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Freeing Felipe Rodriguez

Thirteen years ago Nina Morrison, a staff attorney at the Innocence Project – the organization, founded by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, that spawned the movement to use DNA to free the innocent in the United States – came across the case of Felipe Rodriguez.

Felipe was a Brooklyn construction worker and a new father in 1988, when police started investigating him for a murder in Queens the year before. He was arrested the following year and convicted after a trial in 1990.

But the case against Felipe had more holes than Swiss cheese.

And, Nina soon discovered, Felipe himself was his own best advocate: polite, persistent, intelligent, and energetically devoted to being the best prisoner the New York State Department of Corrections had ever seen.

The Innocence Project took on the case and worked it, hard, for years. The supposed evidence against Felipe consisted mainly of the testimony of his old friend, Javier Ramos, who testified that he lent Felipe his white Oldsmobile the night before Thanksgiving 1987 and that Felipe brought it back the next morning with blood on the passenger seat. Ramos claimed Felipe admitted to stabbing a woman in the car. Ramos claimed that he cleaned the blood out of the car. A few months later, he sold the car to his boss at work, Pete Sierra.

At the trial, a detective testified that the lab found no useful evidence on the car seat or rug – Ramos must have cleaned the car so well that no blood could be found in it. Cuttings from the car were preserved. The Innocence Project, which focuses its resources on DNA cases, re-tested the cuttings. No DNA. No blood. It looked like a dead end.

There were also hairs found on the victim’s clothing. The Innocence Project had them re-tested too. Another dead end: the hairs came back as belonging to one or two unknown females.

I went to law school with Nina and she is not one to give up. While it seemed like the case had no avenue of DNA evidence left to explore, Nina was confident in her client’s innocence and asked me to give the record a second look, focusing on non-DNA issues. The first thing I saw was that it seemed impossible that Ramos’s Oldsmobile had anything to do with the murder. A white car was seen leaving the area where the body was found, which is what brought detectives to Ramos’s car in the first place. But Ramos’s car had a painted red top when police seized in in September 1988. And Ramos initially told police that he had painted it red in October 1987, a month or two before the murder. He changed his story at trial to conform with what the police told him about the car, but the original description did not match. No DNA or blood was found inside the car, even with the much better testing commissioned by the Innocence Project. What’s more, Ramos told people at the time that the car was not running on Thanksgiving Day in 1987. His relatives said that he brought a different car to Thanksgiving dinner in New Jersey. And he was caught on tape telling another suspect, Richie Pereira, that the car’s battery was dead at Thanksgiving time. So how could he have lent it to Felipe to commit a murder?

The answer is he did not.

While we do not know who killed the victim, Maureen Fernandez, we do know that neither Felipe, nor Ramos, nor the Oldsmobile had anything to do with the murder. Ramos recanted his testimony altogether in late 2017, leaving nothing to tie Felipe (or the car) to the murder in any way at all.

***

When I got on the case in 2016, Felipe had declined to apply for parole even though he was eligible. He believed, as many prisoners do, that he could only get parole if he admitted his guilt in the crime.

That was something he would never do.

He would have been a great candidate for parole, even if he had maintained his innocence. He was more than a model prisoner. He was an asset to every facility that housed him.

At one facility, he completely renovated the rectory. At another, he replaced the plumbing. He was kind to serial killers, converting Arthur Shawcross, the notorious Green River Killer, to Christianity shortly before his death. He collected money from prisoners for charity. He started a newsletter that was well received by both prisoners and prison administrators. He was certified to handle caustics, i.e. trusted with the most dangerous chemicals available.

He worked hard and threw his heart into everything he did, even though he was condemned to spend the rest of his days behind bars. He knew he was innocent.

He never gave up hope.

Felipe Rodriguez with Gov. Andrew Cuomo

“Convicted” murderer Felipe Rodriguez with Gov. Andrew Cuomo, shortly after the governor commuted his sentence of life imprisonment, but before a Queens judge vacated his conviction

So Nina and I tried to convince Felipe to go before the parole board. But he remained reluctant.

We suggested a clemency petition, a direct request to Governor Andrew Cuomo to shorten his sentence to time-served. That Felipe could agree to, on the condition we argue his innocence as part of the petition. The petition had two parts, a long letter describing his many successes in prison, and a summary of the evidence showing the extraordinary likelihood that he had been wrongly convicted.

It worked.

Two months later, on December 30, 2016, Gov. Cuomo announced that Felipe would be among 12 people receiving executive clemency that year. He would be released from Otisville Correctional Facility in less than a month, but would have to remain under parole supervision for a year. While the sentence commutation was based on Felipe’s rehabilitation and conduct as an inmate, it seemed clear that even the governor had been persuaded of his innocence (a few months later, when Felipe found himself at a party the governor was at, they had their picture taken together).

On January 26, 2017, three years from yesterday, Felipe Rodriguez was released from Otisville.

An admiring crowd of well-wishers waited for him on the way out. Felipe was re-united with his son Felipe Rodriguez, Jr., who was just a toddler when his father went to prison.

They hugged for a long time.

They prayed together in a local church before heading back to New York City.

We enjoyed a good dinner that night at Omar’s Mediterranean restaurant in midtown Manhattan.

Photographer Zengzheng Wang vividly captured the moment of Felipe’s release and the days and months that followed.Felipe Rodriguez

***

Most people emerge after decades in prison bewildered and disoriented.

Not Felipe.

Before long, he was working a good union job and dating a beautiful waitress who was raising two boys by herself. Felipe and Karen married at a small ceremony at the President Emeritus’s Office at New York University in September, 2018.

Although Felipe was free, married, working, raising two kids, reunited with his son, and done with parole, he remained a convicted murderer. The evidence was overwhelming that he was not connected to the murder in any way and that he was denied a fair trial. His story received probing, sympathetic coverage in the New York Daily News.

We asked the Queens District Attorney’s Office to take another look at the case.

The re-investigation got shuttled around the DA’s office, but Nina kept in close communication with them.

The case settled on the desk of Robert J. Masters, a veteran prosecutor and one of the office’s top executives. Masters personally re-interviewed many of the people involved in the case and pressed to gather all police paperwork. As he pored over the files, he noticed something no one had ever brought out before and no one could explain: a note by one of the detectives stating that Javier Ramos told police that another person was involved in the murder.

This was brand new. To us, it added to the many reasons not to believe Ramos. To the Queens DA’s office, it made it undeniable that, whether or not he was guilty, Felipe had been denied a fair trial.

Masters shared the note with us. A short time later, he told Nina that he would recommend the district attorney’s office agree to join a motion to vacate the conviction and dismiss the indictment. The basis for the motion was the newly discovered evidence that Javier Ramos was not truthful at trial, just as Ramos had admitted to us two years earlier. I was on vacation with my kids at Disney when Nina called me with the news. I was lightheaded with joy for my client. Just then, Stormtroopers in white armor marched by with a Wookiee who looked a lot like Chewbacca. I could scarcely believe what I had just heard, but the elation in Nina’s voice made clear there was no mistake.

The rest was formality. We filed the motion. The Queens District Attorney’s Office joined it. On December 30, 2019, Justice Joseph Zayas of  Queens Supreme Court granted the motion in a packed ceremonial courtroom on Queens Boulevard. He addressed Felipe directly: “In your case,” he said, “the miscarriage of justice took way too long to discover, Mr. Rodriguez. You deserved better than that.”

***

Felipe was asked many times how he survived 27 years in New York State’s toughest prisons knowing that he was innocent. Every time he answered the same: Felipito, his baby son now grown, left behind in the world without him, was what got him through. He knew he had to survive to be back with Felipe Jr., and that one day he would be. But re-uniting with Felipito after Governor Cuomo’s commutation in 2017 was just the first step on the road to liberation. The exoneration removed the chains of the false murder conviction. After that, Felipe told the New York Post, “I will be absolutely, completely free.”

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