the first to do so in 2007, when the newly elected district attorney formed a four-person unit to review 500 cases where defendants claimed their innocence. Until then, authorities had routinely rejected all such claims, said District Attorney Craig Watkins.
“Basically, 90 percent of the first cases that we looked at turned out to be cases where the defendant was telling the truth, they didn’t commit the crime,” he said. “… We started looking at all cases. We started taking requests from defense attorneys. We started actually reading the letters from defendants.”
Witness identification was the No. 1 problem investigators came across in the initial cases, which had DNA evidence that could be tested, Watkins said. “Everyone that had been exonerated had been wrongfully ID’d,” he said. “There was somewhat of a suggestive nature to pick a certain person and so we advocated first with the police departments to change their procedures and they did.”
They’ve now started to work on cases where there is no DNA to test. Five of their 15 exonerations have been in non-DNA cases.
Scott Burns, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association, said it would not be feasible for many of the country’s nearly 3,000 D.A. offices to have such units since about 85 percent of them have five or fewer lawyers.
Gottlieb asked New York County District Attorney’s unit in October to review Velazquez’s case, but he said prior to publication that he has not yet received an official decision though the two sides have been meeting.
“This unit is a great innovation as long as it is implemented not for show but for real results. … it now really depends on the commitment of people who have the power to undertake this work objectively, no matter where it leads,” Gottlieb said.
“Every day of the week, people are arrested, people are locked up … and it turns out that there are times that those people are in fact innocent,” he added. “For the public that would be fearful that, ‘Jesus, we start opening the jails for people all these years later who say that they’re innocent … that’s a frightening thought,’ except if they realize that that person being locked up meant that the real killer was not … that should be much more frightening for people to accept than what would happen if we released Jon-Adrian Velazquez.”
For now, Jon-Adrian Velazquez is still serving his sentence of 25 to life for second-degree murder. He has been behind bars for 14 years. During this time, he has formed close relationships with his two sons.
After losing his appeals, Jon-Adrian saw a program on Dateline where Dateline had investigated a case, which ultimately exonerated two individuals. Jon-Adrain began writing emotional letters to Dateline begging them to help him. They decided to look into his case and have made his cause a national one. Let’s hope that the justice system does the right thing by reviewing this case and giving this man a chance to prove he did not commit this crime.
I would like to mention the name of Velazquez’s other attorney, Celia Gordon. Along with Gottlieb, she is working to compel the Manhattan District Attorney’s office to re-open the case.
There is a Facebook page devoted to freeing Velazquez @ facebook
Read story and watch video@ msnbc