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Court asked to toss high-profile NYC murder conviction, after DA won't

Dateline NBC

Jon-Adrian Velazquez, who is serving a 25-years-to-life sentence in Sing Sing prison for killing a former New York City police officer, in his cell in 2011.

NEW YORK -- Attorneys for a New York City man serving a 25-years-to-life sentence for the murder of a retired police officer on Thursday filed a motion demanding a new trial for their client, calling the Manhattan district attorney’s decision not to toss out the verdict after an extensive re-investigation of the case a “cruel joke.”

The mother of Jon-Adrian Velazquez, the man convicted of the killing, was near tears as she joined attorneys Robert Gottlieb and Celia Gordon during a morning news conference outside a state courthouse in lower Manhattan to announce the filing of a motion to vacate his murder conviction. “It’s 15 years later and I’m still standing here at 100 Centre St.,” said Maria Velazquez. “But I am hopeful, and so is Jon-Adrian, that we will get justice. He must be a free man, because he is an innocent man, and we have proven it.”

In a case based on witnesses’ testimony, Velazquez, then 22, was arrested and later convicted of second-degree murder in the 1998 death of ex-cop Albert Ward, who ran an illegal gambling parlor in Harlem. His case and new information suggesting he may have been wrongfully convicted were the focus of a 2012 “Dateline NBC” investigation.

Velazquez’s attorneys also used Thursday’s news conference to blast District Attorney Cyrus Vance and his Conviction Integrity Program, which reviewed evidence in the high-profile case for 18 months and then opted to leave Velazquez in Sing-Sing Prison.

Jon-Adrian Velazquez, serving 25 years to life at Sing Sing prison for the murder of a retired cop, started writing letters to a Dateline producer in 2002. He claimed he was wrongfully convicted and challenged Dateline to find any evidence of his guilt. A 10-year investigation begins. Luke Russert reports.

Gottlieb said he was shocked that the Conviction Integrity Program had decided to let the conviction stand despite what he called recantations by some original witnesses and accounts from newly located witnesses who said the killer was a man named “Mustafa.”

“The entire case was based on eyewitness identifications,” said Gottlieb. “Since the 1999 trial we have learned so much more about the fallibility of eyewitness accounts. There is nothing left justifying Jon-Adrian Velazquez spending one more moment in prison.”

Gottlieb said he regretted trusting the Conviction Integrity Unit and that Vance – on whose transition team he served in 2010 -- had played a “cruel joke” on the Velazquez family.

“We were optimistic and hopeful, knowing what we know, that justice would be done speedily and Jon-Adrian would walk out of Sing Sing,” he said. “We were wrong.”

On Jan. 27, 1998, half a dozen people -- nearly all drug users or dealers, according to trial testimony -- were inside the gambling parlor when two men came in and announced a robbery.  Witnesses told police that one of the men had a gun; the other started binding people with duct tape.  A struggle ensued and Ward was shot once in the head by the gunman. 

Witnesses described the two perpetrators as a dark-skinned black man and a light-skinned black man with braided hair and a knit cap.

Velazquez, who is Hispanic and had never worn his hair in braids, according to court records, was later arrested after a witness picked his photo from a book of police mug shots, and two other witnesses corroborated the identification.

Velazquez, who said he was at home speaking on the phone with his mother at the time of the robbery, and had a phone bill that he says proved it, has always maintained his innocence. He started writing letters to a “Dateline” producer in 2002, claiming he was wrongfully convicted and challenging “Dateline” to find any evidence of his guilt.

In 2012, according to Gottlieb, two witnesses came forward to say that a light-skinned crack dealer named Mustafa who wore his hair in dreadlocks told them he was involved in the shooting.

Gottlieb said that when the DA’s office questioned the witnesses, it tried to undercut their credibility and ultimately discounted their stories.

Related stories:

Manhattan DA keeps high-profile murder conviction after review

Witness error: How mind tricks can put the innocent behind bars

The Manhattan DA’s office began looking into the case in October 2011 at the request of Velazquez’s attorneys. The decision not to challenge the conviction was announced in a 16-page letter to Velazquez’s attorney last month.

In a statement, Erin Duggan, chief spokeswoman for the DA, said that the reinvestigation “did not uncover evidence sufficient to demonstrate that Mr. Velazquez is innocent of the crimes for which he was tried and convicted by a jury. This is now a court matter and we will respond in due course to the motion filed today. But it is beyond baffling that these lawyers, who spent many hours with many senior prosecutors working on this reinvestigation, would vilify the District Attorney’s Office now that the result is not what they had hoped for. Any suggestion that this was other than a thorough re-investigation is, simply put, false.”

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