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Transcript: Friendship

The full transcript for Letters from Sing Sing, Episode 6: Friendship


Letters from Sing Sing

Episode 6: Friendship

By 2015, JJ had been locked up for nearly 18 years. His mom, Maria, drives to Sing Sing to visit him on his 40th birthday and reflects on how much it hurts to watch him age in prison.

In the last decade, JJ has built a rich life in prison in order to survive. He talks about his involvement in the prison’s programs, like organizing fundraisers and leading workshops. He was even elected by the prison’s population to speak for them when issues came up. He says this work has given him purpose, but it also helps distract him from the trauma of being incarcerated for a crime he didn’t commit.

While all of this is happening, JJ’s older son, Jon, gets into more trouble. He’s arrested on charges of burglary. He hides out in a motel room, and Dan goes to check on him there.

Dan also follows up on old and new leads in JJ’s case. And then one day, he gets a yellow envelope in the mail.


MARIA VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: Today is my son's 40th birthday, which— I didn't think I would be spending it in— on a visit with him in jail, but I usually try to spend his birthday with him.

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: It’s November 11, 2015. JJ’s mom Maria is driving to see him at Sing Sing.

MARIA VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: We’re lucky this year he has a visit today. So I’m on my way to visit him and wish him a happy birthday. I just wish it was under different circumstances, but we’ll just keep pushing forth.

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: It’s been one year since JJ sent me that devastating letter — the one he’d written at 4 in the morning in despair, after finding out a judge had denied his request for a hearing. That letter was a turning point for me. I knew that something had changed in my relationship with JJ. When I read it, I was afraid for him. My DATELINE story about JJ had already aired, and there wasn’t another one planned, but I was more committed than ever to keep going.

After the judge’s denial, JJ’s lawyers filed an appeal. As JJ waited, time was passing.By his 40th birthday, he’d been locked up for nearly 18 years. Maria says over time, it’s gotten harder to visit him.

MARIA VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: Actually, my visits have gotten less and less. I don’t like seeing him there. He’s gotten old, and every time I see him it hurts. And when I think about the fact that he's lost all those years — that he's never gonna get that back — I try not to think about that, but it does come into my mind, especially on his birthday.

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: By now, I’ve known JJ for 13 years. We’ve grown closer. We’ve both grown older, too. I’ve lost a little hair. His goatee has gone a little gray.

JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: Turning 40 in prison only serves to remind me of how many years I've lost. My salvation, my ability to survive this ordeal, has basically been based off the fact that I've tucked away— I've tucked away a lot of pain and suffering. I call it a reservoir of pain. And I try to numb myself to the situation, because I know I have no choice but to survive it. No matter what it is that comes my way, I have to survive it.

And turning 40 reminds me that I'm getting older. And I wonder how many years I got left in this world. My father died at 49. And I'm still locked up. Every year, I say: You’re going home, this is your year. Every year. I still don’t know when I’m going home.

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

Episode Six: Friendship

From the moment I met JJ all those years ago, one thing was clear to me. Not only was he focused on fighting his case, he was determined to make something of his life. And in prison, that’s not an easy thing to do.

JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: You know, prison is designed in a way that individuals are supposed to just waste their time. It's like, every day it's: Come to the yard, lift some weights, run around the yard, walk around the yard, talk about nonsense. So, you know, like, it was monotonous.

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: And that was JJ’s life in the first couple of years after he was locked up. Then one day, a group of older men approached him in the yard. They had a proposition: Come to the school building.

JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: A lot of these older guys, their whole mentality was: Get these guys out of the yard, ’cause there's nothing good happening in the yard. And so it started with, like, a VCR and a TV in a room. And it was like: You guys can watch movies. The only thing is, if you're gonna watch a movie, you have to write about it.

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: The older guys were proposing movie nights, but with a required writing assignment. And that changed everything for JJ.

JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: And so I had developed a reputation. People started to say: Listen, that kid right there knows how to write.

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: JJ says other men in the prison started to notice him. Some of the younger ones wanted help with their writing. But the more senior guys — the ones who were active in organizations on the inside — asked JJ to come to their meetings.

So JJ got more involved in the prison’s programs. I remember on one of my visits, back in 2008, he told me about some of the things he was working on — like starting volunteer programs, organizing fundraisers.

JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: We donated $1,200 for back-to-school supplies where the kids can come up — and they're actually gonna be coming up starting this weekend — and they get a book bag with a bunch of supplies in it, to try to help the families that come up here with their— with their children.

This was for the annual toy drive for Christmas. We buy toys for the children that come up on the visits.

DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: What does it do for you in here?

JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: Well, it gives me the opportunity to help people, you know, to give back.

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: JJ was even elected by the prison’s population to speak for them when issues came up. Which meant he began to work closely with the man who runs Sing Sing.

MICHAEL CAPRA [TAPE]: He was a natural leader, and so he stood out right away.

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: That’s Superintendent Michael Capra. he’s been in charge of Sing Sing for more than a decade. He says he immediately noticed something about JJ.

MICHAEL CAPRA [TAPE]: Here's a guy who was— kind of reminds you of a CEO right from the beginning. Right? There's a certain air about him: the way he carries himself, the way he speaks. He's very clear on what he's thinking about, but he's also reads the room very well, understands who he is. He stepped out as, like, a young professional who was, you know, an executive in a company.

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: And that’s kind of how JJ began to operate inside the prison.

JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: Responsibility brings a sense of purpose. Now it's not: I'm just waking up every day in a cage, looking out in the yard and— No, I gotta go and see this guy in the yard, so I'm trying to help him. But it also was an escape for me. While I'm focusing on everybody else, I don't have to focus on what I'm going through. I don't have to deal with the suffering — the trauma of being incarcerated for a crime I didn’t commit.

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: But JJ was surrounded by men who did commit crimes. And he got to know them. Many felt remorse for what they’d done. JJ realized their stories could help people on the outside. So he helped create a group with 10 of them to talk about the pain they’d caused, the people they’d hurt. They wanted to redefine what it meant to pay a debt to society.

JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: Doing time in prison is doing nothing to give back to your community. There is no reparations in that. Right? But doing something for your community — using your experience, your lived experience. Using your hindsight and sharing your insight to provide foresight for the future of, and the safety of our children.

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: So JJ and the group began to work with Superintendent Capra. They wanted to make a video to discourage kids from following in their footsteps. But Sing Sing is a maximum security prison, not a production company. They needed help. The superintendent had seen my DATELINE special on JJ, so he called me.

MICHAEL CAPRA [TAPE]: And I told you, Hey listen: I need a consultant. And, you know, we talked for a while and you were like, “I am in thiS, 1,000%. I'm doing this. I'm gonna bring a team with me.”

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: And that’s what I did. I loved the sound of the project, but honestly, I had another motive. I wanted to keep JJ’s spirits up while I continued to look into his case. I enlisted the help of a couple of colleagues. And we all volunteered to make a short video. We set up a camera in an empty room, and, one by one, the incarcerated men went in and started talking to the lens.

VOICE 1 [VOICES FROM WITHIN ARCHIVAL TAPE]: I shot my friend six times because I was angry.

VOICE 2 [VOICES FROM WITHIN ARCHIVAL TAPE]: I know how it feels to have destroyed a family. I know how it feels to have eliminated a name. [DEEP INHALE] You can't make it right.

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: That video eventually grew into a program inside the prison called Voices from Within. JJ was the group’s leader.

JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: We gotta get to the younger guys. It's about reestablishing a new culture.

OTHERS [TAPE]: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: Believe it or not, a lot of the culture out there emanated from prison. Those kids that are out there cutting each other's faces, that started in here.

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: JJ ran the meetings. And Superintendent Capra helped spread the message of Voices From WIthin to the rest of the prison’s population.

MICHAEL CAPRA [TAPE]: This is what we're doing: Guys that care. Men that want to make a difference, men that don't have a negative agenda, want to give back to their own peer group: you guys. But the point of it is, is that everybody can be successful. It's just being a success for who we are. Doing the right thing, period. And being able to be man enough to step up and say: That is not cool. That ain't right. We're not doing that. We're gonna do this.

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: But, to JJ, the accomplishment he was most proud of was getting an education. Sing Sing has a college program, something not all prisons offer. It’s run by a non-profit called Hudson Link for Higher Education. And, in 2014, JJ graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Behavioral Science. The commencement took place in the prison’s visiting room. JJ and 25 other graduates wore caps and gowns over their green prison pants.


DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: His mom, Maria, was there with his younger son Jacob. And I was there too, with my camera. There were special guests, like Harry Belafonte. And the commencement speaker was Whoopi Goldberg.

WHOOPI GOLDBERG [TAPE]: Unless you know the past, you are doomed to repeat it.


WHOOPI GOLDBERG [TAPE]: You know? It will happen. So now here you all are, and you're being encouraged to go out into your communities, but you know what you're walking into, ‘cause you have to think back to who you were. ‘Cause who you were isn’t— when you came here is not who you are when you're leaving. And that's really the journey.


DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: Then, they handed out the diplomas.

NAME READER [TAPE]: Jon-Adrian Velazquez.


DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]:I was so proud of JJ that day. I had such respect for what he’d achieved despite everything he’d faced, everything he’d gone through. If I were in his place, I think I would have lost my mind. But over the years, I’d seen how strong and resilient JJ was. We’d become true friends. That’s not something I ever expected to happen, getting this close with someone I’d done a story about. This was new territory for me.

As a journalist, I needed to be careful. In my mind, I wasn't advocating for JJ. I was simply following the facts. I was advocating for the truth. JJ knew that. I’d said it to him a hundred times. And while he continued to fight his own case, JJ told me about other men who were convicted of murder, who he believed were innocent. He introduced me to three of them, and encouraged me to look into their cases.

And I did. I wound up doing DATELINE stories on each of those men. All of them were ultimately exonerated. Eric Glisson was one of them. I was with him the moment he was released.

ERIC GLISSON [TAPE]: It’s like jumping out of a coffin and walking. You know? It’s like you’re being read your last rites, and all of a sudden, a miracle happens.

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: But JJ — the guy who led me to Eric and the other men, who helped free them — he remained locked up. When I visited him at his cell one time, he showed me news clippings that he’d taped to the wall.

DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Show me who everybody is.

JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: It's the wall of shame. That's all the people who had to spend time in prison for crimes they didn't commit. This is Eric Glisson: Wrongfully convicted 17 years. Came outta the Bronx. Richard Rosario: 20 years wrongfully convicted. Also in the Bronx. Did a story on him called CONVICTION, just like my documentary.

So, I wake up every day and I look at this. And, um, it's what drives me to keep going, because while I may not be able to get my freedom through this process, there have been others that we've been able to help. And I guess that's a part of my purpose.

DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: How does it feel to look at that wall, knowing that you're still here?

JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: There's no way to deal with this, man. I mean, it's a very painful experience. Um, that's where my hope lies.

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: JJ hoped he’d soon be free, too. That the Appeals Court would finally grant him the hearing that he’d been asking for for years. In September 2016, two years after JJ’s graduation, his lawyers Celia Gordon and Bob Gottlieb got the answer.

BOB GOTTLIEB [TAPE]: Last week, after many months of waiting, we received word that the appellate division denied our motion — denied the appeal. So, uh, the news is lousy, to say the least.

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: Once again, JJ had been denied a hearing. The decision was unanimous. The judges didn’t buy what the eyewitnesses Augustus Brown and Philip Jones had said — that they knew JJ was the wrong man. The court wrote: “The alleged recantations by two of the four eyewitnesses were shown to be highly suspect.”

The opinion also addressed Moustapha in Seattle — the man I’d confronted outside his house, the one that two women said had confessed to them. The court wrote: “Simply put, there is nothing either trustworthy or reliable about the purported confession attributed to Moustapha,” and that it, “was refuted by the overwhelming evidence the People unearthed in their reinvestigation of the crime.”

I’d also had doubts about Moustapha. Bu,t to me, the main issue was: Did JJ commit this crime? Now, unless new evidence surfaced, JJ was at the end of his legal road. Bob and Celia were devastated.

CELIA GORDON [TAPE]: Knowing that this is the end of the line, legally speaking, it was so hard to read that decision. I don't have words. I don't have words for that. You know, this is— This is Jon-Adrian's life.

BOB GOTTLIEB [TAPE]: I firmly believe that someday, somehow, when you least expect it, something is going to break. Someday, justice is going to be done. And I only hope that I'm gonna be alive when that day comes.

AUTOMATED TELLER [TAPE]: You have a prepaid call from Jon-Adrian, an inmate at Sing Sing… [FADES DOWN]

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: JJ called from Sing Sing after hearing the news.

JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: I'm just coming to terms with realizing the effect that the court decision is having on me. It's like, you know, they don't want to hear the facts. They don't even wanna take the opportunity to dig deeper into the facts by just simply holding a hearing.

I just don't know how much more of this I can take. It's been two decades. I mean, at this point, speaking to my attorneys, they're, they're, they're baffled by: What's next? It took me 19 years to get where I'm at today. What am I supposed to do? Another 19 years? To try to figure out where we went wrong, what we haven't uncovered already, how can we uncover something new?

How am I supposed to pull all this off if I'm locked up in a— I'm, I'm, I'm— I live in a cage! I don't— You know, I just don't know what's next. What's next? Finishing my time? I’ve been sentenced to life. I don't know what's next.


DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: After JJ’s appeal was denied in 2016, I began speaking with him several times a week, and rarely did a month go by without a visit. We’d have long talks about his case and his work, and we talked a lot about his family: How much he missed his boys. How much it hurt to be separated from them.

JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: June 26, 2009. I haven’t told anyone this, Dan, but I’ve been waking up in the middle of the night worried about my son. I have not… [FADES DOWN]

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: Almost a decade earlier, JJ had written me letters about how concerned he was that his son Jon would get caught up in the system.

JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: I know my son is trouble-bound. He is a good child with a pretty solid foundation of principles and morals, yet he is vulnerable in an environment that makes statistics out of our youth.

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: In a way, JJ had predicted the future. I’d spoken with Jon when he was 16, while he was at a court-ordered facility for kids who got in trouble with the law. Two years later, Jon got into more trouble. He was convicted of attempted robbery and spent two years in prison.

Now, Jon was 23 and on parole. He’d been working, driving a delivery truck, trying to make ends meet. Then one day, Maria called to tell me that he had gotten into another situation, and was in danger of getting locked up again.

Jon was hiding out in a motel room — just like his dad had all those years ago. Maria urged Jon to get in touch with me. And he did. He texted me to come over.


DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: So, I'm on my way to see John-Adrian, Jr. now. He's had some problems. You know, when he was a kid, he used to say how he didn't like to go visit his dad at Sing Sing because he didn't like prisons. He never wanted to end up in jail. And, as he got older, I think he got sucked into a life that maybe he wouldn't have had his dad been around. He got in trouble with the law, and he's already been to jail himself. So I just drove an hour to get here, and I'm gonna go talk to him.

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: I pull up to a run down motel next to a gas station.





DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: What room are you in?


DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: All right. I'm parking right out front. Okay?


DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: All right. Come and open the door.



DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: You look so stressed, man.

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: Jon is sitting on the edge of the bed. The room is full of smoke. An old, square TV is flickering in the background, but he isn’t watching it. His head is down. He just looks lost.

DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: So, what have you just been doing? Smoking and sleeping?

JON VELAZQUEZ, JR. [TAPE]: Yeah. Not really sleeping. Just, like, resting my body.

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: This is tricky for me. I’ve known Jon since he was a little kid. I’ve watched him grow up. I care about him, and I want him to be okay. But as a journalist, I’ve also been documenting his life for years. So, with Jon’s consent, I record our conversation.

DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Why don't you start with what happened last week?

JON VELAZQUEZ, JR. [TAPE]: It was difficult. I just came back from a long trip. I'm just, like, at the house, coming back from this trip. Somebody called me and was like— One of my friends had got robbed.

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: Jon tells me his story: How one of his friends was robbed, and thought he knew the guy who did it. So Jon and a few others went to get the money back. Except he says it was a set-up. Someone called the police, and Jon was arrested for burglary. He spent about a week in jail.

DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: So you got out of jail four days ago?


DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: Getting arrested was a violation of Jon’s parole, so now he’s facing another state prison sentence.

JON VELAZQUEZ, JR. [TAPE]: I mean, I have seven months of parole left, but I just came out of jail on Monday. Like, I just don't want to go right back right now. It's too much.

DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Why are you here? In this room?

JON VELAZQUEZ, JR. [TAPE]: Just to get away from everything. I can just do as I please for the moment.

DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: What's your plan?

JON VELAZQUEZ, JR. [TAPE]: Not too sure yet. That's another reason for being here: to make one.

DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Well, have you thought it through?


DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Well, let's do that, okay? Let's start doing that together. Let's start thinking this through. I want you to just feel free to be honest with me, too. You know what I mean? I'm not here to pass any judgment at all. No matter what happens, the fact that you were arrested last week is a violation of parole.


DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Let's just talk about your real options. Let's deal with what's a fact. The fact is: What? Your parole officer said you need to come in. Right? So, now, what are your options? Tell 'em to me. Option one.

JON VELAZQUEZ, JR. [TAPE]: To go there.

DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Okay. Option two?


DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: What happens if you go? Let's go down that road for a minute.

JON VELAZQUEZ, JR. [TAPE]: I'll just be sitting in Rockland County jail.

DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: For how long?

JON VELAZQUEZ, JR. [TAPE]: Worst case scenario, I just do seven months.

DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: What's the best possible thing that could happen if you turn yourself in?

JON VELAZQUEZ, JR. [TAPE]: Mm. I do four months.

DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: What was option two? You— you run?


DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Okay, so let's go down that road. What happens there? So, you keep moving around, right? How— How does that life look?

JON VELAZQUEZ, JR. [TAPE]: I don't know. I need to be able to get in a good state of mind. I just can't go right back to jail. It's like, it's just too much.

DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Does it feel good to live like this? On the run? Hiding?

JON VELAZQUEZ, JR. [TAPE]: Doesn't feel good. But I know I can get some things done.

DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Like what?

JON VELAZQUEZ, JR. [TAPE]: I could work.

DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Not if there's a warrant out for your arrest. You're 23?

JON VELAZQUEZ, JR. [TAPE]: Yep. As a child, I wanted to— I wanted to be this age. I was trying to grow up too fast. Now that I'm here, it's just, like, whatever. It’s just a lot going through my mind. I'm really trying to figure out what I'm gonna do. But until I figure that out, I know that I'm just gonna stay here.

DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: You know what? Um. [SIGHS]. You know I talk to your dad. You know that? And rarely is there a time when I visit him, that we talk, that he doesn't tell me how much he loves you. I was with your dad on your birthday. And you know what he said to me? “My son is 23 years old today. I turned 23 in prison.” He doesn't want to see you go down this path.

You know what he would say? He would say: I love him no matter what, and I'm gonna be there for him no matter what he does. He knows there's a future for you. And he also knows that you've been robbed of him. It makes your burden that much harder. It makes your fight that much harder, right?

I've watched you grow up. And it just must be very, very difficult for you. So I don’t— I don't wanna pretend that I know what it's like to be you, or that I know what the right decision for you is. You gotta do that for yourself.


DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: I'm sorry, man. I'm sorry.

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]:I give Jon a hug. He’s kind of in a daze. He’s hearing me, but I don’t know if it’s registering, or if I’m even helping.

DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: I'm sorry that you're going through all this. You all right?


DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Tough choices, right?


DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: I head back to my car. And I sit there for a few minutes, letting it all sink in. Then my phone rings.


AUTOMATED TELLER [TAPE]: You have a prepaid call from John Adrian, an inmate at Sing Sing, the New York State Correctional Facility. If you wish to accept and pay for this call, dial—





JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: Hey. I just got off the phone with my mother. She told me you two were together.

DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: You know, we— I spoke to him probably more than an hour. Um.


DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: And I did my best to try to not judge him, and not to give him any advice, but to help him think through all of the options that he has before him, you know? And I told him that: “You know what your father would say right now.” And he said, “What?” I said, “No matter what you do, he's gonna love you. No matter what you do, he's gonna support you.” So, that's what I said on your behalf to him.

JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: Well, I thank you for that.

DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Uh. He's gonna have to make decisions, right?

JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: Yeah, definitely. It's the collateral damage. Since he was 15, he's been going in and out of situations with the criminal justice system. And it's not working. Whatever they're doing with him while he's institutionalized? It's not working. It's obvious that he needs something else. He needs help. And he's not getting it in here.

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: It was tough to tell JJ what was happening with his son, especially because I knew there was nothing he could do about it. JJ had predicted this. He’d told me about the research on children of incarcerated parents. He knew how they face a host of hardships: a higher risk of financial instability, emotional stress, trauma. Sometimes that can lead to making bad decisions.

Jon didn’t turn himself in after I spoke with him in that motel room. Police caught up with him months later. He was sent back to prison to serve two and a half more years.


DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: It had been 15 years since I’d received that first letter from JJ asking me to look into his case. And despite all that I’d found since then, he was still in prison. What made this so hard for me to understand was that, from my read, prosecutors hadn’t really been evaluating whether or not JJ was the gunman. In their court filings, it seemed to me their position was that JJ’s trial had been fair, that his constitutional rights had not been violated, that their conviction was a solid one.

The only chance JJ now had to get a judge to even listen again would be if he found new evidence that hadn’t been available at the time of his trial. And it would have to be a big deal. There would need to be a reasonable probability that the new evidence would have led to a more favorable verdict for JJ.

After all these years, that was a tall order. Still, I figured there had to be something new out there. I simply refused to accept that the law could keep JJ locked up when, to me, there was so much evidence of his innocence. So I got back to work. I followed up on random leads I’d never explored, chased down old ones, reviewed notes and court filings. One day, I even walked the streets of Harlem looking for a guy mentioned by one of the eyewitnesses.

And there was something else I wanted to check. Before a trial, prosecutors have a legal obligation to turn over any documents to the defense that might be relevant to their case. But it was up to the DA’s office to determine what was relevant.

In JJ’s case, his lawyers asked the DA’s office for copies of all the police reports — more than 100 of them. But prosecutors responded with a letter, saying they’d decided to withhold dozens of those reports. They said that they weren’t material to JJ’s defense. But I started to wonder: What if there was something important in those reports?

For months, I worked to get my hands on them. I can’t say how I did it without revealing sources, but one day, I finally got them.

DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: It's March 21, 2017 — 15 years after I started this investigation. And I get home last night, and there's this big yellow envelope in my mailbox. And inside are all of the police reports from JJ’s case.


DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: One of those police reports, number 93, felt like a bombshell. It was an interview that a detective had done with the father of Derry Daniels — JJ’s alleged accomplice, the man with the duct tape. That interview took place the day before JJ’s name first came up in the investigation.

According to police report 93, Daniels’s father said his son Derry had come over to his apartment the night before the murder. Derry had a friend with him — someone he owed money to. The father told the detective he didn’t let that friend in, and he described the friend as a light-skinned Black man with braids — the exact description of the shooter many of the eyewitnesses gave police. The father even said he could identify that friend.

Think about it: This is the father of JJ’s alleged accomplice, saying his son showed up the night before the murder with a man who matched the original description of the shooter. And the father tells police he can ID the guy. The next day, JJ’s photo was picked out by Augustus Brown, the key eyewitness. But there’s no record of anyone ever going back to speak with Derry Daniel's father — not even to check if JJ was that friend.

I drove over to Sing Sing to tell JJ what I’d found.


DAN: That’s Seven Building, right? To the left?

GUARD: Yeah.

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: A guard leads me to JJ’s cell. He’s sitting on his bed. I sit across from him.

DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: So here I am. We’re cramped in here.

JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: Oh— [LAUGHS] You're starting to get a feel for it. How does it feel for you to be inside of a cell?

DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: It's, it's small. What, am I— sitting on your toilet, right?

JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: You're sitting on my toilet.

DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: My knees are touching the bed, and—

JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: We can reach both sides just by standing up and reaching across.

DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: So, your latest appeal was denied.


DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Now, I’m not a lawyer. And what I’m going to tell you, I don't want you to talk about it on the phone right now. I don't want you to talk to anybody else about it until it plays itself out to see what happens. But I've seen some of the police reports that were missing.

It turns out that I have now seen an interview with Derry Daniels’s father. That interview was done on the 29th of January, which was two days after the murder. In the narrative of the report, the father said that on Monday night, at 5 PM — which was 19 hours before the murder, or so — that Derry had come over to his apartment with a friend that he owed money to. And the father described the friend as a light-skinned Black man with braids, and said he could identify him.

JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: Why am I finding this out 20 years later? There's no justice in this justice system. There’s no justice in this justice system. I lost 20 years of my life, man. What does it matter? I’ve got five years left for the sentence that they gave me. I'm so numb at this point that I can do it.

I spent half my life in prison. Because people wanna hold back information. Because people want to continue to perpetuate lies. I didn't deserve this. My children didn't deserve this. My mother didn't deserve this.

These people destroyed my life. It destroyed my family. And that's time we can't get back. My children— My oldest son is the age that I was when I came to prison. He was three years old when I left him. My younger son doesn't even know what it is to wake up to a father. He was a month old. These people stole my life from me.

There's nothing that can be done to make this right. Even releasing me tomorrow doesn't make it right. It’ll never hurt any less. Do any of them prosecutors ever think about that? When they destroy our lives? Somebody had this information. Why was it withheld?

This is not a mistake, Dan. They know I'm innocent.

DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: My heart was breaking for JJ. What he said was true. There was nothing that could change the fact that he had spent nearly 20 years in prison. But this police report — report 93 — could mean a new chance at getting out.

When JJ’s lawyers saw the report, they were outraged it had been withheld. To them, it was clear evidence that JJ’s constitutional rights had been violated. They immediately filed another motion for a hearing. And this time, it was granted.

JJ would finally be back in court.

Next time…

BOB GOTTLIEB [TAPE] Your Honor, it is not too much to ask, how in heaven's name was DD-5 93 not turned over? How did the People not turn it over to the defense?

JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: 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, it's disgusting, but it's powerful.

MARIA VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: 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.

MICHAEL CAPRA [TAPE]: In my 40 years of service, this is one of the more exciting times in my whole entire career—

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

MICHAEL CAPRA [TAPE]: Because I know he doesn't belong here.

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. Special thanks to Sean Gallagher.

New episodes run every Monday. See you then.