Letters from Sing Sing
Episode 5: Integrity
It’s been eight months since Dan’s investigation into JJ’s case aired on Dateline. When he visits JJ at Sing Sing, JJ is frustrated—he thought he’d be out by now. But the Manhattan DA is looking into his case. In 2010, Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance created a conviction integrity unit focused on investigating claims of innocence. Bob Gottlieb and Celia Gordon, JJ’s lawyers, are confident that this unit will determine that he was wrongfully convicted.
Meanwhile, Bob and Celia hear from a woman who claims she and a friend know Mustafa: the NYPD’s “primary target” for the murder of Al Ward. Dan follows up on this lead and travels to Seattle, where he interviews both women. They tell him their friend Mustafa confessed to killing Al Ward. Dan tracks down this Mustafa, and in a tense interview, tries to determine whether this man is the real killer.
[SOUNDS OF PRISON INTERIOR]
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: It’s October of 2012, more than 12 years since JJ first entered prison. I’m back inside Sing Sing to check in with him. We’re in his housing block, standing on the second tier, outside his cell. There’s a TV mounted behind him that everyone in the unit shares. It’s been eight months since NBC aired my investigation into his case.
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: I was able to see the show. I watched it right here. Right here, on that TV.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: And how did that feel?
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: I went through a mixed range of emotions, you know? Like, it was a purging process, but I was able to get through it. I was happy. I was sad. I was confused. I went through a lot.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: But it also gave you hope?
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: Definitely gave me hope. I can say that, based on the show, I received a lot of support. I mean, I had junior high school kids writing me. It was very touching. A lot of people all over the United States writing me, letting me know that they support me. Finally, for one time in my life, I realized, you know, I'm not alone. You know? That I wasn't the underdog anymore, and that people believed in me. And it meant a lot to me.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: But JJ tells me he’s also frustrated that he’s still locked up. He thought my investigation had finally revealed the truth about his innocence. That someone in authority would take action and he’d be free. He says the other men on his cell block felt the same way.
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: Believe it or not, a lot of them are pissed off. They're wondering what I'm still doing here. You know, if anybody was to have hope, it would be me, and everybody had hope in me.
I’ve given half my cell away, you know, thinking that my time has finally come. I’m still here. I was on national television. With a whole lot of people supporting me, now. I’m still not being heard.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: But the Manhattan DA’s office said they were paying attention. Their conviction integrity unit began looking into JJ’s case in 2011, a few months before my special aired. They said they were conducting an objective and thorough reinvestigation.
Well, at least that’s what they said.
I’m Dan Slepian, and this is Letters from Sing Sing.
Episode Five: Integrity
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: In 2010, the new Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance created a conviction integrity unit — the CIU. It’s a group of prosecutors focused on investigating claims of innocence. Bob Gottlieb, JJ’s lawyer, had served on Vance’s transition team. And Bob was confident that the CIU would be JJ’s ticket out. He held a press conference right after he submitted JJ’s application.
BOB GOTTLIEB [TAPE]: They have just received our papers in support of Mr. Velazquez. And this is really the first step in the process to exonerate Jon-Adrian Velazquez.
The entire development of this conviction integrity unit is such a positive step. It allows us to go directly to the DA without spending time in court and legal machinations. We have no reason to believe that the DA is going to do anything else other than to conduct an objective thorough independent investigation.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: Bob believed that once the CIU looked into JJ’s case, they’d see they’d gotten it wrong — that JJ was innocent — and they’d ask a judge to vacate his conviction. This way, JJ wouldn’t have to file a formal appeal — a process that could take years.
Within days of filing their paperwork, Bob and his partner, Celia Gordon, heard from the CIU.
BOB GOTTLIEB [TAPE]: We received a call that they wanted to meet with us. That was an awfully good sign. I couldn't wait to have that first meeting.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: So Bob and Celia went to meet with the CIU at the Manhattan DA’s office.
BOB GOTTLIEB [TAPE]: Right from the beginning, I knew there was a problem.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: When they walked in, they realized that it wasn’t just the members of the CIU at the meeting. The prosecutor from JJ’s trial was also there.
BOB GOTTLIEB [TAPE]: Common sense tells you that you can't have the prosecutor who vouched for the witnesses who had no credibility, who led the investigation, who told and worked with the detectives, how to proceed with the investigation. To have him present at the meeting was wrong.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: JJ’s lawyers began to worry the investigation would not be fair and objective. Even so, Celia was convinced that if the CIU interviewed JJ, they would see for themselves he was telling the truth.
CELIA GORDON [TAPE]: One of the things that we asked them to do was to please meet with Jon-Adrian. And we said: Speak with him face-to-face. Because, you know, we're talking about a person. Like, this is a living human being who we are telling you has been wrongfully convicted.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: On October 3, 2012, two detectives picked JJ up at Sing Sing and drove him to the Manhattan DA’s office. He wore a white button-down shirt and khakis. It was the first time JJ had seen the streets of New York City in nearly 15 years.
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: I mean, besides seeing bars and barbed wire fences and walls, I was able to see cars and people that weren't dressed in green or blue. It was an amazing experience, because I felt freedom.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: JJ arrived at the DA’s offices and was led to a conference room.
[LAWYERS AND DA’S OFFICE EMPLOYEES EXCHANGING GREETINGS]
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: His handcuffs were removed.
[SOUND OF HANDCUFFS BEING REMOVED]
ASSISTANT DA KRUTOY [TAPE]: Okay, we'll just close the door.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: JJ sat at a table across from three prosecutors. His lawyers, Bob and Celia, sat off to the side. I wasn’t there, but the DA’s office videotaped the interview.
ASSISTANT DA KRUTOY [TAPE]: We did get some donuts and coffee. I know it's probably an early start. If you want something now, we're happy to— You guys can help yourselves.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: Assistant DA Evan Krutoy began the meeting.
ASSISTANT DA KRUTOY [TAPE]: So what I want to do is just start by— by focusing really on the day itself: January 27th, 1998, Tuesday, and the Monday before. Just walk me through — very, very slowly if you can — your recollection of how you spent the Monday before, through the evening, and then the 27th.
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: Well, I mean, it’s a long time ago, so my memory’s not… [FADES DOWN]
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: JJ started to explain what he remembered from that day. It was the same story he’d told me many times before: That he was at home in the Bronx with his kids and their mother, Vanessa. That he spent 74 minutes on the phone with his mom, Maria. The prosecutors asked JJ about his alleged accomplice, Derry Daniels.
ASSISTANT DA KRUTOY [TAPE]: Describe the court appearances with Derry Daniels, and what conversations you had with him before he pled out, when you were at the table or—
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: I've never had a conversation with Derry Daniels. Never in my life.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: They wanted to know if JJ knew any of the eyewitnesses.
ASSISTANT DA KRUTOY [TAPE]: Did you recognize any of the witnesses who testified at your trial?
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: Absolutely not.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: They also asked JJ about a family photo that had been shown at his trial. It was taken weeks before his arrest, when his newborn son Jacob was sick and in the hospital.
PROSECUTOR [TAPE]: Do you have any idea why everyone in the picture looks relatively happy?
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: That seemed like a strange question to me.
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: Maybe he was going home at that time? But I mean, you know, we— we're taught to smile for our pictures.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: And the prosecutors asked other questions that didn’t seem to have anything to do with the case. At one point, one of them even asked about me.
ASSISTANT DA KRUTOY [TAPE]: Just start with how you reached out to Dan Slepian
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: And if I was paying JJ’s legal fees.
ASSISTANT DA KRUTOY [TAPE]: So Dan— Dan’s footing the bill for this— this whole thing? Even with Bob and Celia?
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: Well I would— What do you mean?
ASSISTANT DA KRUTOY [TAPE]: Well, I thought—
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: Bob and Celia are working pro bono.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: To be clear, I absolutely wasn’t footing any bill. There was no bill. Bob and Celia were representing JJ for free.
The meeting went on for 3 and half hours.
ASSISTANT DA KRUTOY [TAPE]: What was your routine like during that time period?
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: During that time period, I mean, my day at that time was: going to school in the morning, and coming back and spending time with my family. That was my day. From time to time, I would go out. And if I did go out, I might go to Manhattan in the area where my father used to live at. That's 50 West 97th Street.
ASSISTANT DA KRUTOY [TAPE]: Did you meet people in that area that became— you became very friendly with—
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: I’ve known people in that area.
ASSISTANT DA KRUTOY [TAPE]: So who would you say were your five closest friends?
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: The prosecutor wanted names.
ASSISTANT DA KRUTOY [TAPE]: Are you in touch with anyone from that neighborhood now?
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: When I watched this part of the interview, I remember thinking: Why did it matter who JJ’s friends were at the time? And if he was in touch with them now? What did this have to do with the murder?
ASSISTANT DA KRUTOY [TAPE]: I'm just trying to get a sense of who your friends were, what were you doing?
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: If you're trying to ask if I've ever sold drugs out there, I did.
ASSISTANT DA KRUTOY [TAPE]: Okay. Where— Okay. What area would you sell?
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: 95th Street and Amsterdam.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: The prosecutor seemed really interested in this topic.
ASSISTANT DA KRUTOY [TAPE]: It has to get bagged up. Someone gets the money. There's a percentage gotten from that from the guys on the street. So I want to understand a little bit about this period of time of your life, starting with when it started—
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: Mm-hmm.
ASSISTANT DA KRUTOY [TAPE]: —who put you onto it, and how that operation, so to speak, unfolded—
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: See, this is what I'm trying to explain. It really wasn't an operation that I was a part of. I wasn't a part of a big group. I did things on my own.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: The meeting wrapped.
ASSISTANT DA KRUTOY [TAPE]: This was a long time today.
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: Absolutely.
ASSISTANT DA KRUTOY [TAPE]: So we appreciate your time.
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: Thank you.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: JJ was placed in handcuffs and driven back to Sing Sing. He remembers feeling angry and disgusted.
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: They had no interest in the truth. They had no interest in whether I was innocent or guilty. They started asking me questions about who did what in the nineties. They wanted me to give them information about other crimes. I came down here to talk about a homicide that I've been a victim of for years, and all you're worried about is what happened 15 years ago that you can't even charge people for? Is this a fucking joke?
CELIA GORDON [TAPE]: It was an interrogation. It was a three-hour interrogation. Now, I can understand that, when we are asking you, as the DA, to do something drastic, I can understand you wanting to get to the bottom of what happened — the crime that took place. But It was so far afield of what we believed we were there for. It was just clear that they were not there in search of the truth.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: I reached out to the Manhattan DA’s office at the time to see if anyone would talk to me on the record about this interview or their reinvestigation. All my requests were denied.
But this wasn’t the end. The DA’s office was still reinvestigating JJ’s case. And, as I’d soon learn, the case was still very much unfolding. That same week, Celia called me with stunning news.
Remember Mustafa, the guy the police were looking for before JJ entered the case? Their primary target? A woman had called saying she’d found him.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: JJ’s lawyers Bob and Celia were on their way back from a court hearing in an unrelated case when Bob’s phone rang.
BOB GOTTLIEB [TAPE]: I get a message from my secretary that an individual called from out of state, wanting to talk about the Jon-Adrian Velazquez case, saying she had very important information to share with us.
CELIA GORDON [TAPE]: That they knew the person who committed this crime, that the person's name was Mustafa, that the person had admitted to them on more than one occasion, that they were responsible for this crime. He had said that somebody else was serving time for a crime that he had committed.
BOB GOTTLIEB [TAPE]: This obviously was significant information.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: When the lawyers got back to their office, they returned the call. It was from a woman who lived in Seattle. She said that she knew a man named Mustafa. That he was a drug dealer, and he’d admitted to her that he killed Al Ward.
BOB GOTTLIEB [TAPE]: I asked that witness: Are you willing to speak to the police? Yes. I hang up the phone. I don't file papers in court. I don't send a letter to the district attorney. I pick up the phone, and I call Cyrus Vance.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: Cyrus Vance, the Manhattan District Attorney.
CELIA GORDON [TAPE]: We thought: Well, this is, in essence, an open murder investigation. So we have to give this information to the district attorney's office, and let them run with this.
BOB GOTTLIEB [TAPE]: I say: Mr. Vance, I just spoke to a witness out of state, and this is what the individual tells me: He assured me that somebody from the DA's office, from the wrongful conviction unit, would give me a call.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: Bob says, two hours later he got a call from the head of the Conviction Integrity Unit, Assistant DA Bonnie Sard.
BOB GOTTLIEB [TAPE]: I relay all of this information to the assistant. And the assistant says: Well, what do you want me to do? Now I — as a former prosecutor, and as a defense attorney for many years — I kind of knew what should be done. And I said: Get someone out to speak to the witness. Well, the response came: I don't know if I can immediately get people to do this.
And I said: Wait a second. We have somebody serving a life sentence for murder, a murder of a retired cop. We have information that the person who was the primary target, Mustafa, confessed to the crime. You're telling me there's not some other human being, somewhere in the DA's office, somewhere in the New York police department, who can run out and interview this witness? And the answer was: No, it'll just have to wait, unless you wanna fly that witness to New York.
CELIA GORDON [TAPE]: We were dumbfounded. If they were really doing an independent investigation, they would've been on a plane the next day. And they weren't. But we were.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: Bob and Celia flew out to Seattle to meet the witness. It was a Sunday. She told them her story: How she’d become friends with a man named Mustafa. That he used to live in New York, and had moved to Seattle in the late 1990s. She also told them she wasn’t the only person Mustafa had confessed to. He’d also spoken to a friend of hers about the murder.
BOB GOTTLIEB [TAPE]: We interrogated the witness to test whether or not the witness was believable. Did she have an ax to grind? Was there a motive for her to set up this guy? Based on what information we had and questioned the witness about, there was no motive for her to frame an innocent person.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: The witness ultimately signed an affidavit swearing that Mustafa told her that he committed the crime. Bob says they were concerned the witness could be in danger if Mustafa learned she was talking to them. Still, Bob says the witness was willing to wear a hidden microphone and meet Mustafa at a Seattle nightclub that very evening. So he immediately called Bonnie Sard, the head of the CIU.
BOB GOTTLIEB [TAPE]: And I say to her: You've got to send somebody over here to question the witness now. The witness is willing to do anything tonight. The witness knows where Mustafa hangs out. We can end all of this tonight. I need somebody here. And the response was: Why are you calling me on a Sunday?
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: Bob says Sard told him that if there was an immediate safety concern, he should call 9-1-1. And it’s worth noting, it would have been hard to get legal authorization for a wiretap in such a short period of time, given the laws in Washington state.
And Sard did take action. Less than a week after Bob and Celia went to Seattle, the DA’s office made arrangements to fly the witness to New York for an interview. And the witness didn’t come alone. She brought along the friend who said Mustafa had confessed to her, too.
Bob and Celia took the women to the DA’s office. Then prosecutors from the CIU questioned the first witness.
BOB GOTTLIEB [TAPE]: It was not “Thank you very much for coming in. Please share with us what you have,” just to see what she had. Right from the beginning, it was an interrogation where, when we took a break after some two hours, the witness turns to me and says: It’s clear they don't believe me. Why are they treating me like I'm a guilty person?
CELIA GORDON [TAPE]: She was treated like she had done something wrong. And there was never, ever, ever a moment when we were under the impression that they were going to do anything but discount everything that she had to say. And that's exactly what happened.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: In fact, the women said they felt so uneasy about that interview with the CIU that Bob recommended they get their ownlawyer in case the DA’s office contacted them again. So, a few weeks later, he connected them with Ron Kuby, a well known New York defense attorney. I’d known Ron for years from other stories, so I went down to his office to talk to him.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Tell me how you got here, involved with this case.
RON KUBY [TAPE]: I get an email over the weekend from my longtime colleague and friend, Robert Gottlieb, and he wanted to run something by me. And he tells me the story of the Velazquez case. And our discussion most proximately focused on what I will characterize as the— the utter lack of interest of the so-called conviction integrity unit of DA Vance’s office.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: After speaking with the two witnesses from Seattle, Ron agreed to represent them pro bono.
RON KUBY [TAPE]: They were treated in an extremely unprofessional fashion. And it seemed— They at least came away feeling that the primary purpose of their trip was to talk to people whose primary interest was in discrediting them.
So I wrote what I thought — at least for me — was a reasonable letter saying: Look, these women feel very uncomfortable with the tone that was taken. But they do want to cooperate, so just make sure that any contact you have with them in the future is done through me, and I'll be happy to arrange the next meeting. And instead, I find out today that a detective called to interrogate her about me. Really? You know you’re not supposed to do that.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: Ron says when the CIU was created, he had hoped that it would operate openly and aggressively to review convictions to see if they were valid or not.
RON KUBY [TAPE]: That was the expectation. None of that has come to pass. They're not open. They're not transparent. They're completely adversarial. And they view wrongful conviction cases that are brought to them through the most skeptical prism imaginable. If you're going to look for the flaws in everybody else's arguments, the flaws in every potential witness, then you're never gonna get to the truth, because, you know, you can always find something to doubt.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: And that’s exactly what Ron and JJ’s lawyers think was happening in this case — with JJ and with the two witnesses from Seattle.
Of course, I was hearing all of this from defense attorneys who clearly had an issue with the Manhattan DA’s CIU. I wanted to speak with the two witnesses. I wanted to hear their story and judge for myself if they seemed credible. So I decided to fly to Seattle. And maybe while I was there, I would even track down Mustafa.
I arrived in Seattle on November 14, 2012, and rented a hotel room near the airport. That’s where I interviewed the witnesses. They agreed to speak with me as long as I didn’t share their names.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Tell me what brings us here.
WITNESS 1 [TAPE]: ’Cause I have information on who is the real killer.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: The first witness moved to the US as a teenager. She told me she’d known this guy Mustafa for a few years… and that he’d moved from New York to Seattle in the late 1990’s. She says she remembers one night in 2009 when Mustafa started talking about missing his son in New York.
WITNESS 1 [TAPE]: And I kept on asking him: Why don't you go see your son? New York is not that far. He started talking about how he couldn't go to New York, that he had killed the police officer, and he was scared to go back. So I asked him: So you are wanted? He said no, he wasn't wanted, ’cause somebody else was doing his time.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: And so you didn't talk about it again?
WITNESS 1 [TAPE]: No, not really.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Until when?
WITNESS 1 [TAPE]: Until March of 2012.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: March 2012. One month after my Dateline special aired. It had mentioned the name Mustafa.
WITNESS 1 [TAPE]: We went to his house for a party. And it was a lot of people in the house. Everybody was either drinking or doing drugs, and Mustafa happened to be sitting on the couch, didn't seem to be having fun. And I noticed that he was actually crying.
So I went up to him, I said, “Mustafa, are you okay?” He was like, “No, I'm so tired. I'm so tired of living in fear. You guys don't understand.” I was like, “What's wrong? What's wrong? What happened? What happened, Mustafa? Tell me.”
He's like, “I told you, I killed a police officer. And I'm so tired of living in fear. One day they're gonna catch me and I'm not tryna go to jail.” I said, “Is it actually true?” He's like, “Yeah, what? You think I'm lying?” I say, “Yeah, I think you're lying.”
“Oh really? Give me, give me that phone.” So he grabbed my phone, and he went to the website: Free Jon Adrian Valezquez.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: Free Jon Adrian Valezquez. That’s a website a friend of JJ’s made to help publicize his case.
WITNESS 1 [TAPE]: And he starts scrolling down, showing me everything, explaining every little detail to me.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: She says he showed her the original police sketch of the shooter that was posted on the website.
WITNESS 1 [TAPE]: He's like— He’s showing me the sketch of him. He was like, “You don't think that looks like me?” I was like, “Not really. ’Cause this guy has dreadlocks and you have cornrows.” He said, “Well, I used to have dreadlocks. Do you think I'm stupid? I had to cut it.”
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: So then what did you do?
WITNESS 1 [TAPE]: Um, I stayed away from him.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: She told me she found the contact information for JJ’s lawyers on the website Mustafa had showed her. I wondered if she had an agenda for telling this story. Maybe she had a problem with Mustafa.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: You have nothing against Mustafa?
WITNESS 1 [TAPE]: I have nothing against Mustafa.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Don't know Jon Adrian Velazquez.
WITNESS 1 [TAPE]: I don't know Jon Adrian Velazquez.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: Then I spoke with her friend, the second witness. She told me she was scared, but still thought it was important to talk to me.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Why are you so afraid?
WITNESS 2 [TAPE]: Um, because it's not a joke. This is something serious. It’s a situation I'd never been through before.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: It turns out she’d had a similar conversation with Mustafa a few years earlier.
WITNESS 2 [TAPE]: Well, me and Mustafa are drinking buddies. So, we were just having a normal conversation. Talked about his son, ’cause I know his— he used to live in New York and I'm like, “Why don't you go see your son? Or at least visit, or— I haven't seen you go down there.” And he kind of hesitated a little bit, and he just— I just seen a look in his face. I said, “What's wrong?” He's like, “I didn't mean it. I can't go back. I didn’t mean it for it to happen. I did something wrong. I killed somebody, and I can't go back.”
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Did he leave it at that, or did he say who he killed?
WITNESS 2 [TAPE]: No, he didn't get into details. I was more in shock, ’cause I've known him for a while. I don't see him the type of person like that. So I just tried to avoid talking about the situation.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: And when he said it to you, did you believe him?
WITNESS 2 [TAPE]: I mean, the face, yeah. He was sincere.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: Both witnesses told me their only motive for contacting JJ’s lawyers was to help JJ — a man they’d never even met.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: I mean, what reason do you have to gain by coming forward now?
WITNESS 2 [TAPE]: The poor guy.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: There's no other reason.
WITNESS 2 [TAPE]: Yeah.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: I knew I couldn’t leave Seattle without at least trying to talk to Mustafa. I wanted his side of the story. I’d already gotten information about him from JJ’s lawyers in New York, and the witnesses confirmed his address. So I headed over to his house.
[SOUNDS OF CAR]
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: So we don't know if Mustafa’s home. I’m going to check it out and take it from there.
[SOUNDS OF GPS GIVING DIRECTIONS]
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: I’m in a car with two other people: A cameraman to record whatever happens, and an armed security guard that I’ve hired, just in case.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Like, where the black mailbox— not this black mailbox, but the next one. Not this one. The next one. One more.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: We find Mustafa’s house and park across the street. We watch the place for a while and make a plan.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: You ready, Tommy?
TOMMY [TAPE]: Yep. We're all ready, right? We’re all going.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: We get out of the car and start walking up Mustafa’s driveway. He lives in a pale yellow ranch with an overgrown yard. There’s a sliding glass door with a sheet hanging like a curtain. The armed security guard and the cameraman are behind me.
I knock several times. Soon, I see someone peeking out from one side of the sheet. He doesn’t open the door, so I call out to him.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: How you doing? My name is Dan. Mustafa, I want to talk to you about something. You might wanna talk to me. I can't hear you. What?
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: I can barely hear him behind the glass.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Can you open the door a little crack so I can hear you? I wanted to talk to you about something that happened in New York. I'm from NBC News, Dateline. Are you aware that we did a show about a shooting in Manhattan? In Harlem. Just come and talk to me. I'm not— I’m— I come to you in peace, man. I come to you for truth.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: We go back and forth for about five minutes. He finally agrees to come outside as soon as he gets dressed. He closes the curtain and disappears, which makes me a bit nervous. I’m not sure what's going to happen next. My security guard keeps his hand on his weapon.
GUARD [TAPE]: Is he coming out?
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: He’s going to come out. Keep your hand close.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: A few minutes later, Mustafa walks out with a lit cigarette in his hand. He’s Black, in his early 40s. He’s wearing a green wool hat, and there’s a scar on the left side of his face running from his eyebrow to the middle of his cheek. It’s hard to tell after all these years if he resembles the police sketch in JJ’s files. I tell him about the murder of Al Ward in Harlem on January 27, 1998 — how one of the robbers shot and killed him.
MUSTAFA [TAPE]: What you're telling me right now is something I never knew about. I never done no shooting.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: So why would— But you— you had— You have mentioned to people that you did do that.
MUSTAFA [TAPE]: Me? No.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: See, this is the— Let's be honest with each other.
MUSTAFA [TAPE]: I said, I swear to God, no. You're talking to me, right?
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Yeah.
MUSTAFA [TAPE]: Me, personally. Me, Mustafa. No.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Yeah. Let's be honest.
MUSTAFA [TAPE]: Yeah. I swear to God, I say no, I never told—
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: You never mentioned to anybody that you were involved with the shooting of a former police officer in New York?
MUSTAFA [TAPE]: I never shoot. I never—
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Did you ever tell anybody you did it?
MUSTAFA [TAPE]: No, I never talked to anybody about that. I never shoot. Why would I talk about shooting? I never done about shooting.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: I know this is the Mustafa the women were talking about. But I have no clue if he’s the gunman, or if he’s even the same Mustafa that the NYPD had listed as their first primary target. But I want to test if he’s being honest with me, so I start asking him questions I already know the answers to.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: And you're not a drug dealer?
MUSTAFA [TAPE]: I'm not a drug dealer. I never do no shooting. I swear to God.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: You've never sold drugs to anybody?
MUSTAFA [TAPE]: No, no. I swear to God.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: You never robbed anywhere?
MUSTAFA [TAPE]: I never robbed anyone.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Never robbed anyone in your life?
MUSTAFA [TAPE]: Anyone in my life.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: And you've never sold drugs at any time in your life.
MUSTAFA [TAPE]: I never, I never sell. And Harlem. I never lived in Harlem. I swear to God, it wasn't me. If they say Mustafa, gonna be a different Mustafa. It wasn't me. I swear to God, on my life.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: I know he’s not telling me the truth about his criminal history. I show him a printout of a background check I’d done on him.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: This is you. These are your former addresses.
MUSTAFA [TAPE]: Mm.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Correct?
MUSTAFA [TAPE]: Mm.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Am I right?
MUSTAFA [TAPE]: Yeah, uhh—
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Okay. Look, look, look, look. Robbery. Second degree.
MUSTAFA [TAPE]: Mm-hmm.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Assault. Fourth degree.
MUSTAFA [TAPE]: Mm-hmm.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Felony. Controlled substance.
MUSTAFA [TAPE]: Mm-hmm.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Resisting arrest.
MUSTAFA [TAPE]: Mm-hmm.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: So basically you lied— you lied to me about all that, though.
MUSTAFA [TAPE]: Assault, fourth degree
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: You, you lied to me. You told me—
MUSTAFA [TAPE]: You talking about in— in New York.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: No, no. This is all here, in Seattle.
MUSTAFA [TAPE]: Yeah. Ah, okay. I'm talking about in New York.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Okay.
MUSTAFA [TAPE]: I swear to God on honestly, on everything I believe. I never opened gunfire. I never lived in Harlem. I never shoot somebody. I never involved in no shooting in my life.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: And, and you swear you've never told anybody that?
MUSTAFA [TAPE]: I swear to God, I never— Because I never did it. Why would I tell somebody something like that?
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Why did you move here?
MUSTAFA [TAPE]: Why I moved here from New York?
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Yeah.
MUSTAFA [TAPE]: I came here to go fishing.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: To go fishing?
MUSTAFA [TAPE]: Yeah. My uncle lives here. I came here. They say there are fishing jobs, they make good money, because I used to drive a taxi in New York.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Why would anybody say that you said that that's what you did?
MUSTAFA [TAPE]: No, I swear to God. Nobody ever tell you that’s me, if somebody tell you that it's me, they lied.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: You never heard of the name Jon-Adrian Velazquez?
MUSTAFA [TAPE]: No. On my life. You just now tell me.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: That's the first time you heard Jon Adrian Velazquez.
MUSTAFA [TAPE]: I swear to God, on my life.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Why would anybody say that you said that somebody else is doing time for a cop that you shot in New York?
MUSTAFA [TAPE]: No.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Why would anybody say that?
MUSTAFA [TAPE]: No, I never say that.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Why would anybody say that you said that?
MUSTAFA [TAPE]: I swear to God. Maybe they say wrong. I swear to God. On my life, on everything I love. On God.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Well, I appreciate the time you've taken to talk to us.
MUSTAFA [TAPE]: Yeah. Thank you.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: After speaking with Mustafa, I wasn’t sure what to think. He did lie about his arrest record. But his denials about the shooting were constant. And something else stood out to me: He had an accent. The eyewitnesses to Al Ward’s murder had heard the shooter’s voice. I double-checked the police reports. None of them ever mentioned an accent.
I called the two women again, and told them about Mustafa’s denials. Once again, they insisted that Mustafa had told them he’d committed the murder. They seemed credible. But obviously, someone was lying. I just didn’t know who.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: I’m back in New York. It’s now April of 2013. Eighteen months have passed since the Conviction Integrity Unit began investigating JJ’s case. I get a call from JJ’s lawyers Bob and Celia. They tell me they’ve received a letter from the Manhattan DA’s office. They’ve arrived at a decision.
CELIA GORDON [TAPE]: We learned that they were denying our petition and, um, it wasn't at all surprising by that point.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: The head of the CIU, Bonnie Sard, laid out the details of the investigation in a 16-page letter. She said her unit took JJ’s claim of innocence seriously: “We have conducted an extensive reinvestigation which has included interviews of numerous witnesses, and an in-depth review of documentary evidence from a wide variety of sources.”
She said they investigated Mustafa from Seattle: “Our investigation indicated on the date of the crime, he was not in New York City,” and that he was “not involved in the murder of Albert Ward.” She’d later say the DA’s office found proof that Mustafa couldn’t have been the killer. That there was “documentary evidence” that Mustafa was on a fishing boat off the Alaskan coast at the time.
In the end, the CIU chief said, “This office has seriously considered your contention that Mr. Velazquez has been convicted of a crime he did not commit,” and: “We have not found evidence sufficient to demonstrate that Mr. Velazquez is actually innocent for the crimes for which he was tried and convicted.”
BOB GOTTLIEB [TAPE]: It was just a confirmation of a sad reality that I had reached months and months before: The conviction integrity unit was a sham. People should know that, and it was nothing more than a conviction protection racket.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: “Conviction protection racket.” This, coming from an attorney who had served on the DA’s transition team.
By now, it was clear to me that anyone with common sense would see that JJ had been wrongfully convicted. Obviously, though, the DA disagreed. Which surprised me. I mean, Sard herself acknowledged that the DA’s office sent their own investigator to interview the key eyewitness, Augustus Brown — the first person who linked JJ to the murder. That investigator signed an affidavit saying Brown told him that he picked JJ out at random. That he had “always been certain” that JJ was not Albert Ward’s killer.
And yet, in that letter to JJ’s attorneys, Bonnie Sard wrote: “Much of the information you have presented to us is essentially the same as the evidence that was presented to the jury that convicted your client.” The CIU maintained that they had conducted a fair and thorough investigation, but they never even interviewed JJ’s alibi witnesses.
I’ve reached out to Bonnie Sard many times, and we have spoken, but she’s never agreed to go on the record about the details of this case. She no longer works in the DA’s office, but did say in a statement: “Mr. Velazquez had a fair trial, and neither he nor we could prove his actual innocence. Our goal has always been to find the truth.”
I also reached out to her former boss, Cyrus Vance, the Manhattan DA at the time. He declined to be interviewed for this podcast, but he has said that his conviction integrity unit would “review every claim without fear or favor.”
WCBS NEWS ANCHOR – MAY 2, 2013 [ARCHIVAL TAPE]: Anger and frustration from the family of a man doing 25 years to life for killing an ex-police officer. They say the Manhattan district attorney is ignoring evidence that the man is innocent.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: One month after receiving the news of the CIU’s decision, JJ’s lawyers held a press conference to announce they were filing a motion with the court.
BOB GOTTLIEB [TAPE]: We’re here today to announce that we have filed a motion in the courthouse right behind me. A formal motion For the purpose of presenting evidence before a judge, so that we now can go to a real neutral arbiter, a judge.
The conviction integrity unit turned out to be a waste — a colossal waste — of our time as attorneys and, much more significantly, a colossal waste of time for a man who sits in a jail cell, waiting. The conviction integrity unit turned out to be a joke.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: JJ’s mother Maria stepped up to the mic.
MARIA VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: It’s been a cruel joke, what the DA has played on this family. Because we trusted in him to bring us justice, and he didn’t bring us justice.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: By now, I’d known Maria for years, and it was hard for me to watch her in so much pain. Especially because I agreed with her. This did not appear to be a fair investigation. I wanted to understand why the DA’s office would make a decision that seemed so contrary to the facts and evidence.
Again, no one in the DA’s office would talk to me on the record. But there was one person I was sure could provide some perspective — an insider’s perspective: former Manhattan Assistant DA Dan Bibb.
DAN BIBB [TAPE]: I was sworn in August 23,1982 by Robert Morgenthau, who was DA at the time.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: How many years were you in the Manhattan District Attorney—
DAN BIBB [TAPE]: Almost 24.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: There's not many people who have lived through what you have lived through in that office, with your experience, with the wisdom you have — all of it.
DAN BIBB [TAPE]: Nobody.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: Dan Bibb left the DA’s office in 2006, four years before Cyrus Vance was elected and created the CIU. Dan says he quit in protest over the way his office handled his reinvestigation of a murder conviction — a case I’d reported on and helped make public. Two men had been locked up for the murder of a bouncer at the Palladium nightclub in Manhattan. My investigation into that case revealed both men were innocent.
Dan Bibb’s bosses at the DA’s office assigned him to re-investigate those convictions. He did that for more than a year. And he determined both men were wrongfully convicted.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: You become convinced that they're actually innocent.
DAN BIBB [TAPE]: Right.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: You're in the DA's office as a prosecutor at the time.
DAN BIBB [TAPE]: Right.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: And you were absolutely convinced, through your own investigation, for more than a year, about this.
DAN BIBB [TAPE]: A hundred percent. Yes.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: And you're telling this to your bosses at the DA's office.
DAN BIBB [TAPE]: Of course.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: And what are they telling you?
DAN BIBB [TAPE]: Those are some of the things I can't get into. But you can draw your own conclusions about what was happening in the DA's office when I would sit down with my boss, my boss's boss, and the boss.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: Apparently, his bosses disagreed with his assessment. The DA’s office aggressively fought in court to keep those two men in prison.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Without talking about privileged conversations, can you explain to people who are hearing this who are saying: Here is a veteran district attorney who does an extensive investigation into a case of innocence and says, “You know what? We got the wrong guys. There are two innocent guys in prison.” What is the culture inside that office, that people are not listening to you when you know more than anybody else about it?
DAN BIBB [TAPE]: Resistance, arrogance. You know, earplugs, blinders. “We got it right.”
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Do you think people in power at the DA's office did not want to know the truth?
DAN BIBB [TAPE]: No, I told them the truth. They knew the truth.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: Ultimately, the real shooter confessed, and a judge vacated the convictions of both men. Even so, the Manhattan DA retried one of those innocent men. He was acquitted, and later compensated. I’d stayed in touch with Dan Bibb after he left the DA’s office. And over the years, I’d spoken with him about JJ’s case and shared some of his paperwork.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: How would you describe the conviction integrity unit that reinvestigated JJ’s case?
DAN BIBB [TAPE]: A joke.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Do you think he got a fair shake?
DAN BIBB [TAPE]: No. People in the DA's office often suffer from the “We Didn't Get It Wrong” Syndrome. The obvious sits in front of them, but they're not looking at the obvious. They're starting from the position of guilt, and they're starting from the position of “We got it right the first time, and you've got to convince me otherwise.” That's not necessarily sinister. Maybe dishonest. It may be stupid. But it's not what a conviction integrity unit should be doing.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: And there's no doubt in your mind that that office had tunnel vision when it came to this?
DAN BIBB [TAPE]: Yes, without a doubt.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: But there was still hope for JJ. His case was no longer in the hands of the Manhattan DA’s office. His lawyers had filed that motion asking a judge to hold a hearing so they could present evidence.
JJ would wait for that decision for more than a year. It arrived in the first week of December of 2014. The judge’s answer was no. There would not be a hearing.
In his decision, the judge agreed with the DA, saying that the new evidence was “not sufficient” to prove that JJ was innocent, or that the outcome of the trial would have been different. Twelve years to the day after he sent me his first letter, JJ sat in his cell at his makeshift desk, and began to write.
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: December 5th, 2014. 4:34 AM. Dear Dan, It is with great regret that I must sit here at this lonely hour and inform you that justice has no place in my life, and that hope is just a cruel joke. I am not simply innocent. I am clearly innocent. Everyone knows this. I'm writing this letter suffocating in this tiny-ass cage. I want to scream so loud, but it won't make any sense because I'm not being heard. The craziest part of it all is that I may have to die before anyone really cares about what is actually happening. Do I have to jump off a prison tier with a noose around my neck to get people to realize that wrongful convictions are a slow death? Tell me, Dan, what is it going to take?
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: Next time…
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: Doing time in prison is doing nothing for your community. There is no reparations in that.
WHOOPI GOLDBERG [TAPE]: Who you were when you came here is not who you are when you're leaving. And that's really the journey.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: 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 case.
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: I spent half my life in prison because people wanna hold back information. Because people want to continue to perpetuate lies.
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.