At about 10:15 p.m. on July 23, 2003, 38-year-old Kantari Barangi was shot twice and gravely wounded following a dispute with a man outside of a McDonald’s restaurant on East 167th Street in the Bronx, New York.
Police arrived and issued a radio bulletin for a black male suspect wearing a white t-shirt and blue jeans. One block from the shooting, police took 20-year-old Darren Felix into custody because he fit the description of the gunman.
Felix was taken to the hospital where Barangi was being treated because police feared Barangi was going to die. Barangi looked at Felix from a hospital bed and identified him as the gunman. No weapon was recovered.
Felix told police he was not involved in the shooting and that the gunman was a neighborhood resident he knew as “Justo.” He was arrested and charged with attempted murder, assault and illegal use of a firearm.
One week after the shooting, 15-year-old Sara Torres, who was working at the counter of the McDonald’s, told police that the gunman was a regular customer who usually ordered an iced tea and often flirted with her, but she did not know his name.
Torres was shown a photographic array which included Felix’s photograph. She told a detective that Felix resembled the gunman. When the detective asked her if she was sure, Torres said that she was sure, prompting the detective to tell her she had picked the man who had been arrested for the shooting.
Although the detective was required by department rules to record the witness’s statement, he failed to do so and never informed the prosecution that Torres at first had only said Felix “looked like” the gunman.
Felix went to trial in Bronx Superior Court in November 2004. The victim identified Felix as the gunman.
When Torres got on the witness stand and the prosecutor asked her if she saw the gunman in the courtroom, Torres said she did not. The prosecutor then was granted a recess to speak privately with Torres. When Torres returned to the witness stand, she testified that she could no longer remember what the gunman looked like.
The prosecutor then was allowed to introduce into evidence Torres’ identification of Felix from the photographic array conducted by the detective.
On December 9, 2004, the jury convicted Felix and he was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
Legal Aid Society lawyer Elizabeth Felber, who had been assisting in the trial, continued to investigate the case after Felix went to prison. She and an investigator were able to identify “Justo” as Justo Hechavarria and located him in prison in Pennsylvania. With a photograph, they were able to track down a man who had lived with Hechavarria for about six months after the shooting.
The man told the investigator that Hechavarria had admitted on several occasions that he shot Barangi and that he fled New York the day after the shooting. The photograph of Hechavarria showed that Hechavarria and Felix are remarkably similar in appearance.
Torres was interviewed and said that on the day she came to court to testify, she was standing in the hallway when Felix was being led into the courtroom. Torres said she realized that Felix was not the gunman and immediately told the prosecutor.
Torres said she began to weep when the prosecutor insisted that she was mistaken and assured her that some defendants change their appearance to confuse witnesses in court.
In 2009, Felber turned over the new evidence to the Bronx County District Attorney’s Office, which conducted its own investigation of the case.
In addition to confirming that Hechavarria had admitted he shot Barangi, the prosecution convinced another witness, a woman who had never been interviewed by police, to speak about the shooting. Although the woman refused to speak to Felber, she agreed to speak to the prosecutors and said she was present when Hechavarria, whom she knew, began quarreling with Barangi, who was a stranger.
The woman said that Hechavarria and Barangi argued inside the McDonald’s and continued arguing on the street until Barangi retrieved a piece of pipe from his vehicle and chased Hechavarria away. The woman said that Hechavarria returned minutes later with a gun and shot Barangi.
The woman’s presence and vantage point were corroborated by the security videotape.
The woman also confirmed that Felix, who was a boyfriend of Hechavarria’s cousin, was about a half block away from the shooting at the time it occurred.
On May 7, 2010, the Bronx County District Attorney’s Office and Felber appeared before Judge Denis Boyle where the prosecution agreed that the conviction be vacated and the case dismissed.
In May 2013, Felix filed a $28 million wrongful conviction lawsuit against the City of New York. Hechavarria could not be prosecuted for the shooting because the five-year statute of limitations had expired.
– Maurice Possley