Letters from Sing Sing
Episode 3: Eyewitnesses
It turns out, back in 1998, just days after the crime, the NYPD had a main suspect for the murder of Al Ward: a man named Mustafa. Dan tries to find out more about Mustafa and understand why this lead was dropped after JJ’s name entered the case. He also learns that JJ’s legal team had a court-assigned private investigator. Dan tracks down that private investigator, and discovers that he hardly looked into JJ’s case. He didn’t know about Mustafa and he never interviewed the eyewitnesses to the murder of Al Ward.
So Dan decides to do what the private investigator didn’t do – investigate JJ’s case. In the summer of 2009, Dan finds Augustus Brown, the key witness, the man who first identified JJ. He’s incarcerated at the Elmira Correctional Facility in upstate New York. Dan pays him a visit.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: When I first met JJ Velazquez in 2002, he’d been in prison for three years, serving 25 to life. That meant he wouldn’t be eligible for parole until he was 48. And getting parole is never a guarantee. It was possible JJ could spend the rest of his life behind bars.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: I saw how JJ lived, locked away in a 7-by-9-foot cell. He told me when he was first sent upstate, he fell into the routine of prison life: sleeping in his cell, hanging out in the prison yard.
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: I was going through a lot of pain, and for a long time I was private about my matters, but after a while I realized: I can't hold this in, man. I gotta let this go. When individuals started to find out that I was innocent, they said, “Yo, what are you doing in the yard playing basketball or softball? You need to be in the law library. Nobody’s gonna get you out of prison. You need to learn the law. You need to tell the lawyers what needs to happen in your case. No one cares about you. You’re not a concern. The only way you're gonna get out is if you get yourself out.”
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: So JJ told me he started to take matters into his own hands. He’d been assigned new court-appointed attorneys to help with his appeal, but he said he had trouble getting their attention.
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: No attorney ever came to see me. Any time I wrote them about my case file, they said they hadn't received it yet. I was getting nowhere. And meanwhile, I'm sitting upstate. So I had to tell the appellate division that I wanted to proceed pro se, which means that I was gonna handle my own case, just to get my case file. The truth of the matter is that I realized that the only person who was gonna advocate for me the way that I needed was me.
I got my case file September 2000. And it was a big box, probably coming up to a little bit over my knee. Big and wide. And on the label, it said it was 66 pounds. It was really hard to get it inside the cell, ’cause the door only opens up so much, but I finally got it in, and it just fit — like, with a little nudge, it just fit underneath the bed. That's how high the box was.
So I pushed that underneath the bed. And for days I sat on my bed, and I just kept pulling out file after file after file. And I mean, there were papers on the floor. There were papers on my bed. There was even a cardboard that I put on top of my toilet so I don't have to smell it, and there was paper on there. Like, there was paper everywhere in my cell. And, you know, I was trying to keep everything neat and organized. So I wouldn't misplace anything because it was just so much paper.
I remember, like, falling asleep with pages of paper on me and finding it, like, casted on the floor, like, in the middle of the night. And then, if I wake up in the middle of the night, Next thing you know, the light is back on and I'm reading the paper again until I fall asleep. It was like I was on this expedition: seeking the truth, trying to find my way out, and saying, “This box is the magic. It has to be in here. Something in here is gonna help me.”
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: It wasn’t long before JJ made a big discovery in that box.
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: It really blew my mind. I mean, I don't even know if it was bold on the page, but that’s, like, how it stuck out to me.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: It turns out that in the days right after the murder of Al Ward, the police had been focused on a different suspect. Someone named Mustafa.
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: Never was Mustafa mentioned during my trial. Never was I informed that there was a previous suspect, an initial suspect. They knew who they were looking for. How did I wind up here?
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: I’m Dan Slepian and this is Letters from Sing Sing.
Episode 3: Eyewitnesses
Early on in my investigation, JJ sent me copies of everything that was in that box. And, like him, I was surprised by what I read: a lot of information that JJ’s jury never heard. Especially that detectives had been searching for another suspect before JJ’s name was ever mentioned.
This is what I learned from the police reports in JJ’s case file.
On January 27, 1998 — the day of Al Ward’s murder — a sketch of the gunman was made based on eyewitness accounts. It showed a light-skinned Black man with braids. And it was posted all over Harlem.
There was a huge push to find the shooter. Officers detained and questioned more than 150 people. Police showed them the sketch of the gunman to see if anyone recognized him. Tips started coming in. And one name kept coming up.
One person said the guy in the sketch was someone named Mustafa. He didn’t give a last name. Then another said he heard that it was Mustafa who shot a guy at the numbers spot. He said Mustafa sold drugs near there. That he was a Black man with dreadlocks. There was also a handwritten note in the police files that mentioned the name Mustafa.
Detectives seemed to take this lead seriously. I reviewed pages and pages of computer searches they’d done, looking for anyone who’d been arrested using the name Mustafa. There was even a memo sent to police headquarters declaring that Mustafa was their “primary target.”
But the search for Mustafa came to an abrupt end three days after the crime, when the key eyewitness, Augustus Brown, picked out a picture of someone else: Jon-Adrian Velazquez.
After JJ was arrested, his lawyers asked the court to assign a private investigator to their team. The idea was to follow up on any leads that police may have missed, or that might point to JJ’s innocence. This happens all the time in criminal cases where a defendant can’t afford an investigator. A judge granted the request, and appointed a private investigator named David Barrett to help JJ.
But when I first visited JJ and started learning about his case, he told me that David Barrett never did an investigation. JJ said Barrett never even spoke with him. I found this hard to believe. I mean, here’s a guy charged with the murder of a retired police officer. He’s claiming he is innocent, that he knows nothing about the crime. Could it be true that his own investigator never looked into anything?
So, I tracked down Barrett. He’s handled hundreds of cases like JJ’s over the years.
DAVID BARRETT [TAPE]: Ah. Hello, how are you?
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: We met outside NBC’s offices at Rockefeller Plaza in midtown Manhattan and he shared his thoughts about JJ’s case.
DAVID BARRETT [TAPE]: The key in this case, is just a— It's identification. The moment they had that one identification — one guy after all this stuff — they stopped. You can see, from their point of view, they go: Look, our job is to give you probable cause. You've got probable cause, you've got identification. We're finished. We've got the man.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: So, isn’t this where Barrett should come in? Shouldn’t he do a full investigation to see what the police may have missed? Barrett says that’s usually how it works. But in this case, he says JJ’s lawyers didn’t give him much to do.
DAVID BARRETT [TAPE]: I really was not asked to do anything particularly extensive, and I didn’t have the names of these fellows who made the identification, and all the rest of it. So, for instance, I never saw the sketch of this fellow — or never heard of Mustafa.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: It seemed crazy to me that the investigator hired to look into JJ’s case never heard about Mustafa, or even received the names of the key eyewitnesses. Barrett blamed JJ’s lawyers. But he also said this happens all the time when it comes to court-appointed investigations. It’s baked into the system.
DAVID BARRETT [TAPE]: The state government doesn’t pay very much. In those days, there used to be a $300 limit, which is absurd. If it’s one trip to some place for two hours, you can do it. But if it’s any kind of work, you can’t.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: And taking one trip, it turns out, is all Barrett says he did on this case. He went to visit the crime scene.
DAVID BARRETT [TAPE]: I went to the location. I was trying to find the people who are somehow connected to the gambling spot. The truth is, I didn't really have names or anything. I just had the idea that if somebody was there, they would have some recollection of what happened.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: But he says he didn’t find anyone, and wasn’t asked to do anything else. Based on what I’d read, there was a lot to investigate. But here was JJ’s investigator telling me he didn’t really do anything and JJ’s lawyers never gave him much to work with. I had so many questions. So I decided to call up JJ’s lead trial lawyer, Frank Gould.
FRANK GOULD [TAPE]: Yes?
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Hi, is this Franklyn? Mr. Gould?
FRANK GOULD [TAPE]: Yes, Frank.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Hi, this is Dan Slepian, a producer with Dateline NBC here in New York. I'm calling you about a case that you tried 10 years ago. I'm doing a story about one of your former clients by the name of Jon-Adrian Velazquez. Do you remember Jon-Adrian?
FRANK GOULD [TAPE]: No. I don’t think it was me.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Yeah. It was— Um, it— It happened up in Harlem, in New York City. The defendant’s name was Jon-Adrian Velazquez.
FRANK GOULD [TAPE]: I don’t remember it. I’m sorry.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: So, it doesn’t ring a bell at all?
FRANK GOULD [TAPE]: If I can help him, I’d be glad to try.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: There was a reason that Frank Gould probably didn’t remember JJ or his case. I later learned from his former law partner that he’d been diagnosed with dementia. He’s since passed away.
I should note that I’ve spoken with many people in New York’s legal circles, and all pretty much say that Frank Gould was a great defense attorney.
Okay. One thing I now knew for sure: JJ had never gotten a proper investigation. I needed to do what David Barrett never did — actually investigate JJ’s case. In the summer of 2009, ten years after Al Ward’s murder, I began looking for the person who first linked JJ to the crime: the key eyewitness, Augustus Brown. Remember, JJ told me that, at his trial, Brown said he was being forced to testify.
I found out Brown was at the Elmira Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in upstate New York. He’d been locked up on a forgery charge. The prison is about a five-hour drive from New York City.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: I wasn’t sure Brown would talk to me, so I decided to show up without giving him advance notice. I’d made arrangements with the prison to bring in my recording equipment, just in case.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: When I arrive at the prison, I’m brought to a conference room. Then Brown appears. It’s clear he’s hesitant to speak, much less on camera. But I want to be sure to document whatever it is he tells me. So I make a split-second decision and take a small camera out of my pocket. I put it on a shelf right behind the table and hit the red button.
And then, before I ask any questions, I take a minute to tell him why I’m here.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: We need to— To get your story down, make sure we’re right. We don't ever want to be wrong, and I never wanna attribute anything to anybody that's not correct. It's my job to make sure that everything we say is true and correct. I’m— What I'm trying to do is trying to find the truth. That’s all I’m trying to do.
Here's a guy who's making a fairly compelling case that he might actually be innocent, that he may not have done anything. If that's not true — if he's the guy — I want to know it. If he's not the guy, he has two little kids that are waiting for him to get out. And, by the way, even if he's innocent, he still may never get out.
AUGUSTUS BROWN [TAPE]: So, what, you just want me to tell you my side?
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Yeah. I just want to know if— Yeah.
AUGUSTUS BROWN [TAPE]: Let me see, I don’t even— Like, I don’t even know where to start.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: Brown tells me what he remembers from the day of the murder — how the two robbers got into a fight with the owner of the numbers spot, Al Ward.
AUGUSTUS BROWN [TAPE]: They was about to— One of the dudes was about to try to do something, and that's when the old man jumped up, you know what I mean? And they started tussling, and then the other dude come from the back. But I— While they tussling, they standing over me.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Right.
AUGUSTUS BROWN [TAPE]: Then I hear shots, and they run out. That was the first time I seen somebody killed, you know what I mean?
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: Brown says he took off. He didn’t wait for the police to arrive. But they found him a few days later, dealing on the street. He had 10 bags of heroin stashed in his underwear. Detectives brought him to the precinct. Brown says they put the heroin on a table in front of him as they began to question him. And he says they threatened to charge himin connection with the murder if he didn’t cooperate.
AUGUSTUS BROWN [TAPE]: They threatening to charge me with conspiracy to this, saying that— that I set this up, for them to come in and rob it. Then me having that on my record, they— Young black man, I ain't got no job. I'm not in school or nothing.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Right.
AUGUSTUS BROWN [TAPE]: They was going to lock me up.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: They were yelling at you?
AUGUSTUS BROWN [TAPE]: Yeah. They was— they was manhandling me in there.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: For how many— Can you guess how many hours? Do you remember?
AUGUSTUS BROWN [TAPE]: I know I didn't get out of there til, like, in the morning time, like two— One or two the morning.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: Brown was at the precinct for hours. I reviewed the police report. During the time he was there, it turns out he looked at more than 1,800 mugshots before he picked out JJ’s.
AUGUSTUS BROWN [TAPE]: I'm tired. Know what I mean? Scared, scared to death. Like, know what I mean? Like, damn. I ain't even have nothing to do with it. That's what came about, me pointing the finger at him. But I don't know if it was him or not, know what I mean?
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: When you picked him out, did you feel, at that moment: I know this is not the guy?
AUGUSTUS BROWN [TAPE]: Now that— that's something I've been struggling with. Like, I don't know if I've really picked out the right person. I don't know if it— if it was really him. Know what I mean? Like, I really can't say like, to myself, I— Look, I just said, “I hope I picked the right person,” know what I mean? But the doubts was there too.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: If you had to make a decision, if you were sitting in a courtroom testifying, would you say you just don't know? Or would you say you got the wrong guy? Or he is the right guy?
AUGUSTUS BROWN [TAPE]: I'd say I don't— I don't know if he's the right guy or not.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: If he's the wrong guy, why him?
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: Brown says he picked JJ’s photo because he was scared. But also, because he thought JJ looked familiar. He says he might have seen him before, when he was dealing on the streets.
AUGUSTUS BROWN [TAPE]: You ever seen nobody that you've been— That you said to yourself, “Where do I know this person from?”
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Right. But you remember thinking that there in that room?
AUGUSTUS BROWN [TAPE]: Yeah. Like I'd seen him before.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: But not from the numbers spot.
AUGUSTUS BROWN [TAPE]: Nah.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: Augustus Brown, the eyewitness who’d brought JJ into this investigation in the first place, just admitted he didn’t see JJ in the numbers spot. That would mean JJ wasn’t the shooter. That Brown had picked out the wrong man.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Do you remember what time of night you ended up picking out— him out?
AUGUSTUS BROWN [TAPE]: It was, it was dark. I know it was late.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: And you were like— In your mind, you were like: I’m just outta here?
AUGUSTUS BROWN [TAPE]: Yeah. Tired. Scared. You know what I mean? That's the main thing, I was scared. Like, I mean, I can't go to jail for something I didn't do.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: Brown says that once he picked JJ’s picture, he was allowed to go home. He wasn’t charged with anything. He even got to leave with his 10 bags of heroin.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: They really let you keep the heroin?
AUGUSTUS BROWN [TAPE]: Yeah.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: As I was sitting there across from Brown, I thought about what JJ had told me. That strange conversation he said he’d had with Brown in that holding cell behind the courtroom. Brown said the story was true. He did say to JJ, “They’re making me do it.”
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: What did that mean — “they're making me do it”?
AUGUSTUS BROWN [TAPE]: Like they— they forcing me. Like, it was either that or go to jail.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: “They’re forcing me,” meaning they’re forcing me to testify? Or they’re forcing me to pick somebody out?
AUGUSTUS BROWN [TAPE]: The— the whole process.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: In fact, the prosecutors had Brown jailed in the days before the trial to make sure that he would take the stand. And once he gave his testimony, he was released.
As I walked out of that prison that day, my mind was reeling. JJ’s case was based entirely on eyewitness accounts. There was no DNA. No physical or forensic evidence. And now the key eyewitness — the guy who initially linked JJ to the crime — was basically saying he picked him out at random, that the detectives working the case pressured him to make an ID, and that prosecutors made him testify in court.
I reached out to the NYPD and to the individual detectives who investigated the case, as well as the prosecutors who took JJ to trial. None would speak with me on the record.
But there were still more leads to follow. More people to talk to. And what I’d just heard felt so big, I couldn’t keep this information to myself.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: The Manhattan District Attorney is considered one of the most powerful prosecutors in the country. The office has hundreds of attorneys, and has handled as many as 100,000 criminal cases each year. For 35 years, Robert Morgenthau held that seat. Near the end of his tenure, in 2009, he spoke about his legacy.
ROBERT MORGENTHAU [ARCHIVAL INTERVIEW]: When I became DA, Manhattan was number one in murders. We had 648 murders. This past year we had 62. We went from… [FADES DOWN]
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: Morgenthau had a reputation for being tough on crime. He also oversaw many high profile cases, including one of the most famous wrongful convictions. In 1989, five teenagers were found guilty of the beating and rape of a jogger in Central Park. Those teens became known as the Central Park Five — later, the exonerated five.
ROBERT MORGENTHAU [ARCHIVAL INTERVIEW]: You know, we convicted these, uh, five young men. There were a lot of eye witnesses and a lot of confessions, and we believed them and they weren't right.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: It was under Morgenthau’s leadership that JJ was convicted. After Morgenthau retired, a new district attorney was elected.
CYRUS VANCE [ARCHIVAL PSA]: My name is Cy Vance, and I'm running to become the next Manhattan district attorney.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: During his campaign, Cyrus Vance, Jr. proposed something that caught my attention. He said he was going to create a department within the DA’s office called a Conviction Integrity Unit. Here he is in 2009 during his campaign, on local TV:
CYRUS VANCE [ARCHIVAL INTERVIEW]: A conviction integrity unit makes sure that, if there are issues in the integrity of the case — pre-indictment, pre-trial, or post-trial — the office is prepared to have a panel of senior lawyers look at it, to make sure that, in every case, we're doing the right thing. Making sure that wrongfully convicted people are not staying in jail.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: To me, this seemed like a big deal. An official way to review JJ’s claim of innocence. And the timing couldn’t have been better. I had just interviewed Augustus Brown who basically recanted, saying JJ wasn’t in the numbers parlor. So I started looking around the new DA’s website, just to learn more about this new unit. And that’s when I saw a familiar name listed on his transition team: Bob Gottlieb.
ADMIN ASSISTANT [TAPE]: Hi. Robert Gottlieb’s office.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: Bob is a veteran criminal defense attorney. I remembered him from another story I’d worked on, and he seemed like an approachable guy. Since Bob was working with the new DA, I figured he might have some insight about the new unit. I decided to call him, because at this point, JJ no longer had a lawyer.
Bob asked to see some of JJ’s paperwork, so I sent it to him and his partner Celia Gordon. You might remember her from episode one. They immediately saw issues.
ROBERT GOTTLIEB [TAPE]: There was enough that was brought to us — from day one, when we learned about it — to say: "There's something that might be there, that might have resulted in a wrongful conviction."
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: To Celia, the fact that JJ was convicted solely on eyewitness testimony was a red flag.
CELIA GORDON [TAPE]: That is so striking to me. And, in reading the testimony and hearing that there was no physical evidence, there was nothing recovered at the scene that would tie Jon-Adrian to this crime. There was nothing until that moment that Augustus Brown identifies him in a mugshot that he enters the case. With all that we know about eyewitness testimony, and the unreliability of eyewitness testimony, that's all I would need.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: After speaking with JJ, they decided to represent him pro bono. He was no longer on his own.
It’s March of 2010. Bob and Celia have set up a meeting to discuss JJ’s case and they’re letting me listen in on their strategy session.
ROBERT GOTTLIEB [TAPE]: The trial could have been rotten, but that is totally irrelevant here. In order for a DA to reach the point to say, “I'm going to recommend or move to vacate a conviction,” they've got to be convinced of actual innocence based on evidence that was not available at the time.
CELIA GORDON [TAPE]: Unless there is some new information, some new revelation from these witnesses — finding Mustafa, or getting Derry Daniels to say, “I never met this guy” — those are the only types of things that are going to, to set this man free.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: Remember, Derry Daniels was the alleged accomplice who told a judge he committed the crime with JJ. And Mustafa was the primary police target before JJ’s name ever came up.
ROBERT GOTTLIEB [TAPE]: Certainly if, now, we can track down Mustafa, or people saying, looking at a picture of a Mustafa, “Yeah, this is the guy, and the guy had braids at the time,” it's going to raise very serious questions about the integrity of the conviction.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: They also wanted to track down the eyewitnesses to see what they’d say.
ROBERT GOTTLIEB [TAPE]: What evidence do we have, Celia? Already questioning identification?
CELIA GORDON [TAPE]: What do we have— What new? What do we have that’s new?
ROBERT GOTTLIEB [TAPE]: The new— The new evidence.
CELIA GORDON [TAPE]: We have Augustus Brown. He's scheduled to get out of prison — I think we talked about that.
ROBERT GOTTLIEB [TAPE]: Right.
CELIA GORDON [TAPE]: In the— in the spring, I think, at some point.
ROBERT GOTTLIEB [TAPE]: Okay.
CELIA GORDON [TAPE]: So, he should be our number one person to go back to.
ROBERT GOTTLIEB [TAPE]: And, listen, this is what we’re going to have to do. For him, and for everyone else, you go to, we have to get affidavits from them. I'm concerned about— If the DA, or if a detective reaches out to them first, they're just going to, out of fear, naturally confirm their previous identification. So I want to get to these guys fast.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: One week after that initial strategy session, Bob and Celia set up a meeting with JJ’s mom Maria to discuss her son’s case.
MARIA VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: Today is gonna be the first day that I meet them. It's been a long time that I've been waiting for this, and I'm filled with a lot of emotion.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: We’re standing outside the lawyers’ offices. Maria is dressed up, in a black suit and yellow blouse.
MARIA VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: This is the very first time that somebody has actually taken the case, and really believes in my son's innocence. So, this is very important to me.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: We head into the building.
CELIA GORDON [TAPE]: Hi. Maria?
MARIA VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: Are you Celia?
CELIA GORDON [TAPE]: Yes, hi! Nice to meet you.
MARIA VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: Maria Velazquez.
CELIA GORDON [TAPE]: Well, it’s nice to meet you in person. [LAUGHS]
ROBERT GOTTLIEB [TAPE]: So you, you spoke to him on Sunday?
MARIA VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: Yes.
ROBERT GOTTLIEB [TAPE]: And what did he have to say?
MARIA VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: Well, he just called to see how I was doing, and he asked me, you know, when the meeting was, ’cause I had told him already I was coming to see you today.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: Bob and Celia start by telling Maria their plan.
CELIA GORDON [TAPE]: We had a meeting last week, and— Two things that we are focusing on in our reinvestigation.
MARIA VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: Mm-hmm.
CELIA GORDON [TAPE]: One is Mustafa. We want to see if we can now find out who Mustafa is, and hopefully that he's still alive. Number two: Speak with Derry Daniels, and see if we can get him to finally admit to us that he does not know who Jon-Adrian is, or had no connection to him.
CELIA GORDON [TAPE]: At the same time, we want to re-interview all of the people that were the identification witnesses.
MARIA VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: Okay.
ROBERT GOTTLIEB [TAPE]: So, what can we answer for you? I'm sure you have some questions for us.
MARIA VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: Um. I'm just waiting for the phone call that comes in to tell me that you found Mustafa, or that you found some new evidence that's gonna free my son. That's all I'm waiting for. I can't say that I have any questions, because the only question is: Who did this? Where are they? Somebody out there knows who did it. Somebody.
[SCENE FADES DOWN]
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: Dear Dan, On our last visit, I promised I would write. Needless to say, I have been going through a lot. Time is precious, and as it is, the State of New York has deprived me, Jon-Adrian Velazquez, of my constitutional rights to justice and liberty. They have deprived me of my right to raise my children properly and effectively. They have cast so many restraints on the welfare of our family, and when you get to the bottom of it all, Dan, you are going to see it was all done knowingly.
I appreciate everything you’ve done for me, and I trust that your efforts will continue. Respectfully, Jon-Adrian.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: During JJ’s trial, the prosecutor claimed that five people identified JJ as the man who killed Al Ward.
EUGENE HURLEY [VOICE ACTOR]: You’ll hear that five people — Philip Jones, Robert Jones, Lorenzo Woodford, Augustus Brown, and Dorothy Canady — five of them… [FADES DOWN]
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: I’d already spoken with the key eyewitness Augustus Brown, who basically said he picked JJ out at random. I found out Dorothy Canady had recently passed away. She was the 84-year-old woman who identified a juror as the shooter at JJ’s trial.
But there were still three other eyewitnesses who testified against JJ: Lorenzo Woodford — the guy who Augustus Brown had been selling heroin to on the day of the murder — and two brothers who’d been at the numbers spot, Robert and Philip Jones.
But now, I wasn’t the only one interested in speaking with these witnesses. JJ’s lawyers wanted to, as well. They hired a private investigator, Joe Dwyer. So, when Dwyer went out to interview Robert Jones where he lived in the Bronx, I decided to join him.
As we approached the door, Dwyer turned on a small recorder and put it in his pocket, so the sound isn't great.
JOE DWYER [TAPE]: How you doing? This is Dan Slepian... [FADES DOWN]
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: Robert Jones insisted JJ was the shooter. In fact, I played him a video of JJ and he said, “That’s the guy.” But then Jones said something that made me question his credibility. He said when he was at the trial, he saw someone else in the courtroom who looked even more like the gunman — JJ’s half-brother.
ROBERT JONES [TAPE]: I've been questioning his brother.
JOE DWYER [TAPE]: Mm-hmm. Now let me ask you—
ROBERT JONES [TAPE]: That’s what’s bothering me a lot. Now, that— that really disturbs me.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: JJ’s half brother is five years younger than him. They have the same father.
ROBERT JONES [TAPE]: I've been living with this since the time I saw his brother in the court.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: Just for the record, no one other than Jones has ever suggested that JJ’s half-brother had anything to do with this crime, and there is zero evidence linking him to it. I thanked Jones for talking with me, and left.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Thanks for your time, man.
ROBERT JONES [TAPE]: Anytime. Y’all enjoy your day.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: Jones had technically stuck to his ID. But the fact that he’d thought someone else looked more like the shooter than JJ? That spoke volumes.
I still had two more eyewitnesses to speak with: Robert’s brother Philip Jones and Lorenzo Woodford. I found out Woodford was living in Hartford, Connecticut. One of our TV producers, Stefani Barber, went to see him. She wore a hidden camera.
STEFANI BARBER [TAPE]: Hi.
LORENZO WOODFORD [TAPE]: How you doing?
STEFANI BARBER [TAPE]: Good, how are you? I hope I didn’t catch you at a bad time. I came by—
LORENZO WOODFORD [TAPE]: I’m always at a bad time.
STEFANI BARBER [TAPE]: Okay… [FADES DOWN]
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: They found a place to sit outside his apartment building. She asked him what he remembered about the day Al Ward died.
LORENZO WOODFORD [TAPE]: I'm not a fanatic, crazy, wild person. I think I'm reasonable. You know what I mean? And what happened happened. It scared the shit out of me. I had nightmares for about three months.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: Woodford says back then, he was homeless and had a heroin addiction.
LORENZO WOODFORD [TAPE]: I started using drugs when I was about 10, 11, something like that.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: He says he dropped out of school in the sixth grade and spent the next decade in and out of the system. Eventually, he became friends with Al Ward, the retired officer who ran the illegal numbers spot.
LORENZO WOODFORD [TAPE]: I was sleeping in some cars, me and a few other people, in a lot next to his place. One day he called me over and told me, “I got something for you to do.”
STEFANI BARBER [TAPE]: Mm-hmm.
LORENZO WOODFORD [TAPE]: “You won’t have to sleep in a car. You can sleep in the back of the club. Clean your clothes, take a bath, keep yourself clean and stuff.”
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: He says, in exchange, Al Ward asked him to watch the numbers spot to make sure no one robbed the place.
LORENZO WOODFORD [TAPE]: He was buying me food every day, giving me a place to stay, a place to take a bath, a place to change my clothes. You know what I mean?
STEFANI BARBER [TAPE]: So he was kind of, like, your protector.
LORENZO WOODFORD [TAPE]: Oh, he was— Not just me. He had a lot of people around. So, I did a lot of wrong things, I did a lot of right things. But anything wrong, if he found out, he’d stop me from doing it.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: On the day of Al Ward’s murder, Woodford was buying heroin from Augustus Brown in the back room of the numbers spot. He says they’d been there for just a few minutes when they heard a commotion in the other room.
LORENZO WOODFORD [TAPE]: I heard somebody said, “Give it up. Give it up,” you know? So I was going to open the door and go see what was happening. I opened the back door and stepped out, and this guy stuck a gun in my face. Oh, man. I had a roll of money in my hand. He said, “I'll take that.”
He said, “Yo, man, anybody else back there?” No, there ain't anybody else, man. “Get up.” They tying people up, and Al is standing up. And I know Al got a gun. I seen the other guy come running toward me. Ran up to Al, put the gun to the side of his head, and: Boom.
Oh, my God. I laid down. I heard all these shots. Boom, boom, boom, boom. I saw all this wet shit. It was blood. Al's blood. Oh, man. I would never forget that boy's face. There's features in his face that you won't forget. Mainly his eyebrows. You see how people's eyebrows have a space in between? His don't. They just go right straight across.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: The eyebrows? I’d seen a handful of photos of JJ before and after the crime, and he didn’t have a unibrow in any of them. But Woodford insists he picked the right man.
LORENZO WOODFORD [TAPE]: If somebody stick a gun in your face and take money for you, you don't think you'd remember that person looked like? I was looking in his face. I wasn't looking at the gun. I made sure I did not look at the gun. I looked at him. All right? I never saw no sketches. I never saw no pictures. I never made no descriptions of him. I went to a lineup and picked him out of the lineup.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: Except, here’s the problem with what Woodford’s saying. According to police reports, and his own trial testimony, Lorenzo Woodford did give the police a description of the suspect. He said the shooter was Black and had cornrows. And when he was brought in to look at a lineup, he didn’t pick out JJ right away. JJ was #2 in the lineup. But Woodford first picked #3, then said, “Maybe #2,” finally saying, “I’m not positive.” Of course, by the time JJ’s trial came around almost 2 years later, Woodford said he was sure JJ was the shooter.
LORENZO WOODFORD [TAPE]: I don't have no problem recognizing people. That guy that stuck that pistol in my face and took the money out of my hand was the kid that I said did it. That's who did it. All right? I didn't turn him in. Somebody else turned him in. All right? They had to have some kind of evidence. They didn't just take my word for it. And if they don't believe he did it, let him go.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: I had one more eyewitness to speak with: Philip Jones. I learned that, at the time of JJ’s trial, Jones was in prison for drug possession. But the Manhattan DA’s office said they would write a letter to the parole board if he offered his “truthful testimony.” And at trial, Philip Jones testified that JJ was the shooter.
[SOUNDS OF WALKING OUTDOORS]
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: How you doing? Phillip upstairs? You know— You know Phillip Jones?
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: I’m in Far Rockaway, Queens. I’ve heard Jones is living on a block around here. So I’m walking the streets, knocking on doors, asking where he might be.And I’m wearing a hidden camera.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: How you doing?
WOMAN 1 [TAPE]: Hi.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Oh, I'm looking for Phil Jones.
WOMAN 1 [TAPE]: Huh?
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Phillip Jones.
WOMAN 1 [TAPE]: No.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Oh, I'm sorry.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: I ask more people if they know where he lives.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: I’m looking for Philip Jones.
WOMAN 2 [TAPE]: No.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Have you seen him? Have you seen him around?
MAN [TAPE]: Yeah, I seen him this morning.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Where— Where does he go?
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: Finally, I see Jones walking down the street. He’s heading back to his place.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: There he is, over there. What’s up?
PHILIP JONES [TAPE]: What’s up?
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: He doesn’t want to talk on the street, so he invites me inside his apartment.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: This is nice, man. This is—
PHILIP JONES [TAPE]: Lock the door.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: I already had a good reason for wanting to see Philip Jones: He was one of the eyewitnesses to Al Ward’s murder. But I was there for an even bigger reason. Philip Jones had recently spoken to JJ’s private investigator. He’d signed an affidavit saying JJ wasn’t the shooter. I wanted to know if he stood by that.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: They just sent this to me.
PHILIP JONES [TAPE]: All right, read it.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: On 1/27/98, I was present at 2335 8th Avenue, New York, New York. I witnessed my friend Albert Ward get shot and killed.
PHILIP JONES [TAPE]: I saw that.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: On 2/2/98, I viewed a lineup in which I picked out an individual as being the shooter. I picked out this man because I thought the man looked like the shooter, but I was not sure. I told the police this was the guy and I was sure, but this was not the truth. I felt pressured because the police were threatening to arrest me and my brother, Robert, for stealing money that Albert dropped on the floor after being shot. I was arrested sometime after Albert Ward was killed, and two detectives came to visit me upstate in Groveland Prison. The detectives told me they got the right guy and would help me get parole. When I saw the defendant in court, I looked in his eyes and I knew I had picked out the wrong guy, and the guy on trial I had never seen before. Signed, Philip Jones.
PHILIP JONES [TAPE]: There you go. There you go.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: But— So, that’s all true?
PHILIP JONES [TAPE]: That’s all true.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: The guy still sits in prison.
PHILIP JONES [TAPE]: So what do you want me— What do you want me to say?
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Nothing.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: I get up to leave and start heading down the stairs.
PHILIP JONES [TAPE]: So, what'd you think about that?
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: I think that— that, you know, that it's always good to be honest, man. And you did the strong thing. It's not an easy thing to do. All right, Phillip, I'll be in touch with you.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: I’d now spoken to four eyewitnesses, and it was clear to me that the evidence that sent JJ away was a lot weaker than it first appeared. They’d all sworn under oath that JJ was Al Ward’s killer
Of those four, Augustus Brown had recanted. Philip Jones had recanted. His brother Robert Jones said someone else actually looked more like the shooter. And Lorenzo Woodford’s story didn’t match the facts.
Then, of course, there was the prosecution’s fifth eyewitness, Dorothy Canady. She’d pointed to Juror #6 when asked to identify the shooter.
But the jury did find JJ guilty. I wanted to know why, and how. What went on during their deliberations? So I decided to call a juror. Juror #6. The one picked out by an eyewitness as the gunman.
What he told me blew me away.
RAMON AVILES [TAPE]: Whoa, did she just pick me out? Now there's something wrong with that.
JUROR [TAPE]: It's just a horrible, a horrible feeling that I carry around, because I've ruined somebody's life.
BARRY SCHECK [TAPE]: How am I gonna believe his mother? How am I gonna believe the mother of his children? They have every incentive to lie.
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: Do you know the seriousness of a 17-year-old committing a crime? What's gonna happen to you? You're not going back to another program If you make the wrong choice again.
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. New episodes run every Monday. See you then.