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Transcript: The Apology

The full transcript for Letters from Sing Sing, Episode 8: The Apology

Transcript

Letters from Sing Sing

Episode 8: The Apology

In August of 2021, Governor Andrew Cuomo grants JJ executive clemency. Three weeks later, JJ steps out of Sing Sing a free man. But he wasn’t exonerated. In the eyes of the law, he was still a convicted felon. Within the first 24 hours of his release, JJ needs to check in with the parole office. He has a curfew. He has to get permission to travel out of state. As he likes to say, he’s freer, but not free.

Soon after his release, JJ gets a job at the Frederick Douglass Project. He’s invited to give talks, run workshops. His life is focused on connecting people on the outside with those on the inside. And unbelievably, his work leads to a meeting with the President of the United States.

[ NBC CHIMES ]

DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Today actually marks a very special anniversary.

JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: It sure does. Today I celebrate one year after my release. I fought for my release almost 24 years and, uh, these last 12 months have been a lot different than the last 24 years.

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: I’m sitting with JJ in an office at NBC News. We’ve spent a lot of time together since his release.

JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: A year ago today was one of the greatest feelings in the world. I always had this, this vision of, you know, the day that would come, and I would be able to reunite with my family. And a year ago, that became a reality. And I remember just, like, walking outside of Sing Sing, and— Right there at the front where they released me, hugging my mother and my two sons. And it was like I never wanted to let go.

DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Yeah.

JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: I never wanted to let go.

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: I’m Dan Slepian, and this is the final episode of Letters from Sing Sing.

Episode 8: The Apology

On September 9th, 2021, JJ walked out of Sing Sing and began his new life. He and his family headed to a party thrown by friends and supporters — people who’d helped JJ get out, and helped his mom, Maria, keep going.

[APPLAUSE FADES UP]

MARIA VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: You have been there. You have been there for me. Whenever I was down and I felt like I couldn't go anymore, there was always a call — either from Dan or somebody that said: Maria, this is gonna happen. We're going here, we're gonna do this, we're gonna do that. He's gonna come home. We're gonna get him home. And they never gave up.

JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: That's right. That’s right.

MARIA VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: They never gave up. And that's why I never gave up. Because they held me up. I love you all. Thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Thank you for bringing my baby home. Thank you.

[APPLAUSE FADES DOWN]

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: After the party wrapped up, JJ spent his first night of freedom in his mom’s home, where he’d be living.

JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: I went home that night and my mother had a whole bunch of gifts there, and I started opening them up. It almost felt like Christmas, right? Uh, so we had Christmas on September 9th. I'm opening up all these gifts. I'm caught up in just the ambiance that was created by the love, you know? And um, so that first night I slept on that couch downstairs. And, uh, that couch is about 15 to 20 times more comfortable than that slab that I called the bed for two and a half decades.

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: I didn’t know how much he slept that night. But I sure didn’t. I couldn't wait to experience JJ’s first few days of freedom with him. So I volunteered to be his chauffeur. One of our first stops? Upgrading from that sofa to a real bed.

JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: This is soft!

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: He needed other things. Simple things. So I took JJ to a Walgreens to get a toothbrush, soap, moisturizer.

DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Man, you got pretty good skin as it is.

JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: Nah, gotta scrub prison off.

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: I kept waiting for JJ to have some sort of big emotional moment. To break down, or cry. Or something. I don’t know what I was expecting.I even said to JJ a few times - you seem so normal. When is it going to hit you that you're actually free? But he just kept telling me, this is what’s normal. This is where I belong.

That afternoon, I went with JJ and his boys to an arcade.

[SOUNDS OF ARCADE]

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: We played air hockey. And bowled.

Watching JJ have fun with his boys felt so good, but it also hurt. So much time had been lost. Time they could never get back. And so much in the world had changed.

JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: When I left, the main thing — the main mode of communication — was a beeper. Now you got people who have the whole world at the tip of their fingers. I remember one time I was trying to get my printer to work.

It's a wireless printer, and my son made it work in front of me, so I know it works. I'm trying to print something, he's at work. I need to get this, like, done. Everybody told me: If you can't figure out what to do, ask Siri or go to YouTube. I spend five hours watching all these videos, trying all these things. My older son happens to come over, and I'm like, “Yo, listen, I need to get something printed. I'm getting frustrated. I need some help. Jacob's not around.” He went upstairs and pressed this little button in the back, and my printer starts working. Like, unbelievable. They didn't say that on YouTube. [LAUGHS]

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: JJ also needed to find a job. Many people who get out of prison have a hard time doing that. A felony record scares off a lot of employers. But that didn’t happen to JJ. His years of work in programs on the inside paid off.

JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: I was offered a job right away. Within, I would say, the first three weeks to a month, I was offered a job. And, um, it was a dream job. It was being a program director for the Frederick Douglass Project for Justice, which gives me an opportunity to continue increasing awareness about the humanity that exists in prison, and how important it is for individuals that are incarcerated to be treated with dignity.

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: JJ had spent nearly a quarter century trying to get himself out of prison. And now, he was voluntarily going back in — to prisons all over the country, including Sing Sing.

JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: What we do is: We bring individuals from outside and the community inside to the incarcerated community. And we create this safe space where people can, you know, listen, learn, and share, but more importantly, show each other compassion and treat each other with human dignity. Um, and that works wonders for individuals inside, of course, because that's not a norm for them. But it also works wonders for individuals that come from outside, because they're able to ask these questions to real people in real time and get real answers to real questions.

[FADE UP ON APPLAUSE]

JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [ARCHIVAL TAPE]: Let me tell you about a time when the world didn't believe in me. I was falsely accused of taking a retired police officer's life. It didn't matter that when this crime took place in Harlem, I was in the Bronx… [FADES DOWN]

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: This work has become JJ’s new life. He’s given talks, run workshops. He’s gotten a lot of invitations, including a big one last fall. When he told me about it, I literally thought he was kidding.

JJ was going to Washington. To meet the President of the United States.

[AD BREAK]

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: On October 18th, 2022, JJ met with President Biden in the East Wing of the White House.

MODERATOR [ARCHIVAL TAPE]: JJ your questions for the president.

JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [ARCHIVAL TAPE]: Thank you.

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: He’d been invited to be part of a panel of rising leaders to discuss key election issues. It was sponsored by NowThis News.

JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [ARCHIVAL TAPE]: Good afternoon, President Biden. Obviously, being wrongfully convicted is one of America's worst nightmares. It certainly was for me, for almost 24 years. Fortunately for me, I was able to be released through executive clemency. My question is: How can we create clear uniform standards for clemency, so that incarcerated people are motivated to change and know what they need to accomplish to show that they're ready to return to their families and communities?

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: And then the president said something that JJ could never have imagined.

PRESIDENT BIDEN [ARCHIVAL TAPE]: Well, first of all, on behalf of all society, I apologize for it. I mean, 23 years. My God. I just admire the hell out of you… [FADES DOWN]

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: I couldn’t believe it. JJ had gotten an apology from the president of the United States. The most powerful person in the country. That night, JJ recorded his thoughts.

JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]:  It is now 8:28 on October 18th, and I just came back from the White House. And for the very first time in almost 25 years, I finally achieved one of my objectives, which was to get a public apology for the 23 years, seven months and eight days I spent incarcerated, suffering for a crime I did not commit. The President of the United States extended a sincere apology to me while he looked me in my eyes and told me that he was sorry that I went through what I did.

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: But the president’s apology didn’t change one important thing: JJ was still convicted of murder. He was under state supervision in New York. He had to get permission from his parole officer just to make that trip to DC. To get that apology.

JJ will be on parole until 2024. That means he has a curfew. He needs to be at home by 9:00 every night. He needs permission to travel out of state. And he can’t have a single incident with a police officer. Technically, even getting a speeding ticket could be enough to send him back to prison. And JJ’s dealing with more than just the restrictions of parole.

JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: Yeah, I’m not free, because there's still, like, the mental and emotional bondage that you have to be released from. And, um, no judge has that key, you know, um, or that authority. No prosecutor can help you with that. And a lot of times, that's where people get lost. Like they think: Oh, he did all his time. They released him. He can get his life back together. But the truth of the matter is, like, how do you compensate for that gap? You know, it was over 20 years of my life.

DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Mm. How do you deal with it?

JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: I haven't fully dealt with it yet. You just do it one day at a time. Every day you continue to struggle and you— you remember what you've been through, and the fact that what you're going through is a lot different, and a lot better. And, no, I'm not free, but, um, I'm freer.

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: On a snowy day a few weeks ago, JJ and his oldest son Jon stopped by my house. So much had changed in their lives since JJ had been released.

DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: It's March 14th, 2023. And here we are in the same room together. JJ and John, father and son. How long have you been out of prison now?

JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: 18 months.

DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: How does it feel to be sitting here together in the same room right now for you, Jon?

JON VELAZQUEZ, JR. [TAPE]: Feels great. This is something that, um, I thought was impossible before, and now it happens on the regular. It's wonderful.

DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: And you gave your father — shortly, you know, a year or so after he came home — you gave him two very, very special gifts.

JON VELAZQUEZ, JR. [TAPE]: Yeah, now I got two twin beautiful girls and— Yeah, that's definitely a gift I gave him. Like, I was, I was just running around my whole life. Now it's time to, you know, settle down, I found me a good girlfriend, and that’s exactly what happened.

DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Baby girls.

JON VELAZQUEZ, JR. [TAPE]: Yeah, we planned for one, but no— Nothing goes as planned when it comes to me.

[JJ LAUGHS]

JON VELAZQUEZ, JR. [TAPE]: [LAUGHS] I got two.

[TAPE OF BABY COOING]

JON VELAZQUEZ, JR. [HOME VIDEO TAPE]: I love you. I love you. She said it, you heard her?

DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: What’s the name of the girls?

JON VELAZQUEZ, JR. [TAPE]: We got Harley Anna and Chase Mariah.

[SOUNDS OF BABIES COOING]

JON VELAZQUEZ, JR. [HOME VIDEO TAPE]: That’s my girl. That’s my daughter.

JON VELAZQUEZ, JR. [TAPE]: They make me just want to change the world, make it better for them.

DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: What is it like to be a grandfather?

JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: Well, it's great to be a grandfather because I get to hang out with the kids and enjoy them. And then when they get a little bit overwhelming, I get to give them back, right? So that's— that's the greatness of being a grandfather [LAUGHS] But the reality is: I've been blessed. I have these two beautiful babies who, like: I can be upset, I can be miserable. When I look at the glimmer in their eyes and they smile at me, everything changes. I feel great.

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: JJ will soon be a grandfather again. His younger son, Jacob, is also about to become a father. As for Jon, he says fatherhood has centered his life.

JON VELAZQUEZ, JR. [TAPE]: Before, like, I felt like— Like I didn't know what to do with myself. And now, like, I feel like I'm at peace. I feel like I could just stay in my home and I'm, you know, I'm at peace. Like, I really feel like — I don't know, like, I use— I use patience. Like, I never had patience.

[JJ LAUGHS]

JON VELAZQUEZ, JR. [TAPE]: I wanted everything to happen right now — right then and there. If I seen something and I wanted it right now, it's like— Now, it's like: Ah, I could wait for that, wait till that. I'll do what my grandma does: “I'll wait till that go on discount.” [LAUGHS] Like I could do that now. When before it was like, whatever it was, I wanted it, I needed it that second. So, um, yeah.

DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: I'm curious if you have any questions for your son, or if you have any questions for your dad.

JON VELAZQUEZ, JR. [TAPE]: Um, I'd rather say some things to him, ’cause questions— I don't really have any questions. But, um, I just wanna tell my father that I'm proud of him. Like, I don't think I tell him that much, or I tell him— like, I call him a superstar, ’cause that's what he is to me. Like, I don't think I would've been able to do the same thing he did in his position. I dunno, I'm proud of him. Like, he's trying to make something happen in this world.

JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ. [TAPE]: Jay, you're the reason. You're the reason why I do everything that I do. Me seeing how the system impacted you, how it's impacted me, how it's impacted Jacob, how it's impacted Mami. You guys were, like, my strength. You were the rock that kept me solid, right? And had it not been for you and Jacob and Mami, I wouldn't have had the desire to overcome my circumstances, and to thrive as hard as I did. So just understand that when people appreciate me, they appreciate me because of you. So they appreciate you. And I appreciate you And I love you.

JON VELAZQUEZ, JR. [TAPE]: I love you, too.

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: JJ continues his fight to be exonerated. And he might actually get a new chance to clear his name. In 2021, Manhattan voters elected a new District Attorney: Alvin Bragg. One of his campaign issues was wrongful convictions.

ALVIN BRAGG [TAPE]: That issue of how many people are— are falsely incarcerated is one that’s never far from me. We’re going to be looking at these matters anew, with a fresh eye, with a fresh team, and mindful of the shortcomings of our system.

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: Bragg succeeded Cyrus Vance, Jr. And in his first months in office, Bragg disbanded the CIU — the one that reviewed JJ’s case 10 years ago. He replaced it with his own Post-Conviction Justice Unit.

ALVIN BRAGG [TAPE]: I think that we will, based upon looking at things like false confessions, and faulty science, and eyewitness issues, that they will take us where we need to go.

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: That unit is now taking a new look at JJ’s case. The DA’s decision could come at any time now. So JJ waits.

Ultimately, after living with this for more than two decades, I’m not really sure whether this is a happy story or a sad story. Maybe it’s a little bit of both. At JJ’s sentencing all those years ago, he stood before the court and made a statement. He called the process that led to his conviction “some type of game.” He said, “We’re all losers here.”

Maybe JJ will get exonerated. Maybe one day he’ll be truly free. But after all these years, it’s hard to feel like that’s a win — especially in the face of a system that so often refuses to acknowledge the truth.

And JJ is just one story. For every JJ, can you imagine how many others don’t get out?

One thing I know for sure: It shouldn’t be this hard to make things right.

The truth should be enough.

Letters from Sing Sing was written and produced by Preeti Varathan, Rob Allen, and me. Our Associate Producer is Rachel Yang. Our Story Editor is Jennifer Goren. Original score by Christopher Scullion, Robert Reale and 4 Elements Music. Sound Design by Cedric Wilson. Fact-checking by Joseph Frischmuth. Bryson Barnes is our Technical Director. Preeti Varathan is our Supervising Producer. Soraya Gage, Reid Cherlin, and Alexa Danner are our Executive Producers. Liz Cole runs NBC News Studios.

Special thanks to Sean Gallagher, Kim Ferdinando, Madeleine Haeringer, Elizabeth Fischer, Nick Offenberg, Tracey Eyers, Commissioner Anthony Annuci, Superintendent Michael Capra, Tom Mailey and Mary Buono.

And most of all, thank you to my friend JJ and his family.

Letters from Sing Sing is an NBC News Studios production.

Thanks for listening.