A year ago, Gov. Mario Cuomo granted clemency to our client Felipe Rodriguez, commuting his life sentence to the 27 years he had already served for a 1987 murder. Felipe, who is also represented by Nina Morrison of the Innocence Project, was released because he was an incredible inmate: he had renovated the rectory in one prison and replaced the plumbing in another; he brought Cardinal Dolan to pray with the men on Easter and recruited writers from among the inmates for a prison newsletter. He was so respected by prison authorities that he was put in charge of caustic chemicals at Eastern Correctional Facility.
Felipe Rodriguez is also innocent. He was wrongly convicted of murdering a young Brooklyn mother named Maureen Fernandez and leaving her body behind a warehouse in Queens. His conviction was based on two pieces of evidence: (1) testimony of a drunk who identified Felipe a year-and-a-half after the murder as someone he briefly saw in a bar with the victim the night she was killed and (2) testimony from Javier Ramos, a friend of Mr. Rodriguez who had admitted to falsely accusing someone else of the murder because he was afraid of the police. No physical evidence, DNA, fingerprints or other forensics of any kind ever linked Felipe to the crime.
As the Daily News reported on Christmas Eve: “The case against Felipe Rodriguez was, at first, a case of no’s. No witnesses. No motive. No connection between Rodriguez and Fernandez. No DNA evidence. No criminal record. No history of violence. No knife. No description of bloodstains on the clothing of the man presumed to be the killer.”
The Daily News also reported that the prosecutions’s star witness, Mr. Ramos, has “signaled a readiness to recant some or all of the testimony that sent Rodriguez to prison.” That revelation was part of a six-page cover spread on Felipe’s life after prison. It was a lyrical, long-form piece that brought to life the experience of a typical New Yorker, a hard-working, high-energy striver, who got caught up in the New York Police Department’s desperate efforts to solve what were then literally thousands of homicides a year. Felipe suffered 27 long years behind bars, separated from his family — his wife, his parents, and, most of all, his son Felipe Jr. who was a toddler at the time of his father’s trial. The Daily News article, by retiring publisher and editor-in-chief Arthur Browne, brings all that to life. It was accompanied by an editorial that generously credits the many people involved in bringing Felipe home and making sure he succeeded once he got there. Mr. Browne followed up with a report on how Felipe and three other men influenced notorious serial killer Arthur Shawcross to seek spiritual redemption and repent for two upstate-New York crime sprees that left two children and eleven women dead in the 1970s and 1980s.
These three articles reflect the exceptional reporting that New Yorkers have come to expect from the Daily News in the two decades since I stopped working as a reporter there in 1996 and went to law school. Arthur Browne was already a legendary reporter and news executive when I worked in his newsroom. Felipe had been in prison for years. The murder rate had peaked in 1993, the year I started. It was rapidly dropping by the time I left.
Twenty years later, Felipe Rodriguez still has a long road ahead of him. He must prove his innocence and rebuild his life. Nothing can give him back the 27 years that were taken from him. His false conviction not only robbed him of his young adulthood, but it robbed the family of Maureen Fernandez of justice as the hunt for the real killer ended. We are resolved to change that by clearing Felipe’s name and re-opening the case in the year to come.