While the suspect was described as a black man with braids, Velazquez is Hispanic and wore his hair short, his lawyers have stressed.
The witness who initially chose Velazquez’s photo from police files has told Velazquez’s lawyers, prosecutors and NBC’s “Dateline,” in a piece aired last year, that he’s not sure he picked the right person. Another witness who identified Velazquez in the subsequent lineup provided a sworn recantation but has since changed his mind again, according to a letter prosecutors sent Velazquez’s lawyers this week.
They said he wavered too much to be considered reliable, two other eyewitnesses stand by their identifications and courts have expressed some skepticism about recantations in general, so the issue didn’t warrant tossing Velazquez’s conviction.
Meanwhile, Velazquez’s lawyers said a stranger rang their office last fall to say someone named Moustapha had repeatedly told acquaintances he committed the crime. Early in the 1998 investigation, police got a tip the killer was a man known by a similar name.
Prosecutors later interviewed the caller. But after poring through address and other records, they concluded the man she named wasn’t in New York City on the day of Ward’s killing, they said in the letter to Velazquez’s lawyers.
“We have conducted this investigation with an open mind,” Assistant District Attorney Bonnie Sard wrote, noting that prosecutors also talked to Velazquez himself.
But Gottlieb and Gordon said the review “has been contrary to any genuine pursuit for truth and justice.” They said prosecutors didn’t give enough consideration to the first eyewitness’ recantation and seemed more interested in discrediting the caller than in finding out what she knew.
Shortly after taking one of the nation’s most prominent prosecutor’s jobs in 2010, Vance — a former defense lawyer — appointed a group of senior deputies to examine wrongful-conviction claims, an idea inspired by a similar undertaking in Dallas. Vance’s Conviction Integrity Unit has recently agreed to dismissals in two cases, Duggan said.
A similar effort spurred Brooklyn prosecutors to ask a judge last month to free a man who had been imprisoned for more than two decades in the killing of a rabbi.