By Jennifer Peltz
Prosecutors have turned down an inmate's bid to be cleared in the 1998 killing of a retired police officer, an exoneration effort championed by actor Martin Sheen.
After an 18-month review of information including eyewitness recantations and a new claim that someone else confessed to the crime, the Manhattan district attorney's office declined this week to ask a judge to dismiss the case against Jon-Adrian Velazquez.
"We have not found evidence sufficient to demonstrate that Mr. Velazquez is innocent, as he claims," chief spokeswoman Erin Duggan said in a statement to The Associated Press. Prosecutors said the recantations didn't merit overturning the case, and the potential other suspect didn't pan out.
Velazquez's lawyers, Robert Gottlieb and Celia Gordon, now plan to ask a court to overturn his conviction and order a new trial.
"The Manhattan DA has decided to walk away from this innocent man who has been wrongfully convicted and incarcerated for more than 14 years," they said in a statement.
The case has been a high-profile project for one of DA Cyrus R. Vance Jr.'s signature initiatives, a unit that investigates wrongful-conviction claims. Sheen spotlighted Velazquez's quest after visiting him in prison in 2011, telling reporters he came away convinced the inmate was innocent and "a young man on fire with the truth."
Unlike many wrongful conviction claims that hinge on DNA evidence, Velazquez's case points up the complexities of another legal issue: the reliability of eyewitness identifications of suspects. Such ID's are a longstanding part of criminal prosecutions, but they also have factored in many convictions later overturned because of DNA.
Velazquez is serving 25 years to life in prison after being convicted of shooting long-retired officer Albert Ward during a hold-up in an underground betting parlor.
Velazquez and another man, Darry Daniels, were charged. Four eyewitnesses picked Velazquez in a lineup. Daniels testified while pleading guilty to robbery himself that Velazquez shot Ward, though Daniels wasn't called to testify at Velazquez' trial.
Velazquez and his mother testified that he was on the phone to her from his Bronx home at the time of the Harlem robbery.
While the suspect was described as a black man with braids, Velazquez is Hispanic and wore his hair short, his lawyers have stressed.
The witness who initially chose Velazquez's photo from police files has told Velazquez's lawyers, prosecutors and NBC's "Dateline," in a piece aired last year, that he's not sure he picked the right person. Another witness who identified Velazquez in the subsequent lineup provided a sworn recantation but has since changed his mind again, according to a letter prosecutors sent Velazquez's lawyers this week.
They said he wavered too much to be considered reliable, two other eyewitnesses stand by their identifications and courts have expressed some skepticism about recantations in general, so the issue didn't warrant tossing Velazquez's conviction.
Meanwhile, Velazquez's lawyers said a stranger rang their office last fall to say someone named Moustapha had repeatedly told acquaintances he committed the crime. Early in the 1998 investigation, police got a tip the killer was a man known by a similar name.
Prosecutors later interviewed the caller. But after poring through address and other records, they concluded the man she named wasn't in New York City on the day of Ward's killing, they said in the letter to Velazquez's lawyers.
"We have conducted this investigation with an open mind," Assistant District Attorney Bonnie Sard wrote, noting that prosecutors also talked to Velazquez himself.
But Gottlieb and Gordon said the review "has been contrary to any genuine pursuit for truth and justice." They said prosecutors didn't give enough consideration to the first eyewitness' recantation and seemed more interested in discrediting the caller than in finding out what she knew.
Shortly after taking one of the nation's most prominent prosecutor's jobs in 2010, Vance — a former defense lawyer — appointed a group of senior deputies to examine wrongful-conviction claims, an idea inspired by a similar undertaking in Dallas. Vance's Conviction Integrity Unit has recently agreed to dismissals in two cases, Duggan said.
A similar effort spurred Brooklyn prosecutors to ask a judge last month to free a man who had been imprisoned for more than two decades in the killing of a rabbi.