Letters from Sing Sing
Episode 4: Peer Pressure
Dan tracks down Juror Number Six: Ramon Aviles. Ramon remembers the moment when the 84-year-old eyewitness, Dorothy Canady, pointed him out as the shooter. He says he was shocked and that people were laughing. The juror breaks down what he remembers from the deliberation room and ultimately admits he might have made a mistake in voting to convict JJ.
Dan starts to wonder if other jurors from JJ’s trial would feel the same way. He meets up with a different juror and when she sees Dan, she immediately starts to cry. She says she felt pressured by some of the other jurors to convict JJ because they were sequestered and wanted to go home. More than decade later, she believes she ruined JJ’s life.
Dan is stunned. He’s building a compelling case for JJ’s innocence, but there’s still one more person he needs to talk to: JJ’s alleged accomplice, the man with the duct tape, Derry Daniels. Dan visits Daniels, who refuses to talk to him, but Dan is now certain that JJ did not get a fair trial. He sits down with Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project, to talk through the case. Barry explains how eyewitness accounts can be unreliable.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Just start by telling me your first and last name, and spelling.
RAMON AVILES [TAPE]: My name is Ramon: R-A-M-O-N. Aviles: A as in apple, V as in victor, I-L-E-S.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: What juror number were you?
RAMON AVILES [TAPE]: I was juror number six.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: Juror number six. He was the one who that 84-year-old witness, Dorothy Canady, picked out as the gunman. To me, it was one of the strangest moments in JJ’s trial.I got in touch with Ramon in 2011 — more than a decade after JJ’s conviction — and he still remembered that moment.
RAMON AVILES [TAPE]: She pointed me out, which was something I never, never ever expected, but— It was laughter at first, like it was funny, in a sense. I caught onto it ’cause I saw the other jurors looking at me. And when I realized, I went: Whoa, did she just pick me out? It was like: Now, there's something wrong with that, you know? I mean, here she is, she's at the witness stand, and she's pointing at the jury box.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: After that happens, and you're in a deliberation room, how do you vote guilty?
RAMON AVILES [TAPE]: That's a tough one. That's definitely a tough one. Um, it kept coming back to the girlfriend.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: Ramon told me some of the jurors didn’t believe JJ’s girlfriend Vanessa when she testified that he’d been at home talking with his mother the morning of the murder. They thought Vanessa was covering for JJ. And once they doubted Vanessa’s story, they had trouble believing JJ and his mom, too.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: What was the first vote? Do you remember the first vote?
RAMON AVILES [TAPE]: It was pretty much split in the middle, almost.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Between?
RAMON AVILES [TAPE]: Guilty and innocent. Actually, there were some emotions there. They were pretty— You can see people were feeling it, emotion-wise. It got pretty heated after a while.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: It got heated in the room?
RAMON AVILES [TAPE]: Heated, plenty of times.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: In what way?
RAMON AVILES [TAPE]: I mean, first we were bickering. It was going back and forth, you know, back and forth between innocence and guilt. Some people weren’t sure. For me, it was lack of evidence to state that he was at that location.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: He says the jurors were stressed and worn out, especially because they had been sequestered. They couldn’t go home until they reached a verdict. Remember, the jury got the case on a Wednesday and deliberated for three full days.
RAMON AVILES [TAPE]: I think it was Friday, if I recall. And a lot of the jurors were discussing about: Aw, I'm gonna lose out on my weekend. I’m supposed— Well, you know, some people saying they had to work. Some people— You know, a lot of— A lot of— You can see that it was getting to them. We were all tired. We were frustrated. It got to a point that was just— You can see the toll that was taking, especially some of the older jurors that were like— You could see, you know, people were talking about they needed to get back into their life.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: But you knew what was on the line?
RAMON AVILES [TAPE]: Yes, of course. It was a man's life on the line. That's something— I've never done that before. You know? You're about to put somebody away, but I didn't want to think that way, but that was the case. And then, once we announced the verdict, it didn't feel good at all. The only thing I could do is just look at the mother and turn away, ’cause I didn't know what to do after that. I thought I made a mistake. I really think I didn't do the right thing.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: I’d already had my own doubts about JJ’s conviction, but what this juror just told me took it to a whole new level. And it turns out he wasn’t the only juror that felt that way.
I’m Dan Slepian and this is Letters from Sing Sing.
Episode Four: Peer Pressure
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: I am driving out to Long Island right now to see this juror, to hear what she has to say. So, we'll see what she says.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: I’d tracked down another juror from JJ’s trial. She agreed to meet with me as long as I didn’t disclose her name. When she sees me, she immediately starts to tear up.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: So, you walked into this room crying.
JUROR X [TAPE]: Yeah.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Why?
JUROR X [TAPE]: Because I just— I ruined somebody’s life. That's how I feel. I feel— I was just— I don't know how else to explain it. It's just such a horrible feeling to have over your head. This is the only— I'm so lucky, because this is the only regret I've ever had about anything. And I just feel so responsible, because if I would've held my ground and said, “No, I don't care how long we're here for”— Because I never thought he was guilty. I never thought he was guilty, from the get-go. I never thought he was guilty.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: So why did you defy the way you felt?
JUROR X [TAPE]: Because I felt the pressure, the immense pressure in that room. There were a few older people, and they were like: This is ridiculous. He killed a cop. And this— I'm like: He didn't kill the cop. You don't know that.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Tell me about the deliberations.
JUROR X [TAPE]: Okay. After we got out, you know, the first day of trial, everyone was, like, exhausted, and we were all trying to figure out, like, a timeline that would make sense, because we got all this information, but none of it made sense.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: For the people who were saying that he was guilty, and they were so certain about that—
JUROR X [TAPE]: Mm-hmm.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: —do you remember what their argument was?
JUROR X [TAPE]: Between me and you, I think some of those people — and I don't know if I'm correct in saying this — I think some of the people in that room might have been racist, because all they knew, all they had in their head was: there's a cop that's dead. We have to defend the police.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: That's it.
JUROR X [TAPE]: And I remember saying: This is a 20, I don't know—
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: 23, yeah.
JUROR X [TAPE]: —23-year-old kid. That's what I said. He's a young boy. We're gonna put someone in prison for the rest of their life and we're not a hundred percent sure? [SIGHS] There were totally reasonable doubt. That’s why I have such high emotion, because, in my heart of hearts, I knew he was innocent. But I could not— I could not get enough people to see that point.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Now, you're sequestered. Do you remember being sequestered?
JUROR X [TAPE]: Yep. We were taken in that little van, I don't know, to some place in Queens, I think, by LaGuardia Airport. That's where we went. And we were all in our separate rooms, and it was horrible.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: It was horrible.
JUROR X [TAPE]: Horrible.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Right.
JUROR X [TAPE]: Who could sleep? I couldn't even sleep.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: So, take me to this moment, now: On Friday afternoon, at that final vote.
JUROR X [TAPE]: Friday afternoon. [SIGHS] I think there was just two of us left that said: He's innocent. We believe he's innocent. It's like everyone was, like, leaning in, looking, like, “Come on, come on.” Like, “We wanna go home.” Basically, that's what it was. It's like: a life against “we wanna go home.” And I just said: All right.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: What is going through your mind when everyone is staring at you, in that moment?
JUROR X [TAPE]: Complete peer pressure. People would— would be mad, because then it would've meant going back to be sequestered for Saturday.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: You didn't want to hang in long enough to make it a hung jury?
JUROR X [TAPE]: I guess— I don't think I understood that I could do that. Because if I thought I could, I would've done that.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: What you're essentially saying to me is that JJ was convicted not necessarily because of the facts or the evidence, but cause the jury was tired and wanted to go home. Is that true?
JUROR X [TAPE]: Yeah. I— I'd have to say yes. I think that's— that's the truth. Yes.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: When the jury headed back into the courtroom to deliver the verdict, she says she felt horrible.
JUROR X [TAPE]: Everyone, you know, like, looked at us. And I remember he was looking at us. And I kept my, you know, my head down a lot of times. And they went around and asked us each, you know, what we thought with each charge. And then they said, “Thank you very much for your service.” We got up. We walked out.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Did you look at him?
JUROR X [TAPE]: Oh, my God. I couldn't— No. I couldn't look at him. I walked out and as soon as I got, I guess, in the hallway right beyond the courtroom, very close to the judge's chamber, I just lost it. I just started crying, and he pulled me in. He goes, “Sit down.” He goes, “Calm down, calm down.” He goes, “You did—” you know, “You did a service. You did the right thing.” And I was like, I don't think I did the right thing.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: How long did it sit with you?
JUROR X [TAPE]: [TEARING UP] A while. I mean—
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: It looks like it still is.
JUROR X [TAPE]: It is, because it’s a terrible thing. You know, we have a house upstate. We would drive by, and I knew Ossining, and I knew Sing Sing, and then when I— When I connected everything, my— my husband's, like, watching me, like, look out the window. He's like, “What's up?” ’Cause I haven't really— I, I spoke to him about this a little, but he has no idea how upset I was about it. It's just a horrible— a horrible feeling that I carry around, because I've ruined somebody's life.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: You feel like you did the wrong thing?
JUROR X [TAPE]: Totally.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: From the beginning?
JUROR X [TAPE]: From the beginning.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: It was hard for me to process what I’d just heard. On the one hand, I felt enormous empathy for this juror. She seemed honest and vulnerable, and she didn’t have to talk to me, but said this had been weighing on her conscience — that she’d been haunted by her decision to convict JJ since the day of the verdict. But on the other hand, she believed he was innocent, and still voted to convict because of peer pressure.
That fact alone made me wonder: If the jury hadn’t been sequestered, would JJ have been convicted? We’ll obviously never know the answer to that question. But here’s something interesting: In 2001 – 19 months after JJ was found guilty, New York state changed the law. It’s no longer standard practice to sequester juries in criminal cases.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: By the time I’d gotten in touch with those jurors, I’d been digging into JJ’s case for nearly a decade. I’d spoken to eyewitnesses. Interviewed dozens of people. Read thousands of pages of documents. I finally felt like I had enough to produce an hour of TV for Dateline.
But there was still one big thing that had been bothering me from the very beginning. Two men had entered the numbers spot that day. The shooter had an accomplice: The man with the duct tape, Derry Daniels. JJ swore he didn’t know Daniels — had never even said a word to him. So what, if anything, connected them?
Here’s what I knew from my investigation. Derry Daniels had a long criminal record, including convictions for drug possession, assault, and robbery. He never brought up JJ in his statement to the police. The Manhattan DA offered Daniels a deal: 12 years if he pleaded guilty to the crime. He took it.
When Daniels appeared in front of a judge, he gave what’s called a “plea allocution,” to establish the facts of what happened the day of the crime. The prosecutor asked him: “Can you tell us: What was your role, and what was Mr. Velazquez’s role?”
Daniels said, “My role, I was duct taping.” Then the prosecutor said, “What was Mr. Velazquez doing?” And Daniels said, “His role was the gunman.”
That’s basically it. Daniels never even said JJ’s name. And neither the Judge nor the prosecutor asked for any more details, like: How did you know JJ? How was this plan hatched? Nothing. And then Daniels disappeared from the case. He never testified at JJ’s trial.
By 2011, Daniels had done his time and was out of prison. It wasn’t easy to track him down, but I finally found out he was living in Newark, New Jersey. I drove to his place and knocked on his door. No one answered. So I sat outside for hours, waiting for him to come home. When he finally did, I approached him on his front steps. Daniels was hostile. He made it very clear he didn’t want to talk. And then he slammed the door in my face.
That was a dead end.
But I did try, for months, to find any connection between Derry Daniels and JJ. I looked up all of their addresses, as well as their relatives’, to see if they’d ever lived in the same neighborhood. I spoke with dozens of people. I tried to find anything — anything — that could link the two of them.
But I found nothing. And, by the way, neither did the police or prosecutors. They did interviews. They checked prison visitor records and call logs. But they couldn’t find any connection, either. Other than Daniels’s plea allocution, there was absolutely no evidence that these two men, who had been accused of committing a murder together, had ever even met each other.
It seemed obvious to me that Jon-Adrian Velazquez did not get a fair trial. There was so much the jury hadn’t heard. And so much of the evidence that did convict JJ no longer held up. But I’m not a lawyer. So I wanted to talk it through with someone who is. Someone I’ve known for years. Someone who knows a lot about wrongful convictions.
BARRY SCHECK [TAPE]: I'm Barry Scheck. I'm co-founder and special counsel of the Innocence Project, anda professor of law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: Barry is basically the godfather of the American innocence movement. In 1992, he and Peter Neufeld co-founded the Innocence Project. It’s dedicated to freeing innocent people and preventing wrongful convictions. I recently met up with him.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: So, let's start from the beginning, and I'm just gonna give you some details about his case, and then you tell me what you think factors would play into that. So: This murder happened at the end of January 1998, at an illegal numbers parlor in Harlem. A retired police officer ran that illegal numbers parlor, and it was in the confines of the precinct in which he used to work. So when these two guys come in and they rob the place, and a retired officer is down, a huge presence shows up. Two command units. They start arresting people right away.
BARRY SCHECK [TAPE]: Well, in the literature of wrongful convictions, which goes way back before the Innocence Project, this was known in the trade as a quote-unquote “heater case.”
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: A heater case is one that attracts a lot of media attention. Barry says in these cases, there’s often a rush to make an arrest. And that can lead to mistakes.
BARRY SCHECK [TAPE]: I can show you, in the annals of wrongful convictions, that you are in big trouble if it involves the death of a police officer, on the force or retired. All stops are pulled out. There is going to be a focus on solving that case, and all the formalities are pushed aside. You're going to try to get that done.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: So the reason JJ became a suspect was because one of the eyewitnesses who took off after the murder was found two days later on the street selling heroin. And the police bring him to the precinct. He admittedly has 10 bags of heroin in his underwear. They put it on the table in front of him. And then he proceeds to look at mugshots, mugshots, mugshots. More than 230 pages. Just that scene alone, what does that tell you?
BARRY SCHECK [TAPE]: Well, first of all, he has an enormous incentive to make an identification, because he's gonna want to help the police. He has a natural incentive to get a deal, right? I mean, he's sitting there with the bags of heroin. They're gonna ignore the bags of heroin, or they're gonna help him out with the case, if he can identify somebody.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: What do you make of the fact, though, that he looks at hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of mugshots? Is that a good way of identifying a suspect?
BARRY SCHECK [TAPE]: Well, we all know that it isn't. It is extraordinarily dangerous to do what we call trawling. What all the studies show is that this trawling method is asking for a wrongful conviction.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: Trawling. That’s exactly what happened when the key eyewitness, Augustus Brown, was shown all those mugshots. Think of it as searching for a needle in a haystack — if the needle is even in there. Trawling is considered so error-prone, it’s no longer widely used.
BARRY SCHECK [TAPE]: There's lots of studies that show that, before you show a photo array to a witness, you would get more accurate identifications if you had some evidence that the person who is the suspect in that array has something to do with the crime.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: In other words, Barry says this process should be about confirming a potential suspect, not finding one.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: If you were to witness a crime— or somebody, anybody, were to witness a crime — and a couple days later you take that person and show them hundreds of pictures, do you think they would get it right more often, or wrong more often?
BARRY SCHECK [TAPE]: Well, we actually have numbers on this, Dan: That eyewitnesses make a mistake about a third of the time. This comes from both data in the laboratories, where we conduct eyewitness experiments, and also archival footage. And how can I be so sure of that number, of the third? Because they go in and they select what's known as a “filler” — that is to say, the person in the photo array, or the live line-up, who you know is not the suspect, who you just pulled off the street, right? Had nothing to do with the crime. A third of the time, they'll pick a filler.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: In fact, he says, eyewitness misidentification is the leading cause of wrongful convictions. We’re just not very good at accurately remembering what we saw, especially as more time passes. That’s why the initial description a witness gives to police is so important. In this case, all the eyewitnesses initially described the shooter as a light-skinned Black man. But three days later, JJ, who’s not a Black man, was picked out. And that raises another issue with JJ’s case.
BARRY SCHECK [TAPE]: Well, he's in a photo array, and he should not be in that photo array, and I’ll tell you exactly why. The person should be selected based on the description given by the witness. So, you don't put in the photo array a light-skinned Hispanic. You would want to get six people, in addition to the suspect, that matched the initial description.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: So, JJ’s case: There should have been light-skinned Black men with braids.
BARRY SCHECK [TAPE]: That's what they should have had, absolutely. And he should never have been exposed — or anybody that looked like him should have been exposed.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Under any scenario.
BARRY SCHECK [TAPE]: Under any scenario.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: So— So, from day one of JJ’s case—
BARRY SCHECK [TAPE]: Yes.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Literally the day one he gets involved—
BARRY SCHECK [TAPE] Yeah.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: If I understand you correctly: Because the detective knew the description was a light-skinned Black man with braids, as soon as Augustus Brown picked him out after hundreds of pictures, there should have been a high level of skepticism?
BARRY SCHECK [TAPE]: Well, they should— Not a high level of skep— It shouldn't have happened in the first place. The act of making an identification is cognitively difficult, and there are many, many factors that have to be accounted for in order to increase reliability. You want to give a warning to a witness: “I’m going to show you a series of people or photographs, and if you don't see anybody that's familiar to you, don't worry. The process will continue.” That warning will cut down the number of misidentifications by 25 percent. Why? Because people want to help. So, that’s one. Number two: Whoever is in that photo line-up or live line-up has to match the description given of the assailant. Right?
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: And that was not done in this case.
BARRY SCHECK [TAPE]: That was not done in this case. And I should emphasize, most important of all, the identification procedure should be double-blind. That is to say that the person who is showing the photos or arranging the live line-up should not know who the suspect is.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Because they might subliminally suggest—
BARRY SCHECK [TAPE]: They do sublim— It’s not even an issue! It’s cognitive bias. It’s human nature. People will have facial expressions, right? Especially when you're engaged in the competitive enterprise of “trying to catch the bad guy,” right? If somebody comes in and points to the person that you've spent all this time investigating and believe committed the crime, you know, you're gonna betray something.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: So the fact that the lead detective knew JJ was a suspect and conducted the live line-up was a problem?
BARRY SCHECK [TAPE]: Of course it's a problem. It’s a huge problem. It's one of the key factors in leading to wrongful misidentifications.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: I also asked Barry about JJ’s alleged accomplice, Derry Daniels. JJ says he doesn’t even know the guy.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: How does that work? Like, I really don't understand how these two people, who have never met each other before, that the detectives who are responsible for putting these people in prison have no theory about how they committed the crime.
BARRY SCHECK [TAPE]: Well, just as an ordinary investigative step, if you have a two-person crime, and they appear to be acting in concert, you would figure that the people have some connection, or knew each other in some way, right?
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Right.
BARRY SCHECK [TAPE]: But if there's no connection between these two guys, any trained investigator would say: That's a problem.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: But if, if you're a guardian of the law and justice—
BARRY SCHECK [TAPE]: Yeah.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: How do you prosecute a guy if you don't know how his accomplice knows him?
BARRY SCHECK [TAPE]: With difficulty. [LAUGHS] You want to know how. You want to know: Where did you meet him? When did you meet him? When did you guys go out and get the gun? Where did you meet beforehand? Everybody should know it—
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: So why isn't anybody asking?
BARRY SCHECK [TAPE]: Well, it's a— it's— it— That part is troubling.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: When you look at the blades of grass of this case, what troubles me about it now, more than anything, is that I don't understand how they could possibly believe JJ was guilty, because there's no theory of the crime.
BARRY SCHECK [TAPE]: Look: We keep on talking about this as an eyewitness case, all right? But this is an alibi case, first and foremost. The problem that juries always have is: Alibi witnesses are notoriously difficult for jurors to believe in. Because invariably, you are with your loved ones, right? People will have the reaction that a lot of the jurors did.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: —the jury did.
BARRY SCHECK [TAPE]: Yeah. Which is: How am I gonna believe his mother? How am I gonna believe the mother of his children? Right? They have every incentive to lie. And that's what makes alibi testimony so difficult for, you know, a defense lawyer to put on persuasively.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: Barry had told me that JJ’s case was riddled with problems, from the investigation all the way through the prosecution. But what I kept coming back to was how it all began. The whole case against JJ led back to a single moment: The moment Augustus Brown picked out his mugshot. Barry had told me that JJ’s picture should have never been shown to him. But I learned it went beyond that. JJ’s mugshot shouldn’t have been in the police database in the first place.
Here’s why: In the year before his arrest for the murder of Al Ward, JJ was shopping at the Gap in New York. He says as he was getting into his car, a police officer stopped him and accused him of shoplifting. He wasn’t. He had receipts for everything. But the officer searched his car anyway. And in the glove compartment, he found some drugs.
JJ was arrested. His mugshot was taken. But a judge later determined that it had been an illegal search. The case was thrown out and the record sealed. And that mugshot? It was supposed to be removed from the police database. But it wasn’t. And that was the mugshot that Augustus Brown picked out.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: So, what I want to do is kind of get a moment in time of where we are.
MARIA VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: Mm-hmm.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Here we are. April 2nd, 2011.
MARIA VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: Mm-hmm.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: What’s going on? Why are we here? What’s been happening in the family? [FADES DOWN]
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: I’m with JJ’s mom, Maria. We’re going to see JJ’s older son, Jon.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: How old is he now?
MARIA VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: He's 16. He's gonna be 17 in August.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: It’s been almost two years since Jon told me about the time he was chased by an undercover police officer. Nothing happened then, but now, he’s gotten into some trouble.
MARIA VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: He got involved with the wrong crowd in the street, and it just kept becoming one big problem after another. And although he's very smart, and when he applies himself in school he does well, he wasn't, you know, going to school. He wasn't doing what he needed to do. And, you know, the family court got involved, and then he got into a situation with another kid, and the cops were involved. And that's why he's here at the Phoenix Academy, trying to get his life together, and understanding that, you know, you have to learn how to— how to cope with your problems in different ways.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: The Phoenix House Academy is a residential program for kids who have gotten in trouble with the law. A judge ordered Jon to spend six months here.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: How much do you think his dad's incarceration has to do with what he’s going through now?
MARIA VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: It was sad, because it was sort of like he wanted to be his father. Like, he told me one day, “I'm gangster,” and I said: You're not gangster. And if you're saying you're gangster because you think your father is gangster, your father's not gangster. You know that your father, you know, didn't do what they say that he did. And you know, if you want to be your father, then you be your father. Your father's a decent human being who’s trying to make his life better. It's not about being in the street.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: We jump into her car and head to the Phoenix Academy. Jon’s been given permission to leave for the weekend to spend time with his grandma.
MARIA VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: He's probably anxious, ’cause I'm a little late.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: When he comes out, I can’t believe how much he’s changed.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Wow. Wow, do you look like your father.
MARIA VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: Yeah. [LAUGHS] He is almost as big as you. [LAUGHS]
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Seriously, he's changed.
MARIA VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: No, I know.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: The braces are off.
JON VELAZQUEZ, JR. [TAPE]: [LAUGHS]
MARIA VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: Oh, yeah.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: We head to a small coffee shop. It’s noisy inside. Jon tells me what it’s been like for him at the Phoenix Academy.
JON VELAZQUEZ, JR. [TAPE]: So, I had took this anger management course, and when I first came in, like, I'm not gonna lie, I have— I've been having anger since I was young. Like, sometimes I don't know how to control it. Sometimes it's just something that happens and I black out. So, in here, like, they have taught me something called coping skills. A coping skill is basically, like: When I'm mad, I just go to my room and think, or play cards, or read letters — like, something that's gonna keep my mind off what just happened. Not, like, to keep it inside me, but to— to let it out in a way that's positive, not to retaliate in a negative way.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Have you ever thought about why you get so mad?
JON VELAZQUEZ, JR. [TAPE]: Sometimes I would like to blame it on my father, but then, like, I don't want to. ’Cause, again, it's, like, my life. Like, it's my choices why I get mad. Like, I don’t like the fact that he’s locked up. Like, certain things get me mad, like when I see people with their father, like, kind of doing things I can't do. Like, you know in school when they, when they have parent-teacher conference, you know, when there's— A lot of schools, they always ask about your parents, and you gotta tell 'em where your father's at. It got me mad, but I got over it, and I really believe my father's innocent. That's why it don't bug me too much.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: I’d first met Jon and his brother Jacob when they were just little kids. I’d watched them grow. And over the years, I’d seen the toll JJ’s incarceration had taken on them — especially Jon. Now he was almost 17, old enough to visit his father on his own. He’d never done this before. On the day of Jon’s visit, I wanted to know how JJ was feeling about all of this. I was allowed to stop by his cell before his son showed up.
DAN SLEPIAN [TAPE]: Let's talk about this visit today. What is different?
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: What's different about today is this: I've been incarcerated over 12 years. I've never had the opportunity to just spend a few hours with just him. He's never had an individual time where it was just father and son. He doesn't know what that is. I don't know what that is, you know? And today we're gonna find out what that's about. You know, where the time is just me and him. The focus is just me and him. There's a lot that I would like to say that I've never been able to say. And part of it is: I really wanna know how my incarceration has affected him.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: I got permission from both JJ and the prison to tape the visit. In the prison’s visiting room, JJ sneaks up on his son from behind. He wraps his arms around Jon and gives him a kiss.
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: I love you.
JON VELAZQUEZ, JR. [TAPE]: I love you, too.
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: How you been?
JON VELAZQUEZ, JR. [TAPE]: I just made five months today in my program.
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: Five months? Definitely growing, man. What's life like, man?
JON VELAZQUEZ, JR. [TAPE]: I don't know. Right now it's just boring. Doing the same thing every day. Basically, like, similar to what you’re doing. You do the same thing every day. I do the same thing every day.
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: What do you think your biggest issue is that you need help with?
JON VELAZQUEZ, JR. [TAPE]: Anger.
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: Be honest to yourself.
JON VELAZQUEZ, JR. [TAPE]: Nah, I'm not gonna lie. Only thing is anger.
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: You got a lot of anger pent up.
JON VELAZQUEZ, JR. [TAPE]: I'm not gonna lie, like—
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: Have you figured out where that anger's coming from?
JON VELAZQUEZ, JR. [TAPE]: It's just everything that I grew up with.
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: Has to do with what happened with me. Right?
JON VELAZQUEZ, JR. [TAPE]: Yeah. A lot of it do. Like, I feel if you was there, it would be different. I know I wouldn't be where I'm at right now if you was there, though.
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: I know that what's happened to you is a product of what happened to me. And you have a right to be angry about that. You have a right to be upset, but we're gonna have to find a way to deal with it together. Because you being angry is leading to what?
JON VELAZQUEZ, JR. [TAPE]: All the other stuff—
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: It’s not leading to anything positive. I don't want you to live this life, J. I don't want you to live this life. You have to choose your own path in life. You're 16. You're about to turn 17. Do you know the seriousness of a 17-year-old committing a crime, what's gonna happen to you? A 17-year-old ain't gonna get over the way a 15-year-old did. You're not going back to another program if you make the wrong choice again.
JON VELAZQUEZ, JR. [TAPE]: I wanna go— I always wanted to go to college. I want to go in— I wanna go into business, and I'm not really sure what else, but right now it’s just business.
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: All right. You need to apply your vision and say that: I'm gonna take this and use this for me. You need to look for those opportunities. The only difference between obstacles and opportunities is how we use them. Prison is an obstacle for me, but I've used it as an opportunity. I'm gonna get a bachelors in behavioral science, so I'm finally gonna get a degree. You know what I'm saying?
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: The only way to predict the future is by creating it. That's one of my favorite quotes. What I’m trying to tell you is that: Look at how life is. Because your choices, from this point on, when you get out of Phoenix House, your choices will predict where you rest your head. Don't automatically assume because your father's incarcerated for a crime he didn't commit that that's gonna happen to you.That is not your future, Jay. That is not your future.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: JJ likes to say the only way to predict the future is by creating it. That’s what he did all those years ago when he wrote me that first letter. He challenged me to look into his case. To find the truth. I finally felt like I had. And now, millions of others would know his story too.
LESTER HOLT [ARCHIVAL TAPE]: Welcome to DATELINE, everyone. I'm Lester Holt. It was one of the first murders of the year… [FADES DOWN]
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: On February 12, 2012, at 7 PM Eastern, my hour about JJ aired nationally on DATELINE.
LESTER HOLT [ARCHIVAL TAPE]: The young man who was convicted of that murder has now spent almost half his life behind bars, yet many say he shouldn't have spent a single day. It’s a story… [FADES DOWN]
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: That night, people all across the country learned about JJ and his fight to overturn his conviction. A fight that was about to enter a new phase.
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: Dear Dan, One thing I can honestly say is that I have never felt so close to freedom before. I understand the odds, and I know what we’re up against, but I also know my heart. We are almost there.
DAN SLEPIAN [NARRATION]: Next time…
BOB GOTTLIEB [TAPE]: Right from the beginning, I knew there was a problem.
CELIA GORDON [TAPE]: It was an interrogation. It was a three-hour interrogation.
JON-ADRIAN VELAZQUEZ [TAPE]: They had no interest in the truth. They had no interest in whether I was innocent or guilty.
BOB GOTTLIEB [TAPE]: 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]: 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.