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Transcript: The Call

The full transcript for Letters from Sing Sing, Episode 7: The Call


Letters from Sing Sing

Episode 7: The Call

In 2017, JJ finally gets some good news. After years of denials and setbacks, he would appear before a judge for the first time since his conviction. A new judge would determine whether JJ’s rights were violated when the prosecutor at his trial withheld police reports related to his case – reports that, 10 months earlier, had arrived in Dan’s mailbox.

But the judge ultimately denies JJ’s request for a new trial. Dan and JJ are devastated. JJ explores other avenues for getting released. He applies for clemency, but year after year, the governor passes him over. Then, in 2020, the pandemic hits. The world stops. And JJ experiences the pandemic behind bars.


DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: In the two decades since JJ’s arrest, he’s written hundreds of letters from his cell. Most were to his mom, Maria.

MARIA VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: He types a lot, but I told him I like them handwritten better.

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: She’s sitting at her kitchen table, holding one of them.

JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [VOICE OVER]: Dearest My Beloved Heart, I wish you knew how sorry I am. For all we've been through. Life has been so unfair to us. It haunts my every thought. I can't even escape it in my dreams. Thank God we have each other. The greatest blessing I ever received was a mother who loved so passionately.

You said: Jay, they can lock up your body, but not your soul. Your mind is free. They can take everything else away from you, but as long as you control your mind, you can create your own destiny. Mami, I absorbed those words so deep in my core they pump through the blood in my veins. My life may have been stolen, but it will not be wasted.

When I die, I don't want to be remembered as a convicted felon who gave up. I want to be remembered as an innocent man with conviction who refused to lose. Unconditionally Yours, JJ.

MARIA VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: You know, it's been a long, long, hard road, but when I look at my son and I find him to be so strong, I say to him, how? How do you do that? I couldn't do it. I couldn't do it. And he says, mom I learned from you. I learned from you.

But I have always prayed and asked to be alive the day that he comes walking out of those doors. I wanna live to see that day. I wanna live to see him free. That is what I live for, and I wanna see that day.

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

Episode Seven: The Call

In 2017, JJ finally got some good news. After years of denials and setbacks, he’d appear before a judge for the first time since he was convicted. It had been 10 months since that envelope with all those police reports had arrived in my mailbox — reports that JJ’s lawyers never saw before his trial, because the prosecutor decided not to turn them over.

Now, the information in one of those reports had persuaded a judge to hold a hearing. He would determine whether JJ’s constitutional rights had been violated.


JUDGE CLOTT [TAPE]: All right. Take a moment to get yourselves situated.

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: On January 18, 2018, JJ was brought to a courthouse in downtown Manhattan.

COURT CLERK [TAPE]: Calendar 39. Jon-Adrian Velasquez. Case number… [FADES DOWN]

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: His mom Maria and his younger son Jacob were in the courtroom. His older son Jon couldn’t be there. He was in prison.


News cameras clicked as officers escorted JJ through a side door. He wore a sharp blue suit. His hands were shackled behind his back as he approached the defense table. His lawyer, Bob Gottlieb, was waiting for him.

BOB GOTTLIEB [TAPE]: Your Honor, may my client's, uh— Hand— May the handcuffs be taken off during these proceedings?

JUDGE CLOTT [TAPE]: Um, I'll defer to… [FADES DOWN]

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: The court officers removed JJ’s handcuffs. Judge Abraham Clott opened the hearing.

JUDGE CLOTT [TAPE]: All right. Good afternoon, everyone. We scheduled this matter for oral argument. I have reviewed the papers. My understanding is that the issue is the significance of a police report that everyone agrees was not turned over to the defense before trial. And the issues are whether or not that information was potentially exculpatory and material.

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: Exculpatory and material. The judge was considering whether the information in that report would have been likely to change the jury’s verdict. If the answer was yes, then the prosecutor committed something called a Brady violation, and JJ would get a new trial.

JUDGE CLOTT [TAPE]: Mr. Gottlieb, it’s your petition, so you'll go first.

BOB GOTTLIEB [TAPE]: Thank you for agreeing to have Mr. Velazquez brought here today for the oral argument. The entire case against Mr. Velazquez was based on eyewitness identification by people who did not know him. Nothing more. The heart and soul of this Brady motion is based on the fact that on the very day of the crime and even the following day, when memories were the freshest, the eyewitnesses provided the police with their immediate description of the shooter. He was a male, Black, with braids.

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: Now, this is where that police report — officially known as DD-5 93 — becomes important. It was an interview with the father of Derry Daniels, JJ’s alleged accomplice. In the report, the father told a detective that the evening before the murder, his son came to his apartment with a friend looking for money. He described the friend as a light-skinned Black man with braids. And said he could even identify him.

BOB GOTTLIEB [TAPE]: And what does the detective do? Nothing, even thoughDaniels tells the detective that he believes he could identify the male black with braids, who is with his son. Think what else he says in that DD-5, about the reason why that Black male with the braids was with the admitted accomplice, Derry Daniels. He was there looking for money — the motive of the robbery and the murder that takes place some 19 hours later.

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: But that report was never turned over to JJ’s defense.

BOB GOTTLIEB TAPE]: Your Honor, it is not too much to ask: How in heaven's name was DD-5 93, when specifically requested, not turned over? How did the people not turn it over to the defense? How did they not err on this side of caution? This information and the People's withholding of it, Your Honor, strikes at the heart of the entire process, at the integrity of the trial and the verdict, a process that resulted in Mr. Velazquez's wrongful conviction and unjust imprisonment. Your Honor, it's time. It is justified. The law commands that Mr. Velazquez's conviction must be vacated. And it's time for Mr. Velazquez to be a witness to Justice right here in the New York County Courthouse finally, after 18 years. Thank you.

JUDGE CLOTT [TAPE]: All right, thank you. [FADES DOWN]

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: Next, the prosecutor assigned to defend the Manhattan DA’s position stepped up to the podium. His name is Joel Seidemann.

JOEL SEIDEMANN [TAPE]: May it please the court, we too are interested in justice. We're interested to see that the right person is convicted, and we're interested to see that the person who shot Al Ward at point-blank range in the head is where he should be.

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: Joel Seidemann has been a prosecutor in the Manhattan DA’s office for four decades. I actually knew him from that other case I’d worked on. The one about the two men convicted of killing a bouncer at the Palladium nightclub. Both of those men were clearly innocent. Remember, the real shooter confessed. And a judge vacated their convictions. But even after all of that, the DA’s office still retried one of those innocent men. And the prosecutor on that retrial? Joel Seidemann. Now, a decade later, I watched as Seidemann argued to keep JJ in prison.

JOEL SEIDEMANN [TAPE]: So the issue really is, is: Is DD-5 93— Does it contain Brady material? If the court determines that the statement that Daniels made is not Brady, that ends the inquiry.

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: That was the only issue, which is why I was so surprised to hear what Seidmann said next.

JOEL SEIDEMANN [TAPE]: In addition, there was a curious unfolding. We provided a copy of DD-5 93 to Dan Slepian prior to August of 2011. So he had that document and it— it, it, it now appears that Mr. Gottlieb, in his reply affidavit, has claimed that he got that document from Dan Slepian in March of 2017.

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: Sitting in the courtroom, hearing him mention my name, I thought: here we go again. Six years earlier, the DA’s office had also brought up my name during their interview with JJ.

ASSISTANT DISTRICT ATTORNEY [TAPE]: Just start with how you reached out to Dan Slepian, I think.

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: Back then, they suggested I was paying JJ’s legal bills.

ADA from CIU interview: So Dan— Dan’s footing the bill for this whole thing

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: Now the DA’s office was bringing up my name again.

JOEL SEIDEMANN [TAPE]: How that happened, that Slepian had the document six years later and didn't turn it over, was just unusual.

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: I had no idea what Seidemann was talking about. I felt certain I’d never seen that report until 2017. But just to be absolutely sure, I later checked. I had received a handful of documents from the DA’s office in 2011 after filing a Freedom of Information request. I didn’t see this report in my files.

But even if they had sent me the report, why would it matter? I wasn’t part of JJ’s legal team. And they’d admitted they’d withheld it before JJ’s trial anyway. Ultimately, thatwas the issue: whether the withholding of that report meant JJ didn’t get a fair trial.

JOEL SEIDEMANN [TAPE]: Now, let me go to the issue at hand. In broad strokes, the description given by Daniels generally fits a whole bunch of people. If it turns out that this is referring to another person, then so what? So what that 19 hours before, the co-defendant was in the company of someone else at his father's apartment? We respectfully ask the court to deny the defendant's motion, uh, to set aside the verdict.

JUDGE CLOTT [TAPE]: All right. Thank you. [FADES DOWN]

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: The hearing lasted an hour and a half. And the prosecutor had argued forcefully to keep JJ in prison. Still, for the first time in many years, I felt some hope. That JJ’s nightmare would finally be coming to an end.


DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: After the court hearing, JJ was taken back to Sing Sing to wait for the Judge’s decision. It came three months later. And the news was devastating: Once again, JJ’s request had been denied. His conviction would stand. JJ would remain in prison.

In his ruling, Judge Clott wrote: “...although the prosecution did not turn over” the police report, the information in it “does not cast doubt on petitioner’s guilt, and was not material because there’s no reasonable possibility that it would have led to a different verdict.”

I could hardly believe it. It was crushing to me that JJ had been denied yet again. And this time it felt like the courthouse doors had been shut in a way they hadn’t before. When I sat down with JJ to talk about it all a few months later, he told me it was hard to think about how hopeful he’d felt that day.

JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: I mean, I sat in a cell in Manhattan Court with a suit on, thinking that there may be a possibility that I may be able to actually wear this suit and walk out one day, one day soon. But, uh, once again, I've been shot down. The system that we're up against is— [SIGHS] I don't even know how to explain that, man, but it's dark, it's ugly. But it's powerful.

They don't even care. For us to be able to have done what we've done, and have been able to reveal what we revealed, and for them to say: I don't care. I can withhold evidence from you. I can violate the law. I can change what you're described as. I can change your race. I can change any fact. I can change whatever I want, and then when I put it on paper, it's the truth. That type of power is very dangerous, and it's the power of the prosecutor and the judges roll right with it, and it's disgusting, but it's real.

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: JJ wasn’t getting relief in the courts. But people on the outside were noticing him and publicizing his case. Influential people.

MARTIN SHEEN [TAPE] It’s good to see you. You look great. You look like a movie star. Every time I see you, you get more and more handsome. Why is this?

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: The actor Martin Sheen traveled to Sing Sing to visit JJ… twice. He even held a press conference calling for his release.

MARTIN SHEEN [TAPE]: His heart and his spirit is so infectious. You have only to look in his eyes and you can see the fire. I mean, he's a man that is in love with justice, in love with life, his family. And he will never give up.

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: And I introduced JJ to Jason Flom, a record executive and justice advocate. Jason went to Sing Sing to interview JJ for his podcast, “Wrongful Conviction.”

JASON FLOM [ARCHIVAL TAPE]: Our guest today is JJ Velazquez.

JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [ARCHIVAL TAPE]: It's a pleasure being here. It's an honor to be able to have this opportunity to share this time and space with you.

JASON FLOM [ARCHIVAL TAPE]: My hope is that, in bringing more exposure and light to your situation, that we— this will be another part of the process of getting you out.

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: Jason got to know JJ. He believed in his innocence. So he helped JJ launch a campaign to try to win freedom in another way: Executive clemency — getting the governor to sign a paper authorizing his release.

STEVE ZEIDMAN [TAPE]: For a lot of people who are serving life sentences, the only available place to turn is clemency.

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: That’s Steve Zeidman. He’s arguably the authority on clemency in the state of New York. He’s a professor at CUNY Law School, where he runs the Second Look Project. It helps incarcerated people with their clemency petitions.

DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: So JJ is here at the end of his legal road, right? He's been denied hearings. He's been denied appeals—

STEVE ZEIDMAN [TAPE]: This is exactly where clemency comes in. It's where people have run out of options. And it’s this vast unfettered power that the governor in New York has — tomorrow. Can sign a clemency application, send someone home.

DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: So the governor of New York can say, “I wipe away the conviction,” or “I don't wipe away the conviction, but you can go home today.”

STEVE ZEIDMAN [TAPE]: Correct. There's a misunderstanding about clemency, because the term — the word people are most familiar with is a pardon. What a pardon does is it says: Okay, we're gonna erase your conviction. What I focus on is the other part of clemency, which is called a sentence commutation.

Historically, clemency has been cast as an act of mercy. That's why it's typically granted around the end of the year, the holiday, the spirit of a new year, the spirit of Christmas, et cetera, all that — which, frankly, has always struck me as somewhat ridiculous. But over time, my effort is to get governors to think it's not just an act of mercy. It's an act of rectification.

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: Steve’s known about JJ’s case for years. And he’s actually spoken with the governor’s office about him several times. He calls JJ the “poster child for clemency.”

STEVE ZEIDMAN [TAPE]: The innocence case jumps off the page. Putting that aside, look at the achievements — and I said this to the governor's people. Frankly, even if he were guilty, beyond a reasonable doubt, he is a prime candidate for clemency given all he has accomplished while behind bars. What else could he have possibly done to position himself for clemency? And I think the answer is nothing.

DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: How hard is it for someone to get clemency in New York state?

STEVE ZEIDMAN [TAPE]: It’s like winning the lottery. Unless you have someone, something, some group advocating to keep your name on the radar screen to kind of push your application forward, your chances of actually receiving clemency are just so remote. Someone filing their own clemency application, who's done everything, are they— Are their chances as good as someone who has Dan Slepian, Jason Flom, Martin Sheen behind them? It's— Of course not. Not even close.

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: And even that might not be enough. JJ had petitioned for clemency in 2017, and nothing happened. The same thing in 2018 and 2019. Then in 2020, the world stopped.

MICHAEL CAPRA [ARCHIVAL TAPE]: This is Superintendent Capra. I wanted to use Channel 22 at Sing Sing Correctional Facility to give you some information about COVID-19, or otherwise known as the coronavirus.

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: It’s April of 2020. I haven’t seen JJ in several months. Like the rest of the country, Sing Sing is locked down. All visits have been canceled indefinitely. And so are all the prison programs that have kept JJ so busy. The entire population is isolated in their cells. But for now, JJ is still allowed to make phone calls.

AUTOMATIC TELLER [TAPE]: [FADES UP] …an inmate at New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. This call is subject to recording and monitoring. Thank you for using Securus. You may start the conversation now.

DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Hey man, how are you?

JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: I'm surviving day to day, you know?

DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: So what's going on in there right now?

JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE] A lot of fear, a lot of anxiety. It's really crazy. I think the closest that I've ever seen to a moment like this, as far as what I see when I look in the next incarcerated person's eyes, was probably 9/11. You know, when people heard that the twin towers had gotten struck and we were in a state of emergency, there was this panic, not knowing what's next.

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: Now, one month into the pandemic, JJ’s worried because he knows that there’s no such thing as social distancing in prison.

JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: I've had people— Like, they're taking a step towards me, and I'm taking a step back. And you're taking a step towards me. And now I take another step back, and I got a wall behind me. I can't go back no further. And I'm like, "Excuse me. I don't know if you realize what I've been doing. You've been stepping closer to me. I've been stepping back. I can't step back no more. So it's your turn to step back."

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: JJ tells me that a few dozen officers and some of the incarcerated men have already tested positive. At least one prisoner has died. He says he won’t leave his cell without a spray bottle of bleach.

JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: Right now, before I got on this phone, it probably took me 10 minutes to really bleach out this whole booth. And then I had to let it air out. Because if I would’ve been in here, I'd have been choking right now.

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: He’s washed his hands so many times, they’re raw.

JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: I can't even count. But I can say that I wash my hands at least maybe six to eight times an hour.


JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: And I'm not exaggerating at all. My hands are discolored. They have these patches that are purple and reddish. The skin doesn't even feel the same anymore. Almost like sandpaper. And I constantly put lotion on. But the lotion only lasts for a few minutes. And it's like every time I touch something, I feel like I have to wash my hands. Because this— this virus is so unforgiving.

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: I know JJ. I could hear the fear in his voice. There wasn’t a day that went by where I didn’t think about him, stuck in a cell. We all talked about lockdowns. But that had been JJ’s life. For more than 23 years. He wouldn’t get a shot at parole for another two years. And there was no guarantee he would get it. Especially because JJ refused to say he was guilty.

JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: Sometimes the parole board doesn't want to hear the truth. They want to hear that you're sorry for what you've done. I can't understand how I could be sorry for something that I didn't do.

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: As the pandemic raged on, it was more urgent than ever for JJ to get out.


DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: By the summer of 2021, I’d known JJ for almost 20 years. I’d spent hundreds of hours with him. I’d poured over thousands of pages in his case file, over and over again. I refused to give up. But at this point, I wasn’t sure what else I could do.

Then, on the morning of August 17th, I was sitting in my home office when my phone rang. It was Sing Sing Superintendent Michael Capra. He said he had big news, and that I’d better hurry over to Sing Sing. My heart was pounding. I grabbed my camera and rushed to the prison as fast as I could. I live about 25 minutes away. I think I got there in about 18. The superintendent was waiting for me.

MICHAEL CAPRA [TAPE] After so many years, we're gonna tell JJ Velazquez that he got executive clemency today.

DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: How long ago?

MICHAEL CAPRA [TAPE]: We just were notified minutes ago, half an hour ago, where I called you, you're here. I have to say, in my 40 years of service, this one of the more exciting times in my whole entire career—

DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Why is it so— Why is it so exciting?

MICHAEL CAPRA [TAPE]: Because I know he doesn't belong here. And he's gonna do fantastic things when he gets out.

DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: How does it feel to be the one that's going to tell him?

MICHAEL CAPRA [TAPE]: I'm overwhelmed.

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: We start walking toward JJ’s cell block.

MICHAEL CAPRA [TAPE]: What are you gonna do, record this all the way up?

DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: I'm gonna— Why not, man? This is— This is history.

MICHAEL CAPRA [TAPE]: We're go-. We're going up. It's gonna be— He's gonna flip out. This is like a great freaking moment for me. He's been working with us for nine years with Voices from Within. It's unbelievable. Oh, my God.

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: He asks an officer if word has started to leak out.

MICHAEL CAPRA [TAPE]: Hey, is everybody still there?

OFFICER [TAPE]: Yeah, they’re still in their cells.

MICHAEL CAPRA [TAPE]: Do they know?

OFFICER [TAPE]: No, I didn’t tell them.

MICHAEL CAPRA [TAPE]: Nobody knows, right?


MICHAEL CAPRA [TAPE]: Good, good, good.

Guard: GUARD [TAPE]: Ready?

MICHAEL CAPRA [TAPE]: Yeah, come on. Let's go.

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: We enter the block and head to the second tier. JJ is standing in the doorway of his cell. The other men in the block are gathering on the floor below. They can tell something big is about to happen. They watch as the superintendent delivers the news.

MICHAEL CAPRA [TAPE]: You’re being transferred.


MICHAEL CAPRA [TAPE]: You don't know?


MICHAEL CAPRA [TAPE]: You know Haverstraw, New York?


MICHAEL CAPRA [TAPE]: That's where you're going, bro.

JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: Thank you, man. Thank you. Appreciate you.

MICHAEL CAPRA [TAPE]: I'm really proud of you, buddy. God bless you. You deserve it.

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: One by one, men come up to JJ and hug him.


DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: JJ is calm, taking it all in. He’d later tell me he was holding himself back. That it took a while for it to really sink in that he was leaving.

JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: I was sleepless for several nights. I don't, I don't really know how to explain it entirely, but it was like, my body didn't wanna get out of the bed, but um, when I finally did fall asleep and woke up, it was like: Bro, what are you gonna do? You're going home. It's over. It's time to start getting rid of stuff. And I went on a ripping frenzy.

I just started tearing everything up. I'm like: My lawyers got copies of this. Dan has copies of this. My mother has copies. I don't need nothing. And I just started tearing everything up, tearing everything up, tearing everything up. And I tore so much that I had — literally, I had blisters on my index fingers.

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: But JJ wouldn’t get out for another three weeks. Why? Processing. Paperwork. Bureaucracy. Because that’s the way the system works. It’s also because JJ was still convicted of murder. Governor Andrew Cuomo had commuted his sentence but he hadn’t exonerated him. JJ’s freedom had come down to the signature of a governor who, just days later, would leave office in a sex harassment scandal. It all seemed so arbitrary. It’s not how I thought it would happen.

When I interviewed JJ in 2007, I said to him: If you're innocent, I’ll keep going… [FADES DOWN]

DAN SLEPIAN [ARCHIVAL TAPE]: [FADES UP] …it might take 10 years. It might take 15 years. You know, this is a long journey.

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: And that’s exactly how long it had been since I’d said that. 15 years. The thing is, I hadn’t really meant it. I just didn’t want to get JJ’s hopes up back then. I never thought it would take this long. But it did.

On the day of his release, JJ and I talk in his cell one last time.

JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: Today, I will finally step foot out of a prison. I practically grew up in prison. You know, I've been answering to a number: 00A2303. That was my identity for the last 24 years. That meant more than my name.

DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: You know, I've witnessed this with you. I've lived as much as I could through this with you. Um. You've suffered.




DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: In the moments when you're in this cage by yourself for two decades — more than two decades — have you come to believe that your suffering has been for some higher purpose?

JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: I've gone beyond belief. Um, I realized that that’s the only thing that makes sense, is to say that this was my training grounds. This was things that I needed to realize for myself. To know is to experience, so I had to experience this so that I can try to work on changing this. Right? And I'm not glad that I've had the experience, but the insight that I've acquired is priceless.

DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Can I— I want to tell you something before we leave. You know, I met my— you before I met my daughter.


DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: The year before she was born. And I took her to college two weeks ago.


DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: And now she's gone. And there's a certain irony to that, for me. It's like the end of a chapter and the beginning of a new one. And uh, it's one of the most important relationships in my life.


DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: So, I just wanted you to know that. [SOUND OF DAN AND JJ HUGGING] Really.



DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: So, you want to say goodbye to everybody?


DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Do you want to go home?

JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: Yes, I want to go home.

DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Let's go home.



DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: I’m with JJ as he leaves the block. He walks through the halls of Sing Sing, saying goodbye to the men he’s leaving behind.


DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: Before JJ’s able to leave, he needs to return his uniform, get his fingerprints scanned. There’s a process to leaving prison.

GUARD [TAPE]: Right index finger goes on Digi-Scan. Turns red. Go ahead. Okay, pick it up


GUARD [TAPE]: And we have the right man. Let's get out of here.


GUARD [TAPE]: Coming in!

GUARD 2 [TAPE]: How you doin’?JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: [CROSSTALK] How’s it going, man?

GUARD 2 [TAPE]: Name and DIN?

JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: Name is Jon-Adrian Velazquez, DIN 00A2303.



DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: JJ starts walking toward an enormous gate made of solid steel. He has a mesh bag slung over his shoulder with all of his belongings: some books, pictures, and letters. He stops and gazes out across the Hudson River, toward his Mom’s house in Haverstraw.

JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: The objective has always been to go on that side, and tonight we'll be there. It's really over.


JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: Ms. Parker, you take care.

PARKER [TAPE]: You, as well.


GUARD 3 [TAPE]: You ready?

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: The gate slides open.


GUARD 3 [TAPE]: This is it.



DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: Maria and JJ’s sons are there waiting for him. They’ve been waiting for so long.



DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: I watch as Maria and the boys surround JJ, wrapping their arms around him. They’re holding him so tightly, I can hardly see him.


JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: Come here, Ma. I ain't letting you go. I love you so much.

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: Maria’s wail is a sound I will never forget.

JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: It is good to be free, I’ll tell you that. And it's good to be with my family. It's what it's all been about: family. This is what helped me survive. This is what helped me get through this. And now we’re here. This is all I wanted, was to be with my family together on this day. I'm blessed. I'm grateful. This is the first day of forever.

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: After living in a cell for 23 years, 7 months and 8 days, JJ was finally free. But the world he was rejoining was dramatically different from the one he’d left behind. There was going to be a lot to learn. A lot to overcome. But JJ, being JJ, came out sprinting.

Next time…

JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: [APPLAUSE FADES UP] Let me tell you about a time when the world didn't believe in me.

JON VELAZQUEZ, JR. [TAPE]: I'm proud of him. Like, he's trying to make something happen in this world.

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. [tighten]

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

JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: Thank you. Good afternoon, President Biden.

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: 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. Letters from Sing Sing is an NBC News Studios production