Jon-Adrian Velazquez has received more attention than most inmates who claim innocence. He’s served more than fourteen years of a 25-years-to-life sentence in prison after being convicted of the shooting of retired New York City police officer Albert Ward during a hold-up at an illegal betting parlor allegedly operated by Ward. The case prompted many lingering questions, but an 18-month official review has apparently not provided a broader consensus that justice has been served, nor that a new review initiative will be effective in addressing possible wrongful convictions.
Velazquez was identified by several witnesses in a lineup although he didn’t resemble the description provided by witnesses shortly after the crime. In an NBC “Dateline” segment, two witnesses expressed doubts about their selection; one recanted but later reversed again.
The inmate won support from Actor Martin Sheen, which raised the profile of the case. Sheen continues to work for his exoneration.
Velazquez’s case was accepted for review by the then newly-formed Conviction Integrity Unit established by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. In fact, a post on this blog on February 14, 2012 (here) looked forward to the potential of the Conviction Integrity Unit to review innocence claims in worthy cases such as this one. Vance’s concept establishes the original assistant prosecutor as the first to review the case to determine whether or not it should be accepted for further investigation by the Conviction Integrity Unit. When Velazquez’s case survived this hurdle, many felt it would become a good test for Vance’s initiative.
Among many questions in this case was the unexplained inconsistency between the description by the witnesses shortly after the crime and the man selected in the lineup. Were witnesses pressured to identify Velasquez? How compromised were the witnesses at the time they made the identification? What was the relationship between Velazquez and Derry Daniels, who pleaded guilty and said Velasquez was his accomplice? Velazquez said he never met Daniels, a man with a significant criminal record.
After its 18-month investigation, the DA’s office has reported that the Conviction Integrity Unit found no evidence sufficient to recommend vacating Velazquez’s verdict.
Not surprisingly, the decision was not well received by Velazquez’s lawyers. According to an NBC report (here), one of them, Robert Gottlieb called the investigation “a joke and a farce.” Gottlieb, who served on Vance’s transition team in 2010, gave a scathing review of the effort. “The conviction integrity unit is nothing more than a conviction protection racket,” he told NBC News.
Gottlieb was present at the Conviction Integrity Unit’s interviews of witnesses and said that they were “treated like criminals” and their accounts were discounted.
Erin Dougan, spokeswoman for the DA’s office countered to NBC that the investigation included “interviewing many witnesses and conducting an in-depth review of documentary and physical evidence from a range of sources.”
The witnesses interviewed, however, did not include Velazquez’s mother and girlfriend at the time, who had testified under oath that Velazquez was talking with them on the phone at the time of the crime.
Unfortunately, if the investigation found answers to the questions surrounding this case, they were not shared publicly or with Velazquez’s lawyers, who will pursue a court motion to vacate his convictions.
Meanwhile the Wall Street Journal reported (here) that Blind Justice, a non-profit advocacy group, will run ads calling for conviction integrity with a message featuring the Velazquez case. The 30-second ad can be viewed (here).
The test of the effectiveness of a new program such as DA Vance’s Conviction Integrity Unit is not determined by whether or not a conviction is overturned per se. Ideally, however, all sides should be satisfied that the review was comprehensive enough to support and provide credibility to the resulting decision. An important step toward establishing public confidence in the Velazquez decision would be to share what the investigation revealed about the longstanding troubling questions in the case.
The outcome of the Conviction Integrity Unit’s investigation unfortunately leaves many questions still unanswered, not only about the Velazquez case but also about the authenticity of the Conviction Integrity Unit itself.