After midnight on June 27, 1990, Felix Ayala was fatally shot on a street in the Bronx, New York. One month later, Frances Rosario, who claimed to have witnessed the shooting, identified 20-year-old Milton Lantigua as police were driving her around looking for the suspects.
At Lantingua’s murder trial in Bronx County Supreme Court, Rosario testified that she had been alone at the time of the shooting. She said that she saw the shooting from the window of her brother's apartment. She said that Ayala was shot by two men and that Lantigua was one of them.
Defense witnesses, including Rosario’s family members, gave testimony that contradicted her account of the shooting.
Lantigua’s first trial ended in a hung jury. Prior to the second trial, prosecutors offered Lantigua a deal—plead guilty to a weapons charge and be released with credit for time served. Lantigua rejected the offer because he said he was innocent.
After Lantigua’s second trial in August 1993, at which no additional evidence was presented, a jury convicted him of second-degree murder. Before Lantigua was sentenced, he obtained a new lawyer who interviewed Rosario and she recanted her testimony. At a hearing, Rosario again recanted. A prosecutor revealed that Rosario had told the prosecution prior to the second trial that she had in fact been with a man, identified only as Jo-Jo, on the night of shooting. That man had returned to the Dominican Republic some time after the murder.
The trial judge said the recantation was not credible and sentenced Lantigua to 20-years-to-life in prison.
In June 1996, Lantingua's conviction was reversed by an appeals court that found Rosario's testimony "confusing, inarticulate, vague, frequently inaudible and extremely hesitant." The Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court ruled that Lantigua had been denied a fair trial because of "especially egregious" conduct by prosecutors.
The court said the prosecution's failure to disclose the existence of the potential new witness (Jo-Jo) had denied the defense the opportunity to investigate what that witness might have observed, or to meaningfully cross-examine Ms. Rosario on "her whereabouts, her view of the unfolding events, any distractions caused by the presence of another person, and her general credibility."
The ruling was critical of the failure of the trial prosecutor, Sophia Yozawitz, to correct Rosario's testimony that she had been alone during the shooting. "The prosecutor permitted the statement to remain on the record without informing the court that it was perjured," the court said. The appeals court also found that Yozawitz had distorted evidence during her summation to the jury, which also warranted reversal.
After Lantigua’s conviction was vacated, prosecutors dismissed the case.
In 2005, Lantigua settled a wrongful conviction lawsuit against the City of New York for $1 million. The New York Court of Claims awarded him an additional $300,000.
– Maurice Possley