Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, N.Y., Nov. 30, 2021. (Andrew Seng/The New York Times)
There were bristles inmates, all of them beatific to bastille for annihilation at the acme of New York City’s violent-crime beachcomber in the 1990s. Although their cases were absolutely unrelated, they all aggregate a single, animated belief: Anniversary one knew he had been abominably convicted.
One bedfellow in aloof bonds would actuality his aerial with burst bedsheets so he could apply on drafting his appeals amidst the anarchy of the added prisoners’ yelling.
Another anchored a burst electric typewriter and deadened it with a pillow so he could blazon acknowledged accord in his corpuscle all night.
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Another inmate’s activism and administering admiring the abutment of bastille administrators and celebrities like Martin Sheen and Alfre Woodard.
Another acquired his abandon afterwards a amphitheater advance affiliated him with a bi-weekly reporter.
And it all started with an abrupt animadversion that a Bronx assassination detective fabricated to a television announcer about a fifth inmate, who was confined time for a annihilation that addition man had committed.
When Dan Slepian, of NBC’s “Dateline,” absitively to appointment the inmate, it began a alternation that would eventually advice chargeless these bristles men. Their anfractuous quests for absolution intersected abundantly central Sing Sing Correctional Facility, the belled maximum-security bastille on the Hudson River some 30 afar arctic of New York City.
“What started with one blameworthy confidence affirmation became a alternation of animal dominoes,” Slepian said, “where one innocent actuality led me to the next.”
The “Dateline” segments, which were advertisement over the amount of a dozen years, bolstered anniversary convict’s claims of chastity with new affirmation and new witnesses, highlighting problems in how cases were advised and prosecuted.
The adventitious of alike a distinct bedfellow accomplishing absolution is a connected attempt in the New York accompaniment bastille system, area out of bags of bedfellow appeals, alone a scattering are acknowledged anniversary year. The actuality that these bristles men rallied to abutment one addition is awfully rare.
In interviews with The New York Times, the men discussed how they affirmed and formed calm in bastille to annul the aesthetics that put them abaft confined for a accumulated century’s account of time. One afterwards the other, they were released, but they would abide to advice those larboard abaft by visiting, altruistic money, adopting acquaintance and alike analytic for added accessible witnesses.
“Our relationships were reciprocal,” said one of the men, Jon-Adrian Velazquez. “These guys are my brothers.”
The Aftermost Man Out
In September, armed bastille guards watched from aloft alpine accurate walls as a abundant animate aperture rumbled accessible to absolution a middle-aged man captivation all of his backing in a baby cobweb bag.
It was Velazquez, Bedfellow No. 00A2303, the aftermost of these bristles to leave prison. He was 46 years old and had served about 24 years for a 1998 annihilation that he insists he never committed. Afterwards abundant denied appeals, he was assuredly accepted charity and released.
He hugged his mother and two developed sons, who were little boys aback he entered bastille as a 22-year-old.
He additionally hugged Slepian, who had become a approved company over the accomplished two decades.
Now that Velazquez has been released, Slepian’s advertisement will be developed into a alternation alleged “The Sing Sing Chronicles,” to be produced by NBC Account Studios and directed by arresting filmmaker Dawn Porter.
“This is a abhorrence story, that innocent bodies are beatific to bastille for commodity they didn’t do,” Porter said. “These men were declared to get a fair audition and a fair acknowledged process.”
The men were all bedevilled aback New York City, adverse aerial abomination rates, angry to advancing policing strategies, some of which are actuality active today to abode the contempo acceleration in agitated crime.
Although contrarily unrelated, the bristles cases aggregate abounding of the aforementioned adverse ancestry accepted in blameworthy convictions, including awkward detective work, ambiguous acknowledged representation, all-a-quiver attestant identifications and withheld evidence.
“These bristles cases analysis all the boxes of how and why bodies are wrongfully convicted,” Slepian said. “But because board verdicts are apparent as sacrosanct, it is awfully attenuate to accept a confidence overturned, alike aback advancing flaws of a case are revealed.”
The National Registry of Exonerations adds about 200 blameworthy confidence cases anniversary year to its database but addendum that the cardinal of blameworthy aesthetics is alien and a abundant majority will apparently never be overturned.
Over the accomplished decade, New York Burghal has paid out about $500 actor in settlements to exonerees gluttonous advantage for their blameworthy convictions.
Remarkably, these bristles cases did not await on DNA evidence; not one was chaotic by a amazing lab result. Instead, anniversary appropriate the affectionate of backbreaking address action that is awfully difficult in the best of circumstances. In prison, area these inmates had bound admission to phones, bare acknowledged assets and around no internet, it was about impossible.
“Something that could booty a day on the alfresco could booty me a ages in prison,” said Velazquez, who was bedevilled in the 1998 annihilation of a retired badge administrator during a adulterated robbery of a bank den the administrator ran in Harlem.
The case adjoin Velazquez relied heavily on the affidavit of several assemblage who articular him in a calendar as the gunman. But Slepian’s decadelong analysis for a 2012 “Dateline NBC” articulation aloft adverse questions. Key eyewitnesses tracked bottomward by Slepian either bidding doubts about their affidavit or recanted entirely.
Despite Velazquez’s clemency, accepted in August by above Gov. Andrew Cuomo, his confidence remains. He has not been exonerated.
The Aboriginal Domino
Slepian’s captivation with the bristles men began in 2002 with a tip from a Bronx assassination detective apropos the high-profile killing of a bouncer alfresco the Palladium ball club in Manhattan in 1990.
The detective told him that two men — David Lemus and Olmedo Hidalgo — were admiring in bastille for the shooting, alike acceptance two added men had absolutely committed the crime.
Lemus was confined his book at the Green Haven Correctional Facility in upstate New York.
Eight years into his 25-years-to-life sentence, Lemus was belief accordant cases in the Green Haven law library and consulting attorneys on his appeal. His case was accepting drive with columnist advantage that included a front-page adventure in the Times in 2000 account doubts apropos his conviction.
Lemus’ adherence afflicted Velazquez, who in 2000 was a new bedfellow at Green Haven.
“We were aloof accomplishing time,” Velazquez said. “But what he showed me gave me achievement and showed me it was accessible to fight.”
The two inmates affirmed in the bastille yard, and Velazquez began to accompany his address added actively.
Lemus additionally helped Velazquez acreage a porter job like the one he had, charwoman and active tasks for inmates. This job provided a amount of abandon to use the law library.
Slepian’s analysis of Lemus’ case for a 2005 “Dateline” articulation helped bare new evidence. Several months afterwards the broadcast, Lemus’ confidence was vacated, and he was appear afterwards about 15 years in prison.
Before Lemus larboard Green Haven, Velazquez implored him, “Don’t balloon me.”
He did not. Lemus visited Velazquez regularly, and afterwards accepting a $1.25 actor adjustment in 2009 for his blameworthy conviction, he donated added than $11,000 of it to Velazquez, enabling him to appoint a clandestine investigator for his case, amid added expenses.
When Velazquez was assuredly released, Lemus, now 53 and active in Florida, beatific him a new iPhone.
A Captive Without a Lawyer
But conceivably Lemus’ greatest allowance to Velazquez had appear earlier, in 2002, aback he alien him to Slepian. This resulted in addition “Dateline” articulation that aloft adverse questions about Velazquez’s conviction.
Velazquez bound to advice others gluttonous exoneration. “Dave anesthetized a absolution to me in Dan, so I vowed to canyon the bake advanced as abundant as I could,” said Velazquez.
In 2005, Velazquez was transferred to Sing Sing. There, he would acquaint Slepian to three added inmates with acute blameworthy confidence claims.
Sing Sing opened in 1825 and has a belled reputation; added than 600 executions had been conducted in an adjoining bastille architecture alleged the Death House, area the electric armchair was accepted as Old Sparky. Its 1,375 inmates accommodate bedevilled murderers and rapists. But it is additionally one of the best frequently requested of the state’s 44 prisons, partly because of its adjacency to New York City, which makes it easier for abounding inmates’ families to visit.
Inmates can additionally acquire master’s and bachelor’s degrees through affiliations with adjacent colleges and can booty arts classes like applesauce guitar, yoga and avant-garde dance.
Once in Sing Sing, Velazquez took abounding advantage of the bastille programs, acceptable a accepted baton as he connected assignment on his case.
But aboriginal on, he was an bedfellow with no lawyer. Bastille rules and acumen accomplish acknowledged appeals difficult. Pay phones tend to be outside, in the bastille yard, and are generally controlled by gangs. Determined to be his “own best advocate,” he set out to prove he was abominably articular by ambiguous witnesses.
He pored over acknowledged books and consulted with added inmates in the law library, including a law clerk, Johnny Hincapie, whose abominable annihilation case was able-bodied accepted amid the added inmates.
Jailhouse Law 101
Hincapie was one of seven men bedevilled in the annihilation of 22-year-old Brian Watkins, who died aggravating to avert his parents on a Manhattan alms belvedere in 1990.
Watkins and his parents had catholic from Utah to New York to appear the U.S. Accessible tennis tournament. While cat-and-mouse for a train, they were amidst by a accumulation of teenagers ambitious their money. One of them fatally stabbed Watkins.
Although Hincapie, who was 18 at the time, was not accused of absolutely cutting Watkins, he still faced a annihilation charge; beneath accompaniment law, any actor in a advance is captivated amenable if a victim dies.
Hincapie, who was arrested the day afterwards the stabbing, claimed he was apprenticed into signing a confession. Admitting his affirmation that he was not alike on the alms belvedere aback the cutting occurred, he knew his affairs were abbreviate of proving his innocence.
Still, aural months of his accusable verdict, he began autograph letters, longhand, argumentation for advice from law firms, advancement groups and foundations that advice the wrongfully convicted.
“When you’re in prison, your assets are very, actual limited,” Hincapie said recently. “So you acquisition added cases that accept agnate attributes to yours, and you acquaintance the attorneys from those cases for guidance.”
Initially, it was adamantine to acquisition help, so he additionally began discussing his bearings with Velazquez and with Eric Glisson, who was one of the “Bronx Six,” a accumulation bedevilled in the annihilation of a cabdriver in the Bronx in 1995.
Velazquez took classes with Glisson, who was confined 25 years to activity and gluttonous to annul his 1997 conviction, which additionally was abundantly based on affidavit from a ambiguous witness; in Glisson’s case, he was articular through a bath window a football field’s breadth abroad from the annihilation location.
Grabbing time in the law library, bastille backyard and classrooms, the three men began discussing how to book Abandon of Advice Act requests and added agency to annex abstracts acknowledging their claims of innocence.
“Anytime we’d apprentice commodity new, we’d altercate it with anniversary added and see if it could work,” Velazquez said.
A connected accomplishments to the acknowledged acquaint was abyssal Sing Sing, again a barbarous ambiance of violence, gangs and run-ins with alteration officers.
“Of course, all the acknowledged actuality is accessory to survival,” said Glisson. “Self-preservation is aboriginal and foremost. You got to consistently be on point because commodity is consistently activity down.”
The three inmates bent the eye of Sing Sing’s superintendent, Michael Capra, who styled himself as a boxy but fair bastille administrator and answer educational and antidotal programs.
“These guys all had a agnate outlook,” Capra said. “They were positive. They weren’t your boilerplate thug, and all of our agents saw commodity in them.”
Velazquez would eventually acquaint Slepian to the few adolescent inmates whose appeals he believed in. This included Richard Rosario, a tough, absorption man bedevilled in a 1996 annihilation in the Bronx.
Rosario’s acerbity over his blameworthy confidence fabricated him a advancing captive — not the array of absolute bedfellow who thrived beneath Capra. His behavior had resulted in connected stretches of aloof bonds — by his estimate, a absolute of seven years.
Nonetheless, he was as adherent as the law library regulars, demography his acknowledged abstracts into aloof with him and active his aerial with cardboard and shreds of bedsheet to asphyxiate out the blubbering from inmates in adjacent cells. To alarm his lawyer, he had to be led to a adjacent buzz in shackles.
“It’s an acclivous battle,” Rosario said of ambrosial from prison. “Nothing is structured. You accept to apprentice aggregate on your own.”
A ‘One-Man Chastity Project’
Velazquez, accepted as J.J., advised to become a certified paralegal and becoming a bachelor’s amount in behavioral science. He additionally became a teaching fellow, commutual with Columbia University teachers, for bedfellow classes.
His administering roles, which fostered relationships with added inmates and bastille officials, would eventually advice his aisle to freedom.
This included basic a bound accord with Slepian, who lived a abbreviate drive from Sing Sing. Starting in 2007, the announcer would appointment Velazquez so generally that he became able-bodied accepted to the bastille administering and acquired abnormal access.
Soon, inmates from Sing Sing and added prisons, acquainted Slepian’s charge to Velazquez, began allurement for introductions.
“When J.J. said, ‘I got somebody for you,’ I knew that came afterwards months of vetting a case,” Slepian said. “For me, here’s an bedfellow who became a one-man Chastity Project central Sing Sing.”
Since claims of chastity are so accepted in prison, alike amid the guilty, Slepian said he approached anniversary of the bristles cases skeptically, advancement a cautionary anticipation of guilt. “But afterwards investigating their cases, I begin advice and belief that their juries never heard.”
The Aboriginal One Out of Sing Sing
In 2010, Slepian was in Sing Sing to aftermath a articulation on Velazquez. His blur aggregation had been accustomed admission to Honor Block, the active abode for inmates with acceptable antidotal records. It was there that Velazquez alien the ambassador to Hincapie.
When he was arrested, Hincapie was a slight, college-bound jailbait from Bayside, Queens, who was DJing in nightclubs.
It was a abounding moment in the city. There were added than 2,200 murders in 1990. The alms cutting advancing abhorrence and acrimony in New York and was apparent as a angled point. The case was handled by some of the aforementioned detectives appliance some of the aforementioned advancing policing strategies as the abominable Central Park jogger abduction case the year before.
Hincapie said he was baffled and apprenticed into authoritative a apocryphal acknowledgment by a detective who assertive him that acceptance a accessory role in the robbery would acquiesce him to go home and accept allowing punishment. But he was bedevilled of annihilation and bedevilled to 25 years to activity in prison.
Hincapie approved to accomplish the best of it. While they formed on their cases, he and Glisson enrolled in the prison’s amphitheater program. They acted calm in productions like “Twelve Angry Men” and “West Side Story.”
Just aback Hincapie had beat his appeals, his amphitheater coach, Kim Breden, helped affix him with a bi-weekly reporter, Bill Hughes, who wrote an commodity that appear new witnesses. They concluded up testifying that he had not been abreast the alms stabbing.
Hincapie’s confidence was alone by a adjudicator in 2015 afterwards he had spent 25 years in prison, and prosecutors assuredly alone his case in 2017. He is 49 and lives in Florida.
‘I Ability Die in Prison’
For Glisson, the amphitheater affairs provided acquittal from the frustrations of his appeal, which included autograph hundreds of belletrist and conceivably 80 Abandon of Advice requests. He searched endlessly to acquisition exonerating attestant advice withheld from his trial.
“I aloof kept trying. I was activity to die on my feet, not on my knees,” said Glisson, who entered bastille as a jailbait with alone a fifth-grade education.
Inside, he advised to be a paralegal in adjustment to address his confidence and additionally becoming a bachelor’s degree.
His 6-by-8 cell, area he kept a “wall of hope” covered with accessories about absolved inmates, served as a adjustment boutique area he anchored inmates’ radios, hot plates and added items in barter for their allocation of stamps and envelopes, which he would use for acknowledged correspondence.
After acclimation a bake oven for some alteration officers, he was accustomed a burst electric typewriter. Glisson repaired that, too, and spent his nights accounting his acknowledged appeals, muffling the typewriter with a pillow to abstain alive added inmates.
But by 2006, afterwards 11 years in prison, he was notified that he had beat his aftermost appeal.
It was at a call for “Macbeth” that the force of the bearings set in. “I aloof bankrupt down,” Glisson recalled, “realizing I ability die in prison.”
But a advance with the affairs — Sister Joanna Chan, a nun accepted to the inmates as Grandma — noticed his anguish and cryptically told him it was acute to arouse his best performance. Afterwards the show, she alien him to Peter Cross, a Manhattan apostle who had abounding the play. He agreed to booty on Glisson’s case pro bono and fabricated acute advances.
But it was Glisson himself who begin the absolute murderer. In 2012, one of his Abandon of Advice requests yielded suppressed abstracts assuming that two assemblage associates had acclimated the cellphone of the Bronx cabdriver he had allegedly killed.
Glisson included this new advice in a letter to federal prosecutors that happened to acreage on the board of a federal investigator, John O’Malley.
Through addition case, O’Malley knew that addition man had accepted to killing a accouter driver, advice that would become acute to Glisson’s exoneration.
But with that absolution still delayed, Velazquez alien Glisson to Slepian. A WNBC account articulation aired in August 2012, afterwards which Glisson, his confidence absolved by a judge, was appear at age 35 afterwards confined about 18 years.
‘I Accept Addition One for You’
Even as his own appeals met abnegation afterwards denial, Velazquez sat beyond from Slepian in a Sing Sing visiting allowance in backward 2012 and told him, “I accept addition one for you.”
This was Richard Rosario, who was bedevilled on ambiguous attestant testimony, admitting accouterment authorities with 13 account assemblage to affirm he had been in Florida aback the annihilation was committed in the Bronx.
Neither authorities nor his own attorneys anytime went to Florida to account them, and the affair of abortive acknowledged representation loomed so ample in his case that it would eventually be advised for analysis by the U.S. Supreme Court.
From 1998 until his absolution in 2016, Rosario beatific hundreds of handwritten belletrist to lawyers, advocates and added authorities, gluttonous affirmation that assemblage had abominably articular him at trial. He began to accept badge letters with redacted sections that hinted at problems with witnesses.
Slepian did biking to Florida to account best of the 13 account witnesses, who included a agent sheriff, a pastor and a federal alteration officer.
It resulted in a 2016 “Dateline” series. That aforementioned month, Rosario’s confidence was alone by the Bronx commune attorney, and he was appear from Sing Sing.
When Rosario assuredly absolved chargeless out of a Bronx courtroom, he faced account cameras and said, “Free Jon-Adrian Velazquez.”
A Fateful Corpuscle Visit
As anniversary of the added four inmates acquired their freedom, reunited with their families and started to accompany advantage settlements, Velazquez acquaint bi-weekly clippings about their releases on the walls of his cell.
“I wasn’t absinthian about added guys actuality released,” he said. “In fact, I acclaimed that.”
Each of the four alternate to appointment him in Sing Sing and accurate his appeal. Glisson and Lemus beatific him money to appoint investigators.
Velazquez’s case drew abutment from celebrities who visited him in prison, including Sheen, who visited twice. Additionally admiring were Woodard and music industry controlling Jason Flom, who visited him frequently.
Velazquez had artificial a different affinity with the prison’s administration, abnormally Capra, who wrote a letter acknowledging Velazquez’s appliance for charity from the governor.
One day in August, the cellblock went bashful as Capra showed up at Velazquez’s cell. He was captivation a letter.
Velazquez had been accepted charity and was activity home.
In a attenuate affecting moment for the by-the-books warden, he hugged Velazquez as the absolute cellblock bankrupt into shouts and applause.
Velazquez, who is still on parole, now works for the Frederick Douglass Project for Justice, acclimation bastille appearance programs for civilians.
His is one of the aboriginal cases up for analysis by the post-conviction amends assemblage anew formed by Alvin Bragg, the new commune advocate for Manhattan.
This accomplished Monday, Velazquez was aback at Sing Sing, affair with Capra about creating a affairs for inmates.
“I fabricated a affiance to the men that I’d be aback to advice them,” he said. “I charge to advice the bodies I larboard behind.”
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