NEW YORK — When questioned over a murder, Richard Rosario named 13 people he said could back an alibi 1,000 miles long. But he spent 20 years in prison before the conviction was overturned, freeing him – at least for now.
Rosario wiped at his face and smiled Wednesday as a judge threw out his conviction in a 1996 New York City shooting that happened while Rosario says he was in Florida. Both his lawyers and prosecutors now agree his then-attorneys didn’t do enough to track down Rosario’s alibi witnesses and enlist them in his defense.
“I’ve been in prison for 20 years for a crime I didn’t commit,” said Rosario, who had lost multiple appeals. “My family didn’t deserve this. I didn’t deserve this, and nor did the family of the victim.”
Rosario hasn’t been cleared: Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark agreed to recommend dismissing his conviction, but not the charges themselves, while she reinvestigates the killing of 17-year-old Jorge Collazo, also called George Collazo. Prosecutors could ultimately decide to retry Rosario or to drop the charges.
“A modicum of justice has occurred today,” said one of his lawyers, Glenn Garber of the Exoneration Initiatve. But “he’s not been fully vindicated, and we hope he will be soon.”
Rosario’s release came two months after Clark succeeded 27-year DA Robert Johnson and days ahead of a planned released of a “Dateline” digital series on NBCNews.com on the case. It adds to a roster of over 25 convictions from New York City’s high-crime 1980s and ’90s that prosecutors have disavowed in the last five years.
Rosario’s attorneys called his case an illustration of unreliable eyewitness testimony, bungled defense and the difficulty of fighting a guilty verdict.
Rosario, now 40, was arrested after two witnesses identified him from a police photo book as the man who’d shot George Collazo in the head after an exchange of words on a Bronx street on June 19, 1996. No forensic or physical evidence tied Rosario to the crime.
He said he’d been staying with friends in Deltona, Florida, and he listed over a dozen people he said had seen him there.
Police didn’t contact those people, according to Rosario’s current lawyers. And his own court-appointed attorneys at the time didn’t fully explore the alibi witnesses, either.
After phoning the witnesses proved difficult, his initial attorney, Joyce Hartsfield, got a judge’s OK to pay to send a private investigator to Florida but then never dispatched the investigator, according to a 2010 appeals court decision. Another lawyer, Steven Kaiser, took over before Rosario’s trial, mistakenly thought the court had nixed funding for the investigator’s Florida trip and didn’t pursue it further.
Kaiser said Wednesday that he was “absolutely thrilled” at Rosario’s release but declined to comment further. Hartsfield didn’t immediately respond to phone and email messages.
Efforts to reach Collazo’s relatives weren’t immediately successful.
The couple who said they’d hosted Rosario testified at his trial and said they had good reason to remember his presence and other details from the day of Collazo’s killing: Their first child was born the next day. But the trial prosecutor urged jurors to discount them because of their friendship with Rosario.
During Rosario’s appeal, a judge said additional alibi witnesses wouldn’t have added significantly to his defense. Rosario’s lawyers argue otherwise, noting that some of the witnesses weren’t close with Rosario and so might have been more difficult to discredit. Several of them did ultimately participate in the case, testifying at an appellate hearing in 2004.
For now, Rosario headed home Wednesday with his wife and their two children, both born before he was arrested. He declined to talk about his case as he left court.
Instead, he called for freeing other people who are fighting their own convictions.