Letters from Sing Sing
Episode 1: JJ
In December of 2002, NBC News Producer Dan Slepian got a letter from a New York State maximum security prison. It was detailed and meticulous, almost like it had been written by a lawyer. It was from a man serving 25 years to life for murder. And it ended with a desperate plea: look into my case.
In 1998, Jon-Adrian “JJ” Velazquez was arrested for killing a retired New York City police officer. A year later, he was convicted of second degree murder. But he insisted he didn’t do it. Dan was skeptical. Prosecutors said five eyewitnesses had sworn JJ was the killer. Could five people be wrong?
So Dan pays JJ a visit. And at the end of it, JJ gives Dan a challenge: prove me guilty.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: It was November 28th, 2002: Thanksgiving Day. And I was in a maximum security prison in New York.
[ARCHIVAL TAPE: PRISON LOBBY]
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: I’m a longtime producer for Dateline. And at the time, I was working on a story about two men who were locked up for a high-profile murder they say they didn’t commit.
The prison lobby was busy that morning. Several officers sat behind a large, square security desk, slowly processing a long line of visitors. There were signs everywhere telling me where to stand, where to wait.
A woman approached me. She was holding the hands of these two little boys. She said, “My name is Maria Velazquez. My son Jon-Adrian — JJ — he’s in prison here, but he’s innocent. Can you help us?” She said she’d been waiting, hoping to catch me. That she’d heard from her son about the story I was working on.
“These are my grandchildren,” she said. I still remember the look on the younger one's face. He seemed confused, like: Why am I here? Why is this guy looking at me?
All I could think in that moment was: Whether their dad was innocent or guilty, theselittle guys should not be in a prison on Thanksgiving Day. I told her I’d read anything she wanted to send, but I made no promises.
A week after that visit, I received a box of paperwork, followed by a letter. It was from the father of those two little boys.
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: December 5, 2002. Dear Mr. Slepian, I spend a lot of time trying to familiarize myself with the law. Monday through Thursday, anyone who knows me knows that I can be found in the law library. I know I don’t belong here, but I am a firm believer that everything that happens to us in life is for a purpose.
In no way am I condoning the injustice that has occurred in my life, but this incarceration has given me the opportunity to observe the world from another perspective.
My mother has informed me that she provided you with a copy of my trial transcripts, but from the sound of the letter, it seems that your copy is incomplete. There are 2,044 pages in total. If I am correct, she has only provided you with 1,689 pages of it. In any event, if your copy is, in fact, incomplete, we will make the necessary arrangements to supply you with the missing pages.
I understand that you have not made an actual commitment to my case, but the mere fact you will actually read my transcripts and take my case into consideration requires my utmost appreciation. Yours truly, Jon-Adrian Velazquez
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: I got that letter 20 years ago. I couldn’t possibly have imagined back then how it would alter the course of my life — all of our lives. What I’ve learned over the past two decades haunts me. I still can’t let it go. Because it’s still unfolding.
My name is Dan Slepian and this is Letters from Sing Sing.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: Episode One: JJ
Over the years, I’ve gotten a lot of letters from people behind bars. But this one was different. There was something about it that drew me in. It was thoughtful, detailed, meticulous — almost like it had been written by a lawyer. It didn’t mean JJ was innocent, of course, but it did make me want to know more about him.
A week later, another letter arrived.
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: December 12, 2002. Dear Mr. Slepian, Enclosed is some information you may find interesting. These are matters that were never mentioned on the record, yet were and still are very important… [FADES DOWN]
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: The letters kept coming…
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: February 13, 2003. Dear Dan, I must continue to strive for justice and pursue my freedom… [FADES DOWN]
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: …if the truth cannot set me free, then all hope of justice is useless… [FADES DOWN]
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: …and with each one, I learned more about JJ.
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: I forgot to send my younger son, Jacob, a card for his birthday, which is so unlike me. When I realized what I did, it hurt me deeply in my heart. I felt like such a terrible father. I still have not forgiven myself… [FADES DOWN]
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: Most of all, he wrote about his case.
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: I have gone over this material a thousand times… [FADES DOWN]
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: Sending me information and court documents, passing along any bits and pieces that he’d been able to collect while locked away.
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: There is a report from a case numbered “Debrief Number 669, which is not under my… [FADES DOWN]
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: …moreover, it is obvious that these leads were not followed… [FADES DOWN]
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: …the information I have enclosed is probably the most important information I possess, but to me… [FADES DOWN]
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: Stay blessed. Very truly yours, Jon-Adrian Velazquez.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: As heartfelt as JJ’s letters were, the fact was: JJ had been convicted of a serious crime. When he was 23 years old, a jury had found him guilty of murdering a retired police officer. I wanted to know why. So I started reading his case file.
NEWCASTER [ARCHIVAL TAPE]: The case began in Harlem in 1998. An ex-cop who ran a gambling den, gunned down during a robbery.
CELIA GORDON [TAPE]: It was a Tuesday, January 27th, in 1998.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: That’s Celia Gordon. She would eventually become one of JJ’s lawyers, so she knows this story well.
CELIA GORDON [TAPE]: It was about noon, and there was a numbers spot — an illegal gambling spot — in Harlem. It was upstairs in this kind of rundown little joint.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: A numbers spot is basically a secret club where people come in to wager money or play slots. I’d looked at a video the police took of the place. It was basically two rooms above a record store. It was run by a retired police officer named Al Ward.
That day, there were about a half dozen people hanging out, including Al Ward. At around 12:30, there’s a knock at the door.
CELIA GORDON [TAPE]. Somebody comes up and asks if they could play a number. They don't typically let people in who they've never met before. And so there’s some question of: Who are you? Where did you come from?
Ultimately, the guy gets in, he plays the number. He fills out a number slip, and he leaves.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: About 45 minutes later, he comes back, and he’s followed by another guy holding a roll of duct tape. The first man takes out a gun, and together, they announce a robbery.
CELIA GORDON [TAPE] They start tying everybody up with duct tape. They want everyone to turn over their money, asking anyone for cash and jewelry.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: All of this is unfolding in the front room. But in the back room,there’s a drug deal going on. A young guy is selling heroin to one of his regular customers.
CELIA GORDON [TAPE]: They, too, are told to get out on the floor. They're asked to take out their money — “Give us any money.”
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: That’s when Al Ward, the retired cop, pulls out a gun and starts struggling with the man with the duct tape. The man yells to his partner, “He’s got a gun!” And Ward fires a shot. Then the other robber fires twice. One of the bullets hits Ward in the head, killing him.
CELIA GORDON [TAPE]: The two perpetrators flee immediately. And the other people that are in this numbers spot, few of them go down to get the police.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: And the two men involved in the drug deal in the back room, they take off. Soon, police arrive on the scene, and there are a lot of them. This shooting, it’s a big deal. Remember, the victim is a retired cop, and it turns out he’d worked in this very precinct — the one that’s now investigating his murder.
CELIA GORDON [TAPE]: There are command units set up. There are a hundred-some-odd police officers that are assigned to this, that are on the scene within an hour. There's captains, there's lieutenants, there's an enormous police presence at this illegal numbers spot when they learn that it's a retired police officer who's been shot.
They immediately start bringing people in, arresting them from the street, questioning them in these mobile units: Have you heard anything? Do you know anyone? Have you heard of anybody that might have been involved?
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: While all of this is happening, the police are interviewing the eyewitnesses, asking them to describe the shooter and his accomplice. And, just a note: The language Celia is about to use to describe the suspects’ skin tones comes directly from the police reports.
CELIA GORDON [TAPE]: The descriptions of the witnesses immediately after the fact are consistent that the gunman was a light-skinned male Black with braids, and the other individual was a dark-skinned male Black.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: These descriptions of the shooter and his accomplice are important. They’d become the backbone of the police investigation.
CELIA GORDON [TAPE]: One of the witnesses went, that day, to the sketch artist, and they prepared a sketch based on his description of what the individual looked like. And on that wanted poster was a light-skinned male Black with braids.
They also sent around a radio call with the descriptions of these witnesses, and the description that was given by the police on that day was a light-skinned male Black with braids.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: Over the next two days, detectives bring some of the eyewitnesses into the precinct. They sit them down in front of a computer, and start showing them a series of mugshots that match the description of the suspects. The witnesses look at hundreds of photos. And eventually, one of them says he sees the shooter's accomplice: the dark-skinned man with the duct tape. It’s a mugshot of a man named Derry Daniels. But none of the eyewitnesses ID the shooter.
Now, here’s where the two guys involved in the drug deal become important — the ones that fled right after the shooting. One of them, the guy who was selling, is named Augustus Brown.
CELIA GORDON [TAPE]: Augustus Brown — who was that 20-year-old heroin dealer — after the murder, he disappears for two days. He stayed in his apartment because he was afraid. He then resumes his normal drug-dealing duties.
CELIA GORDON [TAPE]: The talk was: Augustus Brown is the 20-year-old. If anyone's gonna remember what the guy looked like, it would be the 20-year-old. So there was— There was great interest in finding Augustus Brown.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: But the police actually find the other man first — Brown’s customer. His name’s Lorenzo Woodford. Detectives bring him in for questioning, and he describes the man who shot Al Ward as a Black male with cornrows. Woodford then leads the detectives to his dealer.
CELIA GORDON [TAPE]: Lorenzo Woodford brings them to where Augustus Brown is selling heroin on the street. So, they take Augustus Brown to the police precinct.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: They sit him down and question him. Brown describes the shooter as “a light-skinned Black male” with “jet black curly hair,” which was different from how the other witnesses described him. Then, the detectives show Brown pages and pages of mugshots.
CELIA GORDON [TAPE]: And ultimately, the photograph that he winds up identifying is Jon-Adrian Velazquez.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: Police now had their main suspect. And they set out to find him.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: I wish I could say I jumped all over JJ’s case immediately. But I didn’t. It was a busy time for me: I had a newborn, and was working on several other Dateline stories in those years.
But most of all, investigating a case like this is enormously difficult. It’s a huge lift. Imagine putting together a 5,000-piece puzzle, but you don’t know what the picture is, some pieces are missing, others don’t fit.
I had the court transcript — all 2,044 pages of it — and some police reports and court motions that JJ had sent me. But that was only a portion of his file. And, at this point, I wasn’t even sure if there was a story here, so I hadn’t pitched JJ to my bosses at NBC News. I was doing this on my own time.
JJ’s files sat in a brown cardboard box on the floor of my office. And I remember sitting at my desk, staring at that box, wondering: How am I going to find the time to read all of this?
But JJ’s letters kept coming, and I just couldn’t ignore them.
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: Dear Dan, I refuse to remain idle, waiting for a miracle to occur. I must continue to strive for justice… [FADES DOWN]
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: I’d already visited JJ a handful of times. I didn’t know if he was innocent or guilty. But if this story were to go anywhere, I’d need to get him on tape. So, in the summer of 2007 — almost five years after I got JJ’s first letter — I got approval to bring my camera into the prison where he was serving 25 years to life.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: It’s a hot day in August, and I’m headed to the Sing Sing Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison that’s about an hour north of Manhattan. It sits on the banks of the Hudson river. It’s an oddly beautiful setting for one of the oldest prisons in the country.
Sing Sing was built almost 200 years ago, and it’s notorious. Terms like “the big house” and “being sent up the river” were coined here. Before New York outlawed the death penalty, more than 600 men and women were executed at this prison.
The first thing you notice about Sing Sing is its sheer size. It’s massive. The place looks like a fortress surrounded by thick, concrete walls.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Good morning. Yeah, I’m here with NBC. We have a gate clear— Uh, gate pass.
LOT GUARD [TAPE]: Okay. You should have stopped at the gate, that’s number one.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Oh, sorry about that.
LOT GUARD [TAPE]: Is he filming?
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: The guard checks his list and waves me along, and tells me where to park my car. At the main entrance, I’m processed through security — it’s like a TSA screening on steroids.
ENTRANCE GUARD [TAPE]: Okay, let me have everything out of your pockets. Belt, watch paper money, and change in the bucket. Last thing I'm going to need is your shoes on the counter.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: I don’t bring anything except my ID and equipment into the prison. As you can imagine, they’re strict about security.
ENTRANCE GUARD [TAPE]: That’s everything? All right. Step through the machine.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: I pass through a metal detector.
ENTRANCE GUARD [TAPE]: Good. All the way down.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: They give me a plastic ID card that I wear around my neck, and they stamp my left hand with invisible ink. When I leave the prison, they’ll check that stamp under a bluelight. It’s to prevent someone from escaping.
ENTRANCE GUARD [TAPE]: That's your property, okay? You’re all set.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: Once I clear security, I’m led through several locked gates to a mid-sized room not far from the prison’s entrance. It smells like bleach and has harsh fluorescent lights. A fan is blowing.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: There’s a table in the middle, but not much else. Two officers are in the room with me as I wait for JJ to arrive.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Where? What side?
GUARD 1 [TAPE]: There— The inmate sits on that side.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE] Can I sit over here, then?
GUARD 1 [TAPE]: No, no.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: One of them instructs me where to sit at the table: Across from where JJ will sit, not next to him. He says it’s for my own safety. In case JJ does something, they want me near the door.
GUARD 1 [TAPE]: In the event he gets funny or whatever, you can run right out the door.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Yeah, yeah, yeah. But I’m all right. I’m all right. Thank you.
GUARD 2 [TAPE]: You’re all right now, but he said: “In the event….”
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: I’m taking the risk, though.
GUARD 2 [TAPE]: No you’re not! I’m taking the risk! [DAN LAUGHS] Door stays open, okay?
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Yeah, yeah.
GUARD 2 [TAPE]: If y’all need anything, I’m Officer Colón. I’m right out there.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Sounds good.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: About 5 minutes later, JJ walks in.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: It’s good to see you, man.
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: Thank you for coming.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: JJ is about 5’9”, a few inches shorter than me. He’s bald with a finely shaven goatee. He’s wearing highly starched, state-issued prison greens.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Let me put this on you.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: I pin a microphone on JJ’s uniform.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: They told me that I couldn’t sit on the same side of the table as you just in case you did anything.
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: It’s the normal around here.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: How does it make you feel, though?
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: You know, I’m kind of used to it, the way they look at us.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: JJ and I take our seats at the table. I decide to sit next to him anyway. It’s loud, and I want to hear him better.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Take me back to the day that you were arrested. Start from the very, very, very beginning. Like, the first day that you got involved with this.
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: Well, um, it was 1998, the beginning of the year. It was the end of January. I believe it was a Saturday.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: This story that JJ is telling me about the day of his arrest is one I’d ask him about many times over the years. That’s actually part of my process when I work on cases like these. I like to ask the same questions, again and again, over time, to see if the answers remain the same.
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: It was a Saturday morning, and I received a phone call that stated that the police were looking for me, you know? And that came to me as a shock, but what came to me as even more of a shock was the fact that they said that I was a suspect for shooting a police officer.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: It was four days after the murder of Al Ward. JJ says he was at home in the Bronx with his two sons and their mother. At the time, he was out on bail for a drug offense, so when he heard police were looking for him, he says he was scared.
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: I call my moms. I don't know what to do. She goes ballistic. My mind's racing. I don't know what's going on. My moms comes to pick me up. We get in the car, we go to a church. When trying times come in your life, where do you turn? God-fearing people turn to God. So we went to the church.
And at the church, they said: Listen, you know, it's the weekend. You're not going to get anything solved now. You need to get a lawyer.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: So they started looking for lawyers. They made phone calls. Got referrals from friends. And during all of it, they kept moving — trying not to stay in one place for too long.
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: We're driving around aimlessly for hours. Can you picture what it's like? Knowing that you’re wanted as a suspect for shooting a police officer? You know the type of things that happen to those type of people in New York?
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: JJ says they ended up finding a hotel just outside of the city. He remembers being so terrified that he entered the hotel through the back door, and once he got to his room, he didn’t leave all weekend.
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: There I was. Sitting in a hotel room Saturday night, Sunday. You know, worried about where my future's going from here. I got a newborn son, a 3-year-old son. I'm being accused of— of shooting a cop. At that time, I didn't know that the actual officer was murdered. I'm thinking they're going to take me to his bedside, he's going to say, you know, “All right, that's not him,” and I'm going to be all right.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: JJ insists that, at this point, he didn’t even know Al Ward, the retired cop, was dead. He says all he could think was: I need to get to the police precinct. Once I’m there, we’ll get this whole thing cleared up.
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: Sunday night comes, and Franklyn Gould calls.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: Franklyn Gould was one of the lawyers they’d been trying to reach.
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: And Franklyn Gould is a real savvy attorney, you know? He has this way about himself — real nonchalant, real confident. And he makes you feel a little bit better, you know? “We'll take things a step at a time. Nine o'clock Monday morning, you come to the 28th Precinct. I’ll be there.” Makes me feel a little bit better, because I just want to get this over with. I know that when I get to the precinct, this is over.
Monday morning, early in the morning, we're outside the hotel. My mother and I, we get in her car, and we start driving to New York. And she stops at this store. She got out. She got on the phone. I'm like: Yo, I just want to get there. I want to get to the precinct. Every time I'm out here my life is in jeopardy. I want to get this over with, you know?
And we were still on the outskirts. We weren't even in New York yet. From where we were at, I can look over the edge and, you know, I see the tollbooth staring. I know that once we cross those tollbooths, we’re in New York, you know?
She came back, and she said: “We gotta hang out for a little while.” I said, “What happened?” And she said, “The lawyers called and they said it wouldn't be good to turn yourself in right now. You gotta come in a little bit later, around 12 o'clock.”
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: JJ says the reason for the delay was that the media had been tipped off about his arrival, and reporters were now at the 28th Precinct.
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: We hung out for a little while, and we were listening to gospel music.
[TAPE OF SONG: “THE POTTER’S HOUSE” BY TRAMAINE HAWKINS]
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: I remember the song “The Potter's House,” and, you know, the song says, “the Potter will put you back together again.”
[TAPE OF SONG: “THE POTTER’S HOUSE” BY TRAMAINE HAWKINS]
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: You know, it gave me some strength, you know? Some inspiration. And eventually, as time rolled by, we went through that toll, you know, and I'm scared as we're going through the toll, thinking, “They’re waiting for me.” But without a hitch, we make it to 125th Street.
My mom said, “You want me to wait for you?” I said, “No, I'm good. You go.” You know? So I go into the precinct with my attorneys. You know, I was pretty confident that, when we went into that precinct, I'd be walking right back out of there, you know?
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: But JJ says that, as he walked into the precinct with his lawyer, Frank Gould, something happened.
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: We didn't even get far. Maybe about five, six feet into the precinct. And Frank said, “Stay right here.” He started engaging an officer right there. And we didn't go any further. And before you knew we were right back out the precinct.
I recall Frank telling me, “You're free to go. They don't have a warrant for your arrest. They don't have nothing. You can leave.” And I said, “That's it?” You know, “We don't have to deal with this no more? I’m good?” And he said, “Well, actually, no, you'll be back.” I said, “What do you mean I'll be back?” He said, you know, “Probably before the night ends, they'll get their warrant and you'll be back.”
I said, “Nah, we're gonna deal with it now. What do they want from me to leave me alone? He said, “They want you to volunteer for a lineup and I won't let you do it.” I said, “Well, whose choice is it? I'm willing to volunteer for a lineup. Frank, I'm telling you, I have nothing to do with this. I have nothing to hide. I'm ready. Let's go in there.”
He said, “Are you sure? Do you realize what would happen if you get picked in that lineup?” And I said, “Let's go, because they're not gonna pick me.”
Sometimes I wonder: If I didn't turn myself in, if I didn't go back to New York, would they have just gone and grabbed the next dummy? You know? But the truth of the matter is, I believed in the system at the time. Why would I have anything to fear about going into a precinct and going into a lineup for shooting a police officer, dead or alive? And I know I had nothing to do with it. I didn't even know it existed. I didn't know that the crime existed. I wasn't at the scene of the crime or anything.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: So, JJ went back into the precinct and was put in a lineup. He was given a card with the number 2 and told to hold it up. Eyewitnesses from the numbers spot were brought in, and, according to police, five of them ultimately pointed JJ out as the man who shot Al Ward in the head.
JJ was arrested and charged with 1st degree murder.
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: I wouldn't be able to tell you what was going through my mind. I would've had to have an out-of-body experience to explain it to you. All I know is I'm stuck in a cage, you know, laying on a cold slab, it's a bench. And I'm about to be processed for a very serious crime.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: All the times I’ve heard JJ tell his story — all the times he’s gone over those details step by step — it’s always the same as that first time he told it to me, in that hot, airless room in Sing Sing.
Back then, I remember thinking JJ sounded sincere, even convincing. But I found it hard to believe that fiveeyewitnesses could all be mistaken. And, of course, 12 jurors had heard their sworn testimony and found JJ guilty of murder.
Still, there were things about JJ’s story that just didn’t make sense if he was the shooter. For instance, he said he’d volunteered for a lineup. Why would he do that if he was guilty? And had he really never been to the crime scene?
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Was there any physical evidence against you, at all?
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: None whatsoever.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Not one frame of it.
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: Not at all.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: No DNA?
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: No DNA. They've taken all kinds of clothing, and hair fibers, and fingerprints, and palm prints. They've taken everything they could possibly take from my apartment, from me. They brought me down to central booking to take special palm prints, in between the fingerprints, everything.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: Okay, so there wasn’t any trace of JJ at the crime scene. But what about the gun? Al Ward had been shot.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Did you have a gun?
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: No.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Did you own a gun?
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: No
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: You’ve never owned a gun?
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: I’ve had a gun before. Picked one up on the street one time before. But nah, I never really carried it like that. I used to leave it at home for protection, as far as the house is concerned, kept it locked in a safe.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: So, he did have access to a gun.
And there was something else that was really bothering me. It wasn’t just the eyewitnesses who said JJ was guilty. So had his alleged accomplice, the man with the duct tape: Derry Daniels. I’d read the case file. Daniels ultimately pleaded guilty, and admitted to a judge that he’d committed the crime with JJ. But JJ insisted he had no idea who Derry Daniels was… that he had never even spoken with him.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: I mean, weren’t you saying to your lawyers, “I don’t know this guy”?
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: Oh, my lawyers knew that. My lawyers knew it, and his lawyers knew it. We said it from the very beginning: We’ve never talked. I’ve never held a conversation with Derry Daniels.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: You’ve never said a word to him to this day?
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: To this day, I've never said anything to him.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: And they say you committed this crime with him.
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: They're saying that we committed this crime together. Derry Daniels, at that time, was caught — as far as the police report says — with a crack stem. I was 21, 22 years old raising a family. I have no— no reason to be with a person almost twice my age that's smoking crack. It's not my kind of company.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: And then there was this: Within the first hours after the crime, the eyewitnesses described the guy who shot Al Ward as a light-skinned Black man.
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: The witnesses were Black individuals, bnd they all stated that it was two male Blacks that came into this— That— that's the initial description. There's no doubt about it. That's a fact.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: But here’s the thing: JJ isn’t Black. I’d seen his mugshot, the one that the heroin dealer, Augustus Brown, picked out. And, on that mugshot, police list JJ’s race as “White Hispanic.” Although JJ doesn’t describe himself as white. He says he’s Latino. His family is from Puerto Rico. So why would JJ’s picture appear in the series of mugshots shown to Augustus Brown? Brown had described the shooter as Black. Why would he ID JJ?
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Why would he pick your picture?
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: That's the question I'm looking for an answer for. I really don't know.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: You know, when I bring this up to the people on the outside— “Yeah right. Sure. Everybody’s innocent.”
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: You know, I understand where a lot of people get that from, you know? Because, in my time in here, a lot of people don't like to take responsibility for their actions. So I understand where it’s coming from. And a lot of people that are searching for help, they feel that they can't get help through honesty, so they're gonna say what they have to say. But all I could do to anybody that doesn't believe me is to challenge them. Go out there and find the facts in my case, and prove me guilty. Because, when you do that, you'll find that I'm innocent.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: It’s been done already: You have been proven guilty.
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: I haven’t been proven guilty. I was found guilty.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Are you innocent?
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: Yes, I am.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: Sitting in that room that day next to JJ, I wasn’t sure what to think. Some of the details in his story were incriminating. He had access to a gun, and according to police, five people — five people — had identified him as the shooter. And JJ’s alleged accomplice pleaded guilty to committing the crime with him.
Still, something I can’t explain told me to keep going. JJ surprised me. He wasn’t what I’d expected. His letters hadn’t been what I’d expected. He even challenged me to prove him guilty. But before I prepared to walk out of that room in Sing Sing, there was something I wanted to make absolutely clear to JJ.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: I need you to be honest with me every step of the way. Good things, bad things, everything. If you're innocent, I'll keep going. It might take 10 years. It might take 15 years. You know, this is a long journey. It's a slow process. And I don't want to give you any sort of false hope.
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: I understand that.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: JJ didn’t seem concerned about what I might turn up. That might be because of this: He told me that he had proof that he was innocent. That he had an alibi.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: Next time…
MARIA VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: My son is not a murderer. He is not. Because I know where he was.
FRANK GOULD ACTOR [TAPE] Every witness in this case said the man who did the shooting was a male, Black, light-skinned. Every witness said that.
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: Something was going on in that stand. Something was clearly wrong. You know what was wrong? I wasn't the person who did this.
MARIA VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: I can't forget how I felt. It was like I had betrayed my son. I let out this scream. It was such a— a loud scream.
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. Special thanks to Sean Gallagher.
New episodes every Monday. See you then.