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Pennsylvania Democratic Attorney General Shuts Down Bids for Freedom

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro
Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images

Pennsylvania Democratic Attorney General Shuts Down Bids for Freedom


Pennsylvania’s Democratic Attorney General Josh Shapiro may be eyeing a run at the governor’s office in 2022, yet his law-and-order voting record on the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons suggests that he is playing to Democratic primary voters of a bygone tough-on-crime era.

Last November, Philadelphians elected Larry Krasner, an outspoken civil rights lawyer who pledged to fight mass incarceration, as district attorney. By contrast, Shapiro is using the power of his office to ensure that some of the lifers most deserving of release — including at least one who has demonstrated that he has been deeply rehabilitated—die in prison.

On December 14, Shapiro denied William “Smitty” Smith, an elderly prisoner from Philadelphia who was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment for his role in a 1968 murder, one of his last shots at freedom. In Pennsylvania, lifers are not eligible for parole. As of 2016, Pennsylvania recorded the highest number of prisoners serving life without parole sentences — 5,398 — of any state excluding Florida, according to The Sentencing Project. That’s roughly the same size as the total Pennsylvania prison population in 1968, when the crime was committed. Smith was an accomplice to the crime, has expressed remorse, and the victim’s son has told reporters he is okay with the state offering Smith a second chance. Shapiro dissented from his three colleagues on the Board of Pardons by casting the sole “no” vote on Smith’s application to have that sentence commuted.

Joe Grace, Shapiro’s communications director, told The Appeal that Shapiro would not explain specific votes but that he “examines each commutation application based on the facts and circumstances of each case and the applicant’s desire to atone for his or her crimes … while always standing up for crime victims and every Pennsylvanian’s right to public safety.” When challenged that his vague statement would be an abdication of Shapiro’s responsibility to clearly explain his decisions on the Board of Pardons to the public, he warned, “[b]e careful what you write.” Grace later apologized and said he had not meant the comment as a threat.

Today, Smith is a 76-year-old hobbled by a stroke. In most every sense, he is a different man than the 26-year-old who rushed into a Southwest Philadelphia check-cashing store in 1968 alongside his accomplice William Barksdale, who shot and killed the owner, Charles Ticktin. Smith is a model of rehabilitation who has thrived in prison; his many accomplishments include playing guitar for Power of Attorney, a funky and soulful prison rock band that released an album on Polydor.

 


Ending mass incarceration will require much more than embracing the non-threatening aspects of criminal justice reform, like reducing sentences for non-violent offenders.

It must include a new approach to violent offenders, who make up roughly half of the state prison population nationwide. As a candidate for Pennsylvania attorney general, Shapiro declared that “the time is now to advance real criminal justice reform.” But a vision of reform that includes condemning Smith to die in prison rings hollow to many observers, given that the tools are available to shorten his imprisonment.

For years, the commutation of life sentences was a commonly used tool to reduce a life sentence in Pennsylvania. Milton Shapp, who was the Democratic governor from 1971–79, commuted 251 sentences. As the war on crime ratcheted up, however, the number of commutations plummeted. Republican Dick Thornburgh, in office from 1979–87 and later picked as President Reagan’s attorney general, commuted just seven. His Democratic successor, Bob Casey, commuted 27. And commutations all but disappeared after 1994, when Governor Casey commuted the life sentence of Reginald McFadden, who went on to kill two and brutally rape another shortly thereafter.

“You met him, and you look into his eyes, you knew that he was deranged,” Tyrone Werts, one of just five lifers to have their sentence commuted under Governor Ed Rendell, said of McFadden when I was reporting my 2014 profile of Smith. “The system saw fit to let him go. But if they would have came around to different prisons [and] said, ‘What do you think about McFadden? You think that he’s a good candidate for commutation?’ ‘Hell no, [don’t] let that crazy motherfucker out.’”

Why, during a law and order era, was such a seemingly horrible candidate for a commutation one of the few to be released? The one person who voted “no,” then Pennsylvania Attorney General Ernie Preate, told me that McFadden was released in part because of his cooperation with correctional authorities during a 1989 uprising at the State Correctional Institute at Camp Hill. Back then, approving a recommendation of commutation to the governor required just a majority vote. That would soon change.

McFadden’s atrocities humiliated then Lt. Governor Mark Singel, who ran in 1994 to succeed Casey as governor and voted “yes” on his commutation application. Republican Tom Ridge beat Singel, running on a tough-on-crime campaign pitched to the maximally punitive political environment of the mid-1990s. George W. Bush later appointed Ridge to be his Department of Homeland Security secretary, calling him “a man of compassion who has seen what evil can do.”

After taking the governor’s office, Ridge launched a special session on crime, and legislators sent voters a successful referendum on commutations: from there on out, the Board of Pardons seat once claimed by a lawyer would go to a victim’s representative instead; more importantly, a commutation recommendation to the governor for those sentenced to life in prison would require a unanimous, and not majority, vote.

In 1992, Smith received just that: a unanimous recommendation that his sentence be commuted. But Governor Casey never signed off. Smith believes that his application was sitting on the governor’s desk as McFadden’s murders dominated the headlines. He continued to apply but was repeatedly rejected, including when Republican Lt. Governor Jim Cawley cast the sole “no” vote to deny his 2008 application. Lt. Governor Singel’s experience with McFadden had become a defining one for Pennsylvania politics, one that shut the prison gates for most lifers.

More recently, it seemed like Smith’s best shot was for Republican Governor Tom Corbett to be voted out of office, and that Cawley would likewise be replaced by a Democrat. That happened after Democrat Tom Wolf knocked Corbett out of office in 2014, and Mike Stack took the lieutenant governor’s seat on the board.

But in December, Shapiro cast a “no” vote.

“We all assumed it was just going to be so easy for Smitty this time with this current administration,” Kathleen Brown, a retired professor of nursing at the University of Pennsylvania and a leading advocate for sentence commutations, told In Justice Today. “So we were very surprised when he said ‘no.’”

In 2016, Brown visited Smith while he was recovering from his stroke at the Laurel Highlands state prison, a medical facility. Surrounded by elderly inmates who were sick and dying, Smith was losing hope. But convinced that he had a good shot at a commutation with Democratic Governor Wolf in office, he fought his way back to wellness.

“I’m just scared that this disappointment is so huge that it will turn his rehabilitation around,” Brown said. “He really worked hard. Now this.”

Indeed, Smith’s son, William Harris, says that his health declined after the hearing and that he couldn’t locate his father within the system for weeks.

Harris, who testified alongside his uncle at the hearing, was stunned by the Shapiro’s no vote. “You just question why the other three said ‘yes,’” he said, “…and one person said ‘no.’ It leaves you empty trying to figure that part out.”

Now, Harris, like Brown, worries that Smith will lose the hope that has kept him alive, and die in prison. He was just a little over a year old when his father was arrested.

But it’s not just Smith who received a “no” vote from Shapiro.

The same night he condemned Smith to a possible death behind bars, he also cast the sole “no” vote to deny commutation to a man named Edward Printup. WGAL, a Pennsylvania NBC affiliate, recently aired a three-part series on his case. Printup, now 57, says that he killed his abusive stepfather in 1980 at age 19 to ward off “another one of his famous beatings.”

“He would just beat my brother literally until he bled down the back of his legs,” his sister, Michele Printup, told WGAL.

“When he shot our stepfather, the abuse stopped.”

In a statement, Lt. Governor Stack called the “no” votes “a stunning disappointment that left me, and many other advocates for criminal justice reform, wondering whether we had lost the momentum toward change and were heading backward.”

“It’s a bad, bad story about a kid who’s undereducated, who’s physically abused,” said Brown. “I believe him when he says the intention was not to kill him. The intention was to scare him off because he knows what’s coming. He shoots him. He dies … no intent, just scared.”

Shapiro’s votes on Printup and Smith suggest that the path out of prison for Pennsylvania lifers remains narrow.

There is, however, another sign of hope. Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner recently hired Patricia Cummings, a Texas attorney with a track record of freeing the wrongfully convicted, to overhaul his office’s conviction integrity unit. Recently, Cummings told The Philadelphia Inquirer that “conviction integrity also encompasses fair sentencing” — what observers say would likely be an unprecedented move to ease the harshness of the American criminal justice system. But that might be too late for Smith. His best shot is an upcoming vote at the Board of Pardons to reconsider their decision.

“I hear he has some political aspirations,” Brown said of Shapiro. “I guess I don’t understand enough politics to know how that helps.”

Shapiro seems to believe that combining attacks on Trump — as attorney general, he has signed on to lawsuits targeting the Trump administration — with a conventional tough-on-crime record might shore up the party’s liberal base while appealing to more conservative voters outside the big cities. Lt. Governor Singel’s vote on McFadden, after all, still casts a long, Willie Horton-like shadow over criminal justice politics in Pennsylvania. The possibility that a “yes” vote gone wrong might destroy a political career continues to outweigh the suffering of prisoners who, by every conventional measure, deserve their freedom.

A National Push For Victims’ Rights is Now Hitting Florida. But Critics Are Fighting Back.

Kelsey Grammer appears in an ad supporting Marsy’s Law.
Youtube / Marsy's Law For All

A National Push For Victims’ Rights is Now Hitting Florida. But Critics Are Fighting Back.


Voters in Florida may soon get to decide whether to give victims of crime a bigger say in the criminal justice system.

A proposed amendment to the state constitution known as Marsy’s Law for Florida would enshrine specific rights for crime victims, such as the right to privacy and the “right to be reasonably protected from the accused.” It would also give victims legal standing to testify during hearings to determine a defendant’s bail, sentencing, plea deals and parole.

“The pain a victim suffers in the aftermath of a crime is hard enough without being revictimized by the criminal justice system,” said Senator Lauren Book of Broward County, herself a victim of sexual abuse as a child and now an advocate for Marsy’s Law for Florida. “Marsy’s Law will give each victim the promise of having their voice heard.”

On February 20, Senator Book and Pasco County, Florida Sheriff Chris Nocco introduced the amendment, which would add victims’ rights language to Florida’s constitution. According to the campaign, it would create“enforceable constitutional protections, the same level that is afforded to those accused and convicted, nothing more and nothing less.” If the Florida Constitution Revision Commission approves the amendment, it will be placed on the 2018 general election ballot, where it requires 60 percent approval by voters to be added to the state constitution.

But Florida isn’t the only place considering or implementing these reforms. They’re part of a national campaign led by Henry T. Nicholas, the brother of University of California Santa Barbara student Marsalee “Marsy” Nicholas, who was murdered by an ex-boyfriend in 1983.

Thus far, the amendments have been enacted in Illinois, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Ohio. This year, efforts to pass Marsy’s Law are underway in Kentucky, Florida, Georgia, Nevada, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Idaho, Oklahoma, Maine, New Hampshire, and Iowa, according to the campaign’s national website.

Nicholas, who later earned billions as founder of the tech company Broadcom, started his crusade after his mother saw Marsy’s accused killer at a grocery store a week after her death. She didn’t know he had been bailed out of jail. Determined to protect other victims and their families, he led a successful effort in 2008 to add a victim’s bill of rights to the California constitution. The next year, he formed and funded Marsy’s Law for All to pursue similar amendments in states across the country. He hopes one day to amend the U.S. Constitution as well.

“If any good can come of something this horrible–the loss of my sister and the losses of other families of crime victims,” he said, “it is that these violent acts served as a catalyst for change.”

But in places where that change has come, critics say it’s done more harm than good. Not only has it failed to accomplish its stated goals, they say, but it’s trampled on the rights of people accused of crimes.

The Debate in Florida

Florida’s constitution already gives victims of crime the “right to be informed, to be present, and to be heard when relevant, at all crucial stages of criminal proceedings, to the extent that these rights do not interfere with the constitutional rights of the accused.”

But Marsy’s Law for Florida would expand the definition of “victim” to include anyone who “suffers direct or threatened physical, psychological, or financial harm as a result of the commission or attempted commission of a crime or delinquent act or against whom a crime or delinquent act is committed.” And it would remove language subordinating victims’ rights to the constitutional rights of people accused of crimes.

It would allow victims to refuse to be questioned under oath by defense attorneys outside of the courtroom, which, Marsy’s Law supporters argue causes victims additional trauma.

Marsy’s Law for Florida would also limit the time that defendants have to appeal their cases, requiring that “[a]ll state-level appeals and collateral attacks on any judgment must be complete within 2 years from the date of appeal in non-capital cases and 5 years in capital cases.”

Critics say these changes and others would tip the scales of justice too far in favor of victims.

In a state with the most death row exonerations in the nation, for instance, Marsy’s Law would prevent defense attorneys from interviewing victims privately about eyewitness identification, a notoriously unreliable form of testimony that has contributed to roughly 70 percent of convictions later overturned by DNA nationwide.

“Preventing defense attorneys from questioning the most unreliable testimony against a client only weakens our justice system,” wrote Howard Finkelstein, chief public defender of Broward County, in a recent opinion piece.

Opponents of the law say allowing victims to refuse defense questioning also conflicts with the right of people accused of crimes to confront the witnesses against them, and to obtain witnesses and other evidence in their favor, which are both guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. When the rights of the accused conflict with the rights of the victim, Marsy’s Law provides no guidance to the court on how to proceed.

“Allowing victims to refuse to give sworn statements to defense attorneys will increase the likelihood of wrongful convictions and burden our already overburdened courts with more trials,” said Finkelstein.

Legal Ammunition

In places that have enacted Marsy’s Law, public defenders say their clients are suffering.

In South Dakota, where Marsy’s Law was passed in 2016, Minnehaha County public defender Traci Smith lamented last year that the victims’ rights created by Marsy’s Law were “usurping” the constitutional rights of her clients. In addition to causing people accused of crimes to spend unnecessary time in jail by delaying hearings, Smith said, Marsy’s Law has interfered with her duty to reach out to victims on her clients’ behalf.

Indeed, one of Smith’s paralegals received a cease and desist letter from the state attorney general’s office after she left two voicemails for the victim in a bad check case. Critics say providing prosecutors with legal ammunition to hinder defense investigations could be catastrophic in an environment where paralegals with public defender offices have already found themselves harassed and even prosecuted by DAs.

Beyond threatening the constitutional rights of the accused, opponents say, Marsy’s Law fails to achieve its own stated goals. While it claims to protect victims from the “trauma” of legal questioning, for example, victims will still be cross-examined in court by defense attorneys. The law also doesn’t address the potential trauma inflicted on victims by police and prosecutors, who can question victims as they see fit.

And while one of the law’s objectives is to ensure a speedy trial for the victim, the law’s requirements of victim input on plea deals, bond decisions, and sentencing will only slow down criminal proceedings.

“I think Marsy’s Law is judgmental overkill,” retired Santa Clara County, California public defender Roderick O’Connor told The Appealnoting that even its language seems to vilify the accused. When Marsy’s Law was approved by California voters in 2008, O’Connor says, it was “pitched as a way to elevate crime victims over offenders, but as applied it was clearly intended to truncate the rights of inmates to achieve parole and those accused of crimes to investigate their cases and pursue defenses.”

In juvenile cases, allowing victims to be present and heard in all proceedings could result in a “severe erosion of the confidentiality needed for the juvenile system to function,” wrote Anna Elbroch, a New Hampshire attorney who represents young people accused of crimes, in a recent op-ed. Giving victims the right to participate in every stage of the criminal process could also “serve to pressure prosecutors to pursue a more punitive approach, rather than the treatment and rehabilitation approach on which the juvenile justice system is based,” she said.

In North Dakota, where voters approved the amendment in 2016, the law’s ambiguous language has caused it to be unevenly applied from county to county. And uncertainty over its requirements has made it easier for public officials to hide information from the public; one Bismarck police officerinvolved in a shooting invoked Marsy’s Law because he’d first been beaten by the victim.

Other critics have called Marsy’s Law a costly unfunded mandate that has strained county budgets. Pennington County, South Dakota State’s Attorney Mark Vargo said Marsy’s Law forced him to hire four new employees to notify victims of their new rights and the status of their cases, costing his county of about 100,000 residents $161,000.

Testifying against Marsy’s Law in 2017, Ohio Public Defender Tim Young told legislators that the law “does not provide additional resources and the government remains immune to liability.”

The campaign did not respond to calls and emails from The Appeal. But supporters of Marsy’s Law argue that such complaints are exaggerated and that supporting crime victims justifies any increased workload.

“This is about balancing the rights between defendant and victim — and having a system that offers equality as a right, not a courtesy,” said Amanda Grady Sexton, state director of Marsy’s Law for New Hampshire. “No system is 100 percent perfect, but the rules of enforceability for a violation of a constitutional right [are] clear.”

“Going Up Against a Billionaire”

Despite their drawbacks, victims’ rights measures are popular with voters. Polls conducted in 2016 in MontanaNorth Dakota, and South Dakota before the amendments passed found at least 70 percent of respondents favored them. The Montana ballot measure passed in 2016 with 66 percent of the vote. The North Dakota and South Dakota ballot measures were approved the same year by 62 percent and 60 percent of voters, respectively. In Ohio, where state Attorney General Mike DeWine co-chaired the campaign, Marsy’s Law was approved by a 4–1 margin in 2017.

Florida could soon follow suit. An October 2017 survey found that 85 percent of 700 likely Florida voters agreed with the idea of Marsy’s Law protections.

“It really doesn’t surprise me that it’s polling well,” Caitlin Borgmann, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana, which opposed Marsy’s Law, told Governing magazine. “It’s difficult to take a position against it because it sounds like you’re opposing victims.”

Indeed, the Marsy’s Law campaign has often exploited the sympathy that many people feel for victims. Responding to a blog post critical of Marsy’s Law for North Dakota, the campaign’s chairwoman, Kathleen Wrigley, wrote: “I ask these opponents to look into the eyes of the Perleberg family, whose son and brother [were] murdered at a wedding reception, or tell Mrs. Melby, whose daughter was raped and sexually assaulted in Minot, that the hurdles they’ve had in the system are no big deal. Or, try to convince the four-year-old child pornography victim’s parents that their child isn’t part of the system.”

In each state, the Marsy’s Law campaign has enlisted top political consultants and lobbyists, secured big political endorsements, and run a slick public relations campaign. Nicholas has spent more than $20 million on these efforts, including an advertisement featuring Frasier star Kelsey Grammer.

During the 2016 campaign, Ryan Kolbeck, president of the South Dakota Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers said he was outmatched by the emotionally appealing and well-funded victims’ rights campaign. “We did our best to educate the public, but we had a Facebook page and $5,000,” Kolbeck said. “We are going up against a billionaire.”

The Road Ahead

One of the reasons the Marsy’s Law campaign has focused on constitutional amendments is that, once enacted, a constitutional amendment is harder to change than a statute, which lawmakers regularly amend or repeal as needed.

Yet despite the expense and effort, lawmakers and courts have already begun to modify Marsy’s Laws.

In 2014, a federal judge ruled that a portion of California’s Marsy’s Law was unconstitutional, overturning a provision that lengthened the minimum time between parole hearings from one year to three years, though the ruling was later reversed. In Montana, the State Supreme Court recently ruled it unconstitutional and “void in its entirety.”

In South Dakota, lawmakers are now working to amend the amendment, citing unintended consequences like high costs to counties.

Even some victims there are now fighting against Marsy’s Law. Lynne Forbush told lawmakers that after her husband was killed by a 16-year-old in a car crash, the driver’s mother invoked Marsy’s Law, which restricted the release of vehicle crash reports. Forbush had to retain an attorney to obtain an accident report in order to begin her insurance claim. The state was of little help to Forbush; she said she was told that Marsy’s Law was so poorly conceived that even state employees could not navigate it.

“It seemed like a hot potato that no one wanted to touch,” she said. “Marsy’s Law added to our emotional pain, added to the financial burden, and prolonged the agony unnecessarily.

More in Explainers

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.”

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