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Renee Melendez

Other Bronx Exonerations
In June 2011, Rene Melendez, a resident of Bronx County, New York, reported to the U.S. Treasury Department that he had filed a federal income tax return for 2010 claiming a refund of $7,614, but he had not received the refund check.

The U.S. Secret Service investigated the claim and determined the check had been cashed on May 2, 2011 at The Check Cashing Place at 544 E. Fordham Road in the Bronx. Records at the business – a national chain of stores that makes payday loans, cashes checks and performs other financial services – showed that the company listed the person who cashed the check as 29-year-old Renee Melendez, a woman who lived in the Bronx.

The records showed that in 2002, Renee Melendez created a customer profile, which is required for cashing checks at any of the company’s locations. The records showed that Renee Melendez had cashed checks from 2002 until 2005 at the company’s location on 167th Street in the Bronx, about three miles away from the location where the income tax refund check was cashed. No checks were attributed Renee’s account from 2005 until Rene Melendez’s 2010 tax refund check was cashed on May 2, 2011.

Secret Service agents interviewed Renee Melendez in April 2012. She said she had opened the customer profile in 2002, but she denied stealing or cashing the tax refund check. The Secret Service referred the case to the Bronx County District Attorney’s Office and in September 2012, Renee Melendez was arrested and charged with grand larceny and possession of stolen property. The prosecution’s theory was that somehow, Renee Melendez, a woman, obtained the refund check due to Rene Melendez, a man, and was able to cash it because her name was similar to the payee on the check.

In July 2014, an investigator for the Bronx Defender’s Office whose attorneys were representing Renee, obtained records from The Checking Cashing Place, including a screenshot of the computer entry of the May 2, 2011 transaction. Company records showed that no photograph was taken of the person who cashed the check nor was any copy made of identification shown by the person who cashed the check.

That same month, the prosecution provided a witness list for the upcoming trial. The teller who was involved in the transaction in question was not listed as a witness. The prosecution listed Michael Hoffer, a regional manager of the check cashing business, as a prospective witness. The defense investigator attempted to interview Hoffer prior to trial, but he said he had provided all relevant information to the prosecution and declined to cooperate.

Renee went to trial in Bronx County Supreme Court in July 2014. The prosecution called Rene Melendez, who had triggered the investigation by reporting that his refund check never arrived, as well as his son and the two employees who prepared Melendez’s 2010 tax return, to establish that the tax return had been filed and that the refund due was $7, 614.

The prosecution also called Secret Service Agent Charles Ross, who testified that Renee had identified herself as the person who originally opened the profile in her name in 2002. But Ross admitted he had done no further investigation and that he never spoke to the teller who handled the cashing of the check. The trial judge sustained prosecution objections to defense questions on cross-examination about whether Ross ever sought to determine whether the teller involved in the transaction had a “clean work history” or had ever been disciplined for failing to follow the company’s policies and procedures.

Hoffer, the regional manager for the business, testified that he managed 10 different locations of the business, including the one where the check was cashed. He identified Renee’s customer profile and also testified that all of the tellers did “a pretty good job.” He testified that based on his review of the records, the teller who handled the transaction had cashed the $7,614 check for the defendant.

The trial judge sustained prosecution objections to defense attempts to elicit testimony from Hoffer about whether any tellers had ever been dismissed from the company for dishonesty or stealing.

The prosecution told the jury in closing argument that the evidence showed that the correct policies and procedures were followed in the cashing of the tax refund check. Referring to Hoffer, the prosecutor said, “You heard him say that if someone didn’t follow the policy, they wouldn’t work for The Check Cashing Place store anymore.”

The defense argued to the jury that the prosecution had failed to establish that Renee Melendez had endorsed and cashed the check. The defense was particularly critical of the prosecution for failing to call the teller involved in the transaction. Perhaps, the defense suggested to the jury, the teller had a history of involvement in the cashing of fraudulent checks.

On July 29, 2014, the prosecution and defense lawyers and judge had a discussion about jury instructions. The defense requested an instruction relating to the prosecution’s failure to call the teller as a witness. The prosecution told the trial judge that the teller, who was identified by the initials MBM, was not available because she was no longer with the company.

The defense did not call any witnesses. The jury was only asked to reach a verdict on the charge of grand larceny—the prosecution dismissed the possession of stolen property charge. On August 4, the jury convicted Renee Melendez of grand larceny. She remained free on bond, pending sentencing.

A week later, the defense subpoenaed records from the check cashing business relating to the teller involved in the transaction. In response, the defense was given the personnel file of Marina Melvin, the teller who cashed the income tax refund check.

The file revealed that Melvin was fired on May 16, 2011—two weeks after the check was cashed for “FRAUD—Accepted bribes to cash stolen/counterfeit (U.S. Treasury) checks.”

The file showed that the company had computer-generated a “check information report” on all checks larger than $5,000 cashed by Melvin. The subsequent list included 21 U.S. Treasury checks totaling $143,535, all of which were cashed between February 2011 and May 2011.

The file included several printouts of customer profiles similar to that of Renee’s. Cross-referencing the profiles showed that some of the U.S. Treasury checks were cashed by Melvin and attributed to profiles with names similar to—but not exactly the same as—the names on the checks. In one instance, Melvin had cashed a check made out to Mercedez Hernandez Perez and attributed it to the profile of Mercedes Hernandez.

The defense investigated further and discovered that another teller, Daphne Rodriguez, also was implicated in the illegal cashing of checks. Rodriguez had cooperated with company investigators and admitted accepting bribes to cash stolen checks. Rodriguez, who also was fired, told company investigators that Melvin also was taking bribes to cash stolen checks.

In September 2014, Renee's attorneys, Katherine Murdock and Michael Bloch, provided the information relating to Melvin’s firing and taking of bribes to cash stolen checks to the prosecution and on October 2, 2014, filed a motion to vacate Renee's conviction.

The prosecution agreed that the motion should be granted “in the interest of justice” and contended that the information about Melvin had never been disclosed to the prosecution as well. The conviction was vacated on November 19, 2014 and the prosecution dismissed the charge on November 25, 2014.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 12/31/2014
State:New York
County:Bronx
Most Serious Crime:Theft
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2011
Convicted:2014
Exonerated:2014
Sentence:Not sentenced
Race:Hispanic
Sex:Female
Age at the date of crime:29
Contributing Factors:
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No