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Eyewitness to Bronx Murder Alleges Prosecutorial Misconduct, Makes Eleventh-Hour Recantation

But the witness may have flipped again, leaving the future of the conviction up in the air.

Caryn Santa, Collazo’s mother, and Robert Collazo, pictured on the right.
Photo provided by Caryn Santa

Eyewitness to Bronx Murder Alleges Prosecutorial Misconduct, Makes Eleventh-Hour Recantation

But the witness may have flipped again, leaving the future of the conviction up in the air.

On the evening of January 29, 2018, Caryn Santa knew she only had a few hours to save her son, Robert Collazo. Collazo, 21, had been held on Rikers Island for almost three years, charged with the murder of Jose Velasquez. Around 3:35 a.m. on Easter Sunday in 2015, Velasquez, 19, was fatally shot near the corner of East Burnside and Walton Avenues in the Bronx. On April 9, 2015, Collazo was arrested after a Bronx man named Joenelvy Ferreras identified him as the shooter in a multiple photo identification and an in-person line-up shown to him by police, according to a disclosure form prepared by a prosecutor on the case.

Collazo’s attorney Martin Goldberg claimed, however, that the police’s identification procedures were tainted. Ferreras told the police that the perpetrator was a light-skinned man, but in the police line-up “there were only two light skinned-guys,” said Goldberg. Goldberg also said that Ferreras was likely to pick Collazo because his friend, Jailene Espinal, had already shown him Collazo’s photo while texting about the shooting.

Furthermore, footage of Collazo from a party Espinal threw the night of the murder captured by a camera inside her building did not match the surveillance footage of the shooter taken from a nearby store, according to Goldberg. “At the party, he’s wearing a distinctive teal colored hat and teal shirt,” said Goldberg. “That didn’t look like the shooter.”

Despite the factual issues with the case, Collazo was convicted of second-degree murder when he went to trial in the Bronx in December of 2017.

So on that freezing January evening, Santa assumed that her son was about to be sentenced and sent upstate. Santa, a house cleaner, had scraped together what she could to hire Manuel Gomez, a former NYPD officer turned private investigator, and was accompanying him as he searched for evidence that could prove her son’s innocence. That night, Gomez and Santa tracked down key witnesses Ferreras and Espinal, who alleged in sworn written affidavits that the Bronx district attorney’s office had pressured them to change their stories about what happened the night of the Velasquez murder.

With this new evidence in hand, the Collazo defense team moved to file a “330.30 motion” that could set aside the verdict. Already rocked by recent accusations of rampant sexual activity, alcohol use, and fighting amongst its staff, the Bronx district attorney’s office now faces an allegation that threatens to further erode the public’s faith in its prosecutors: the coercion of witnesses in the pursuit of a conviction.

That January night, Santa and Gomez pulled up to the Bronx building where Ferreras, the sole identifying witness in her son’s case, resided. Santa had heard this was the building where Ferreras lived, but they didn’t know Ferreras’s apartment number or if he was even home.

After about 45 minutes, Gomez walked back to the car where Santa waited, looking happy. “He said, ‘Look, this is it’,” said Santa in an interview with The Appeal, referring to a signed affidavit that Gomez obtained from Ferreras. In the affidavit, Ferreras stated that he was “harassed by” Orville Reynolds, a Bronx assistant district attorney, “to change” his statements in the case against Collazo. Ferreras, who affirmed his claims about the ADA in a recorded video statement, said that he had never seen the shooter’s face and indicated that he had told prosecutors about texts he had sent a friend the night of the murder in which he had said the same thing.

“I asked, ‘Is this going to help?’” Santa remembered. “He was like, ‘Of course, that’s everything.’ I couldn’t believe it.”

The next morning, on January 30, 2018, Judge Lester D. Adler of the Ninth Judicial District Court called for an adjournment “in light of the documentation” that Santa provided to her son’s attorney, according to court minutes reviewed by The Appeal. With the judge’s decision, the murder case against Collazo appeared to be in jeopardy.

It was a moment of real hope for Collazo — but even today his fate remains unclear, largely because Ferreras may have recanted the statement he gave to Gomez. Collazo’s attorney Martin Goldberg is being taken off the case because he may be called as a witness in the motion to set aside its verdict. That motion will be filed by a new defense attorney, who will be assigned to the case on March 12. And in a March 3 phone call with The Appeal, Goldberg, a former prosecutor himself, said that he heard that the state’s sole identifying witness, Ferreras, may have gone back on his recantation in a new statement to Bronx prosecutors.

Joenelvy Ferreras, screenshot from a video statement provided by Ferreras to Manual Gomez, private investigator at Black Ops Private Investigators, Inc.

Ferreras himself seemed to corroborate the rumor of his apparent change of heart in a March 4 telephone call with Gomez, the private investigator. When Gomez asked who he spoke with in the district attorney’s office to again change his statement, Ferreras said he spoke with ADA Reynolds. In a brief phone call on March 1 with The Appeal, Ferreras refused to answer questions about his previous allegations that ADA Reynolds had pressured him to implicate Collazo in the Velasquez murder. “I did what I had to do,” said Ferreras, “I told the truth in court … Leave me the fuck alone.”

Collazo insists that he should not have been convicted in a murder based on the testimony of an eyewitness who has changed his story multiple times and that he suspects Ferreras is again being intimidated by the Bronx DA’s office. “Reynolds is probably telling him, ‘I’m going to lock you up, I’m going to charge you.’ He’s probably scaring the kid, he’s a young kid,” said Collazo in a phone call with The Appeal from Rikers Island on March 4. “But he gotta be tough, he’s gotta know, if you know I didn’t do it, how can you go to sleep at night? How can you put away somebody for the rest of their life?”

Though Ferreras appears have recanted the statements he made in the affidavit he gave to Gomez and returned to his original testimony identifying Collazo as the shooter, Collazo’s supporters point to another misconduct allegation against the Bronx district attorney’s office that was uncovered by Gomez the same night he spoke to Ferreras.

In written affidavit from January 29, Jailene Espinal, Ferreras’s friend and the host of the party outside of which the shooting took place, stated that ADA Reynolds “harassed her” by going to her or her boyfriend’s house every “three to two months” and tried to get her “to lie.”

“He wanted me to say Robert Collazo changed all his clothes when I didn’t personality [sic] see him change,” Espinal said in the affidavit. She also said that Ferreras had texted her on the same day of the murder, saying that “he ain’t witness anything he was too drunk to remember…”

It’s unclear if this new evidence will be enough to set aside Collazo’s conviction.

“It’s a question of what the judge wants to believe,” said Goldberg, Collazo’s former attorney. If Ferreras sticks to the original story he told prosecutors, there may not be sufficient reason to set aside the verdict, said Goldberg. But, he continued, “if he says he was pressured [by Reynolds], the judge would agree with us, and the DA would probably decline to prosecute the case.”

Goldberg cautions that there may not have been misconduct in this case. “Reynolds is a decent, honest guy,” says Goldberg. “He’s got a job to do.” (A separate case, where Gomez, the private investigator, showed police coerced witnesses to sign false statements sparked a federally assisted internal investigation into the Bronx district attorney’s office in September 2017.)

“The bottom line is he’s a liar and his credibility is destroyed,” said Gomez of Ferreras in a phone call with The Appeal. “What case do they have? A guy who recants his recantation?”

Prosecutors from the Bronx district attorney’s office also seemed to voice doubt about Collazo’s guilt even after his 2017 conviction. During a January 10, 2018 sentencing hearing, ADA Reynolds said he had offered Collazo “numerous opportunities … to come and speak with me; multiple times, almost at times begging for him to come and speak with me, because I did not want somebody to be on trial if, in fact, they did not commit a crime.”

Goldberg claims that the purpose of such entreaties from ADA Reynolds was to persuade Collazo to testify against yet another suspect, William Hernandez, whom “numerous people” on the street had indicated may have been the real shooter. “In fact, offers were made to my client to actually come and — he was going to testify against the shooter,” Goldberg said at the January 10 sentencing hearing, referring to Hernandez.

Collazo says he refused to consider any such offers to testify against Hernandez because he did not see the shooter that night. “He wanted me to make up some shit, make a lie up,” said Collazo. “Speak about something I don’t know. He just wanted to place somebody else in my shoes … I’m not doing that.”

A detective’s report, released during the discovery process to Goldberg and reviewed by The Appeal, also referred to a picture of another individual as the murder suspect. Gomez, Collazo’s private investigator, believes the photo is of Hernandez.

Robert Collazo, then 18 before his arrest
Photo provided by Caryn Santa

At Collazo’s January 2018 sentencing hearing Goldberg also said ADA Reynolds told him that the Bronx DA’s office had “reason to believe that Mr. Collazo might not have been the shooter,” according to court minutes. Despite these apparent doubts, at the same hearing ADA Reynolds insisted that the judge sentence Collazo that day, saying, “I am asking that Mr. Collazo be sentenced today. I am not here to retry the case.”

Judge Adler did not comply with the state’s request and delayed Collazo’s sentencing. Adler then referenced doubts about the case that appeared to be shared by both sides. “I do not want to sentence anybody for a crime that the attorneys believe, both attorneys — I mean, you know,” the judge said, before calling an off-the-record meeting with the attorneys and granting Collazo a delayed sentencing date.

After a March 12 court date in which a new defense attorney will be assigned to Collazo, upcoming hearings will address the integrity of Ferreras as the sole identifying witness, the motion to set aside the verdict, possible allegations of prosecutorial misconduct, and Collazo’s sentence.

Whether Collazo pulled the trigger that night seems to be irrelevant to ADA Reynolds, Santa claims, referencing a meeting in 2017 with the prosecutor in which he allegedly said her son was prison bound regardless of the case’s outcome. “He said, ‘Let’s keep it official: if he comes home, don’t you think he’s going to get arrested for something else?’,” recalled Santa. “I said, ‘And if he does, then he’ll deal with it. This is a different case.’ ”

The Bronx district attorney’s office declined to comment on issues raised in this article. “We cannot comment on a pending case,” the office wrote in an email.

Before his arrest, Collazo says he never realized how quickly a single prosecutor’s behavior could change his life. “Three years here [on Rikers Island], wasting my life for something I had nothing to do with,” said Collazo in a phone call. “What did I ever do to Reynolds, what did I ever do to the Bronx district attorney’s office? It’s crazy how you could go to a party one day, and the next week you’re locked up.”

The allegations against ADA Reynolds come as a personal injury claim of $15 million against the Bronx district attorney’s office is being brought by crime analyst Crystal Rivera. Rivera alleges that there was a culture of racial bias, on-duty sex, alcohol and even fighting among prosecutors at the DA’s office and that she suffered “mental anguish” after Bronx DA Clark retaliated against her for exposing such misconduct.

Rivera launched her suit after Clark placed her on administrative leave for allegedly violating the DA’s demand that she cut off contact with her boyfriend, NYPD Detective David Terrell, who had been accused of coercing witnesses in a gun and assault case against Pedro Hernandez — the same case, also upended by a Gomez investigation, that launched the federally assisted internal probe into the DA’s Office in September 2017.

Before becoming the Bronx district attorney, Clark promised the creation of a wrongful conviction review unit so that “things like” the Kalief Browder case, would not happen under her watch. Bronx resident Browder was incarcerated for three years on Rikers Island for stealing a backpack, a charge that was later dismissed. A depressed and PTSD-stricken Browder committed suicide in 2015 at the age of 22. Clark was one of several judges who presided over Browder’s case and has been blasted in the press for her promotion of the Bronx assistant district attorney who prosecuted Browder.

“I respect my son to the fullest for this, no matter how many offers they gave, he said he was not guilty,” said Santa, referring to the prosecution’s alleged attempts to get Collazo to testify against Hernandez. “If the person actually committed the crime, then they need to be convicted, but if they didn’t, it’s not all about winning. It’s not about how many times you’ve won so you can be the best ADA.”

The Black Love Bail Out Aims to Free Poor Defendants — And Teach Others To Do The Same

Photo from Philly Bail Fund / Twitter

The Black Love Bail Out Aims to Free Poor Defendants — And Teach Others To Do The Same

As part of a growing push to end the use of cash bail, a national movement is calling attention to the plight of defendants held in jail simply because they can’t afford to pay their way out.

Last month, it launched the next phase of its work: the Black Love Bail Out, timed to intersect with both Black History Month and Women’s History Month, including today’s celebration of International Women’s Day.

The National Bail Out Collective works with local groups in communities around the country to raise money from the public to free people held on bail. As with last year’s Mama’s Day Bail Out, this one is focused on getting women, femmes, and women-identified people out of jail. Organizers are highlighting the needs of Black women, in particular.

“We wanted to bring an intersectional lens to this conversation and into our movement,” explained Arissa Hall, project manager with the National Bail Fund Network, which is part of the collective. Given how male-focused much of the conversation around criminal justice reform tends to be, the aim is to “lift up how Black women are affected and impacted by the criminal justice system as well, whether it’s folks that are incarcerated or who are left to raise babies and take care of the families.”

“Organizing from the margins is important,” she added. “Once marginalized people are free, then everyone will be.”

The collective is comprised of about 20 organizations, including bail funds, community groups and Black Lives Matter affiliates. Overall, it’s raised close to a million dollars to bail people out and provide them with services. Last year’s first national bailout, the Mama’s Day Bail Out, freed over 100 people. After that, advocates staged a number of other events timed to holidays such as Father’s Day, Juneteenth, and Pride, bailing out at least 100 people more.

This time, organizers are including an important new element: a toolkit to help communities across the country start their own bailouts. As the collective worked with new groups during its bailouts last year, it realized there was a need for a resource outlining the steps and best practices for those wishing to launch their own. So the group has created a document that includes checklists for getting started, what to do on the day of the bailout, and how to follow up after the event itself is over. It also includes a wealth of information on what bail is and how it works, as well as guiding principles for participating in the national coalition.

“The toolkit is intended as an invite for folks to join us on Mother’s Day and beyond,” said Scott Roberts, senior campaign manager at Color of Change, which is part of the national coalition. “We want everyone who feels inspired by this to go out there and do it.”

He hopes the toolkit will also reinforce the values that undergird the bailout movement. “We wanted to make sure that as people replicated [bailouts], they were replicating the entire thing,” Roberts said. “The message was about ending money bail, not this being a charity or direct service operation.”

While some bail reform measures have only eliminated bail for non-violent, low-level offenses, the coalition wants to take a broader approach. It is careful not to discriminate between the different people who need to be bailed out — those charged with violent versus nonviolent crimes, straight versus queer people, old versus young, or those struggling with addiction or other issues. “We wanted to make sure people were embracing our values of inclusivity,” Roberts said.

The toolkit also makes clear that a bailout alone is not enough — it needs to be accompanied by other services and assistance. “Most of the time you can’t just bail someone out and say, ‘Hey good luck with your life,’ and expect that they are going to have a lot of very different outcomes,” Roberts said. Many people need immediate help with housing, food, and healthcare, as well as help returning for court dates, such as transportation or childcare.

“We would be doing a disservice to folks to minimize the amount of work and time and energy that went into having these bailouts, because it was no small feat,” Hall said. It also reflects the fact that “there is no one right way” to do one, she said.

The actual freeing of jailed people for the Black Love Bail Out began with nine people released in Philadelphia last month. Advocates in the city plan to keep bailing people out through March so long as they can raise enough money.

The February bailout came just after the Philadelphia City Council unanimously voted in favor of a resolution calling on the district attorney, state legislature, and courts to end the use of cash bail, and the subsequent announcement from District Attorney Larry Krasner that his office would stop seeking cash bail for 25 low-level misdemeanor offenses.

Reuben Jones of the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund credits his city’s bailouts with helping propel that action. “When we first started talking about cash bail four years ago, we didn’t have political support,” he said. But some of the city’s elected officials actually donated to the bailout last year. “Bailouts were a way to put pressure on the city to show that people don’t have to be confined pretrial to get to court [and] that holding people hostage with bail is inhumane.”

So the recent changes “were huge for us,” Jones said. But he and other advocates also plan to keep pushing forward. “For us, that’s not the end goal,” he said. “We want to … eliminate cash bail.”

“The city was willing to stick its neck out for lower-level offenses, which is a safe choice,” he added. But “we don’t make a distinction between violence versus nonviolence. We want it to be about the practice, not just for low-level misdemeanors.”

Next up will be San Antonio, Texas, where advocates are planning to bail out 20 people later this month. With an upcoming race for district attorney in Bexar County, which includes San Antonio, advocates hope the bailout will help push the new DA to prioritize bail reform. Advocates in Dothan, Alabama will also get in on the action, with plans to bail out around 10 people, as will those in Memphis, Tennessee.

This year’s Mother’s Day bailout promises to be huge. More than 40 organizations have already expressed interest in doing their own bailouts or solidarity actions, roughly double last year’s count. Last week, the coalition held its first webinar with about 35 people to launch the toolkit and it will hold more specific ones in the lead-up to May 13.

Apart from helping individuals, the bailouts aim to further the larger goal of eliminating cash bail by giving advocates more expertise in how the system works. Mary Hooks, co-director of Southerners On New Ground, a group focused on LGBT organizing the South, helped originate the Mama’s Day Bail Out last year. After their bailouts, she and her organization were able to use what they learned firsthand to advocate for bail reform in Atlanta. On February 6, Atlanta’s mayor signed an ordinance eliminating cash ba
for some low-level offenders in municipal court, and later that month the Georgia Senate unanimously passed a proposal giving judges more freedom to avoid cash bail for nonviolent offenses.

The upcoming Mother’s Day bailout is meant to accomplish similar goals. It “will help put this on the map for [participants],” Hall said. “Once people are interacting with the bail system in different ways — paying bail and talking to folks that are in jail because they don’t have the money to pay bail — folks are moved to do something.”

Hall hopes that will lead to bigger changes, and ultimately an end to cash bail. The bailouts are “harm reduction,” she said. “They’re not the solution.”

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Kim Foxx Just Released Six Years of Data — Most Prosecutors’ Offices Remain Black Boxes

Cook County SA Kim Foxx announcing last year’s data report.

Kim Foxx Just Released Six Years of Data — Most Prosecutors’ Offices Remain Black Boxes

On Friday, in what her office called, “the first [release] of its kind in the country,” Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx made public six years of felony criminal case data. The data was released in four Excel tables delineated by stage — intake, initiation, disposition, and sentencing — and includes more than 45 million data points in total. Unique identifiers are used for cases, defendants, and charges, so any member of the public can trace them through each stage. This wealth of information comes on the heels of Foxx’s 2017 Data Report, released in mid-February, which briefly summarized some of last year’s felony prosecution statistics. “Our work must be grounded in data and evidence,” said Foxx, “and the public should have access to that information.”

The sheer amount of information included in this release means it will take more than a few days to decipher any major conclusions. But the mere fact that it is publicly accessible is in itself newsworthy. The Cook County state’s attorney’s office is enormously powerful. As the second largest prosecutor’s office in the country, it handles almost half a million cases a year on a $150 million budget. Every day, their decisions shape the futures of thousands of people. Yet, until now, we’ve had little information about what those decisions look like in aggregate.

Head prosecutors are democratically elected — and yet they rarely release even the most superficial data about what happens in their office, making it difficult for voters to hold them to account. “Data release from prosecutors is virtually non-existent,” says Tracy Siska, executive director of the Chicago Justice Project. In fact, in many jurisdictions, it’s not even clear how much data the staff maintains internally. If someone wants to know just how many people in their county were prosecuted for marijuana possession last year, what the average bail request is in a misdemeanor theft case, whether Black defendants and white defendants are offered the same bail amount for the same crimes, or even just the percentage of defendants that plead guilty in their jurisdiction, they are going to have a monumentally difficult time finding that information.

In some counties, prosecutors release an annual report, which often include a few statistics about their work. But those tend to be cursory and self-serving — an opportunity to brag about an astronomically high conviction rate, for example, or tout their cost-cutting skills. “Rarely is there something truly substantive available from a district attorney’s office,” emphasizes Fordham University Professor John Pfaff.

There are a few outliers besides Foxx — in California’s Santa Clara County, for example, District Attorney Jeff Rosen releases an annual Race and Prosecution report. And, in 2014, Vera Institute of Justice worked withDistrict Attorney Cy Vance to analyze racial disparities in Manhattan’s 2010–2011 criminal case outcomes. But Vance has not provided any update to his study, which is now six years old. And, unlike Foxx, neither Rosen nor Vance has released any raw data.

This lack of information makes it virtually impossible to know if prosecutors who claim to be reformers are keeping promises. Many elected prosecutors are facing a more demanding electorate, voters who reject the tough-on-crime affectations of traditional law-and-order officials. In cities like Philadelphia, Houston, St. Louis, Orlando, and even Chicago, voters have elected district attorneys who promise to take a less punitive approach to prosecution, and who are willing to confront the underlying struggles that many defendants experience, such as addiction, homelessness, and mental illness. And in jurisdictions around the country, organizers are struggling to figure out whether these reformers are staying true to their word — without useful data, they are reduced to cobbling together data points from other agencies and extrapolating from anecdotes. District attorneys in Manhattan and Brooklyn have repeatedly promised to stop prosecuting certain crimes such as marijuana possession and turnstile jumping, for example. “But the challenge is that when prosecutors say they aren’t prosecuting marijuana anymore, there is almost no way for us to know if that’s true.” says Nick Encalada-Malinowski, civil rights campaign director for VOCAL-NY.

Sometimes, organizers have to invest their own resources in accountability. Just last week, advocates in New York officially launched Court Watch NYC, a collaborative project created by VOCAL-NY, the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, and 5 Boro Defenders. The project trains people to observe arraignments and bail hearings in New York in order to hold district attorneys accountable. “One goal is to have our own data, to be in control of our own data to counter false narratives,” says Encalada-Malinowski, adding that they want to “demystify the process and get people used to thinking about civic engagement with the DA’s office.” Court Watch NYC is reminiscent of programs in other cities, including Chicago. It’s a stop-gap solution to a major public failure — community groups and individuals combining their limited resources to make accountability possible. “Our hope is to get the data between the margins,” said Alyssa Aguilera, co-executive director of VOCAL-NY. “We want to understand how prosecutors behave and not just the final outcomes of the case.”

For prosecutors that profess to care about accountability, providing public data themselves should be non-negotiable. Foxx undoubtedly deserves recognition, but in an ideal world, we’d have access to much more information than she has offered so far. Her office handles 400,000 misdemeanors a year, none of which are included in this data. And even among the cases included there are still important data points missing — there’s no information about bail and pre-trial release, nor is there even anonymized data about the prosecutors handling each case. “The bottom line is that prosecutors should always release all of the data they have,” says Siska. Otherwise, “it’s always missing something. It’s always telling their version of what’s going on.”

Complex, robust, disaggregated data that is anonymous but individualized, and allows us to see exactly how the office functions day after day, is a minimum. “For too long, the work of the criminal justice system has been largely a mystery,” Foxx stated Friday. “That lack of openness undermines the legitimacy of the criminal justice system.” She’s right, and as voters and residents, we must demand information about how our prosecutors operate. Kim Foxx has offered a starting point, and other prosecutors should surpass it. Without this data, we’re forced to address some of the criminal justice system’s most pernicious conundrums — racial injustice, mass incarceration, criminalization of the poor — without a roadmap.

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