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Felipe Rodriguez

Other Queens County, New York exonerations
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At about 9 a.m. on November 26, 1987—Thanksgiving Day—the body of 35-year-old Maureen “Nina” Fernandez was found in a deserted lot near Long Island Railroad tracks behind a wholesale food warehouse in Queens, New York. She had been stabbed 35 times and her clothes were partially removed.

Police determined that Fernandez spent the earlier part of the previous evening in the pediatric ward at Wyckoff Hospital, visiting her two-year-old daughter, who was a patient there. Late that evening, she went to a bar on Gates Avenue known variously as Little Liva, Live a Little, and La Fiesta. Witnesses who knew her said she was accompanied by an unidentified man whom she seemed to know. Another customer at the bar, Robert Thompson, told police that he tried to sell them a watch. Thompson and other witnesses would later describe the man she was with as “white,” “Italian” or “Hispanic,” clean-shaven or clean cut, stocky—weighing between 175 and 200 pounds—and about 5 feet 8 inches tall.

Thompson, who was intoxicated on both drugs and alcohol that night, described the man as having reddish-brown hair. He allegedly claimed he saw writing on the knuckles of the man’s left hand, suggesting the man was right-handed. The initial police investigation focused on a search for a man who may have owned or driven a black Monte Carlo, which Thompson and another witness noticed was parked outside the bar that night.

Six months later, the crime was still unsolved when police shifted their investigation. At the time the body was discovered, Peter Soloney, the warehouse night watchman, told police he saw a white car leave the area around 4 a.m., containing only a male driver. Soloney, who admitted he didn’t know much about cars, offered that it may have been a Cadillac of 1980s vintage.

The pediatric ward at Wyckoff Hospital was rumored to be a place where male staff and visitors tried to pick up mothers of young patients. Detectives therefore began looking at the staff. Eventually, police determined that hospital security guard Javier Ramos had owned a white Oldsmobile and had worked from 4 p.m. until midnight at the hospital on the night Fernandez was last seen. They learned that Ramos had thereafter sold the car to another employee, Pedro Sierra, in February or March of 1988.

In August 1988, police took Soloney to the location where Sierra’s car was parked. Police claimed Soloney was driven around the block three times before he tentatively identified the car as the vehicle he saw leaving the darkened warehouse area eight months earlier. He said the color of the car differed from the one he saw, because the roof had been painted red. According to detectives, Soloney said that if the roof were white, it “probably” was the car he saw in November 1987.

On September 9, 1988, homicide Detective John Beisel questioned Ramos for several hours. Beisel would later admit in court that he treated Ramos “very bad,” yelling at him and calling him names, and attempting to put him in “verbal fear” so that he would “tell the truth.” The interrogation ended when Ramos signed a statement implicating a friend and fellow security guard at the hospital, Richard Pereira, as Fernandez’s killer.

In the statement, Ramos said that “around Thanksgiving” in 1987, he was working a hospital shift and agreed to loan his car to Pereira, who was off duty. Pereira promised to have it back before midnight, but did not. According to police, Ramos said that when Pereira returned the car the next morning, he “seemed to be under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol.” According to the statement, Pereira told Ramos that “he had gotten into an argument with a low-life bitch that he had met at the hospital.”

Ramos’s statement also said that when he checked his car after Pereira left, he noticed a “red liquid substance” all over the front passenger seat, floor, door, armrest, window, and floor mat. He said he drove the car to his grandfather’s house and together, they drove to a nearby gas station. There, they used some carpet cleaner to clean and vacuum out the car, although they were unable to remove all of the red stains.

Pereira was arrested and put in a live lineup. La Fiesta bartender Castillo and a bar patron named William Perry viewed the lineup, but did not select Pereira. Grace Ceznaukus, the bartender at another tavern the victim had been to earlier on the night she was last seen alive, also did not select Pereira. He was rejected as a suspect and released.

On September 10, 1988, the white Oldsmobile formerly owned by Ramos was impounded, and seat cuttings were submitted for serology and DNA testing. No interpretable results were obtained—not even presumptive-positive results for blood.

Two weeks later, on September 25, 1988, police asked 23-year-old Felipe Rodriguez, who was a friend of Ramos, to come in for a voluntary interview with Detective Beisel. Rodriguez said he had on several occasions borrowed Ramos’s car and sometimes visited Ramos while he was working at the hospital. Rodriguez also mentioned that he worked part-time as an auxiliary police officer. After the interview, Rodriguez went home.

On March 27, 1989, Ramos was again taken into custody. This time, he was released after he signed a new affidavit claiming that he “wanted to put an end to this and just tell the truth.” In this account, he said it was Rodriguez—not Pereira—who borrowed his car on November 25, 1987. Ramos added a few additional inflammatory details. Now, he also quoted Rodriguez as saying he “had to stab her to show that she was dealing with a man, not some boy.”

According to the police report of Ramos’s statement, he “did not tell the complete truth about what had happened because I didn’t want to tell on Felipe,” and that he falsely named Pereira because he “was the only other person I ever loaned [the car] to” at the time. Ramos allegedly insisted that “what I did say in my other statement was true if you substitute Felipe” for Pereira. This statement also differed in that Ramos now said he cleaned the car himself and not with the help of his grandfather.

Later that day, police arrested Rodriguez and placed him in a lineup. La Fiesta bartender Castillo as well as bar customer William Perry and bartender Ceznaukas did not identify Rodriguez. Only one witness, Thompson, selected Rodriguez, although his initial description from nearly a year earlier was of a clean-shaven man of Italian descent, about 5 feet 8 inches tall with reddish-brown hair. Rodriguez had a large moustache, jet-black hair, and was 5 feet 11 inches tall.

Based on the second Ramos statement and Thompson’s lineup identification, Rodriguez was indicted for the murder. After he took a police-administered polygraph examination and his denials of involvement in the crime showed no deception, Rodriguez was released on bail pending trial.

In April 1990, Rodriguez went to trial in Queens County Supreme Court.

Ramos testified and repeated his allegations about the condition of the car and Rodriguez’s alleged statements the morning he returned the car. Ramos claimed that he had failed to come forward for months and then falsely accused Pereira because Rodriguez was “like a brother” to him. During cross-examination, Ramos denied that his true motivation in naming first Pereira and then Rodriguez was to protect himself from suspicion. He asserted that the only lie he told the police was to use Pereira’s name in his initial statement. He said, “I didn’t want to give up my friend.”

Thompson testified and identified Rodriguez as the man with Fernandez in La Fiesta. Thompson testified that he shook the man’s hand at the bar, and observed that they were “large hands” with “no calluses.” He also testified that the man had letters written on the “outside of the four knuckles” of his left hand, spelling “L-O-V-E.” Rodriguez had no tattoos or birthmarks and the police had not noticed any markings when he was interviewed. Thompson admitted that he did not mention the marking on the suspect’s hands until the last of his half-dozen police interviews and more than five months into the investigation, even though his earlier statements had described rings on the man’s hands. He also admitted that he did not actually remember seeing the word “L-O-V-E,” but only “figured” that was what the writing spelled out, adding that he “was pretty intoxicated” and “it’s 20 months later.”

Thompson admitted that during the eight hours prior to his arrival at La Fiesta, he smoked five marijuana joints and consumed a half of a fifth of rum. At La Fiesta, he said he had at least three “double rum” and cola drinks. He said that when he left the bar at 4:30 a.m., Fernandez and the man were still there.

Castillo, the bartender at La Fiesta, did not see any such markings on the suspect’s hands nor did any other witness from either bar.

Thompson’s testimony was further contradicted by Castillo, who said he closed at 4 a.m., and by the warehouse security guard, Soloney, who said he saw the white car leaving the warehouse area between 3 and 4 a.m. Soloney testified and did not identify Rodriguez as the man he saw in the white car.

The prosecution called two witnesses who claimed to have previously seen Rodriguez with similar writing on his hands. Patricia Owens, a secretary at Wyckoff Hospital, said that although she had met Rodriguez only four or five times for only a couple of seconds each time, she remembered seeing the word “L-O-V-E” written on his hands. John Rosa, who was Rodriguez’s supervisor with the auxiliary police from 1982 to 1986, said he remembered markings on both of Rodriguez’s hands. However, when police first interviewed Rosa, he described only a single marking between his index finger and thumb, which could have been a birthmark.

On May 2, 1990, the jury convicted Rodriguez of second-degree murder and criminal possession of a weapon. He was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.

In reviewing the record, Rodriguez’s appellate lawyer, Martin Lucente from the Legal Aid Society, noticed in Rodriguez’s pre-sentence report a reference to a taped conversation between Ramos and Pereira. There was no reference to the tape in the trial and Rodriguez’s trial defense attorney, Jennifer Maiolo, had not noted it either.

Lucente requested a copy of the tape from the Queens County District Attorney’s office. By that time, the trial prosecutor, Alan Safran, had left the office for private practice. Safran said he had disclosed the tape to Maiolo, but had not made a transcript of it because it was largely “unintelligible” and in Spanish.

Lucente had the tape translated and transcribed. On the tape, Pereira was heard confronting Ramos about why he falsely told police that Pereira had borrowed Ramos’s car the night before Thanksgiving. At Rodriguez’s trial, he testified that he had named Pereira because he was covering for Rodriguez, and Pereira’s was the first name that came to mind since he was “the only other person” to whom he had loaned his car. On the tape, however, Ramos told Pereira something different. Ramos said his false accusation was in direct response to the police’s claim that Pereira had falsely accused Ramos of the crime first. Ramos was heard saying, “I’m under the impression that you pointed the finger at me.”

Ramos said he sought to protect himself by pointing the finger right back at Pereira, whom he thought was his accuser. Additionally, Ramos assured Pereira that not only did he know nothing about the crime, but that he had not loaned his car to anyone that night and lied to the police when he said he had. In fact, Ramos said, he did not even use the car to drive himself to his relatives in New Jersey on Thanksgiving Day because it was on the street with a dead battery. On the tape, Ramos was heard telling Pereira that he told police “all of this. And yet they didn’t want to hear that.”

Pereira asked why the police were under the impression that Ramos “cleaned the blood” from the car. Ramos replied, “No, I didn’t clean blood, they don’t understand.” He said that the red substance he described to police was not blood, but most likely was juice his girlfriend’s son spilled in the car.

In October 1992, Lucente filed a motion to set aside Rodriguez’s convictions on the ground that the tape had not been disclosed to Rodriguez’s trial defense attorney.

At a hearing in March 1993, the prosecution disclosed two police reports that referenced the tape. Maiolo claimed she had never seen them. Maiolo said that had she received the tape, she would have had it transcribed and translated, and then used it to cross-examine Ramos.

Attorney Kenneth Litwack represented Rodriguez from April to November 1989, before Maiolo replaced him. Litwack testified that he knew something about the existence of an audio recording of a conversation between Pereira and Ramos, but was confident that he had never heard the tape or been given a copy. He did not specifically recall discussing the tape’s existence with Maiolo, but he said it would have been his practice to relate “every detail of the case” that he thought was important when transferring his file.

Safran, the trial prosecutor, contended he turned the tape over to Maiolo at the beginning of the trial. He also maintained that the recording was “completely uninteresting,” “gibberish,” and “nonbelievable.” He said that he already knew that Ramos was a liar after having falsely implicated Pereira. Safran admitted that had not asked for the recording to be translated or transcribed. He said that since he knew a little Spanish, he listened to it with the aid of a paralegal. He admitted he never played the tape for Ramos or asked Ramos about its contents before Ramos testified at the trial.

On July 30, 1993, the trial judge denied the motion to vacate the convictions. Although the judge indicated that the tape directly impeached Ramos and was favorable to the defense, he held that the defense had failed to show that the tape was not turned over.

In 2001, after his appeal had been rejected, Rodriguez wrote to the Innocence Project requesting help. In 2007, his case was accepted. Unfortunately, most of the physical evidence from the victim’s body and clothing had been destroyed pursuant to the medical examiner’s protocols at the time. Ultimately, extracts from the car fabric cuttings were found, as were hairs from the victim’s clothing. However, the extracts yielded no DNA and the hairs revealed only female DNA.

After the search for biological evidence was exhausted, the Innocence Project recruited private attorney Zachary Margulis-Ohnuma to assist with non-DNA aspects of the case. In November 2016, Nina Morrison, senior staff attorney at the Innocence Project, and Margulis-Ohnuma filed a petition asking New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to grant clemency. The petition said that Rodriguez was not only “innocent of the crime of conviction, but, more importantly, is an exceptionally worthy candidate for clemency because of his remarkable record of redemption, responsibility and generosity in prison.”

In addition to citing Rodriguez’s exemplary record while in prison, the petition noted that that it was “difficult to imagine” that if Safran had given the tape to the defense, “he would not have made sure to prepare his own chief witness for the all-but-inevitable cross-examination that any defense attorney who listened to the tape would likely raise, by sitting down with Ramos to review the tape in detail and asking him to explain the contradictions, and obtaining a full transcription and translation of the tape, so he himself could at least be prepared to anticipate any questions the tape might raise in the jurors’ minds.”

The petition also noted that there was “certainly a compelling case to be made” that Maiolo knew about the tape and failed to use it at the trial. In fact, Maiolo later was disbarred for stealing client funds. She also failed to investigate information that ultimately exonerated another of her clients, Angelo Martinez, who was wrongly convicted of murder.

Rodriguez was eligible for parole 25 years into his prison sentence, but declined to appear before the Parole Board, concluding that an appearance would be futile since he would not admit guilt or express for remorse for a murder he had not committed.

In December 2016, Gov. Cuomo granted the petition, commuting Rodriguez’s sentence to time served. On January 26, 2017, Rodriguez was released. Subsequently, at the request of Rodriguez’s lawyers, Queens County executive assistant district attorney Robert Masters commenced a re-investigation of the case.

As a result, additional reports and notes from the detectives’ files were discovered that had never been disclosed to Rodriguez’s defense. According to a report in the New York Daily News, these included a report saying that Perry, one of the witnesses at La Fiesta, affirmatively said that Fernandez and the man with her arrived at the bar in the black Monte Carlo. Such a report could have been used to discredit the theory that the white car seen by the security guard belonged to the killer. Perry’s statement and other reports in the police file also directly contradicted testimony from the detectives and arguments by the prosecutor that the investigation had yielded no evidence indicating that the black car was connected to the victim or her murder.

Also undisclosed were reports that Fernandez’s husband, Carney Fernandez, was a suspect because of numerous witness accounts that he had a violent temper and was known to assault female companions. In addition, witnesses said that Fernandez wanted to leave him and that Carney did not like her going out without him. At the time, Carney had presented an alibi and was found to be truthful when he denied involvement during a police-administered polygraph examination.

Most critically and “decisive” in the District Attorney’s agreement to grant relief was the discovery of handwritten notes by a Long Island Railroad detective. The notes indicated that Ramos described Rodriguez as showing up at his house with a black man he had never mentioned before. The notes were dated March 27, 1989 – the same day that Ramos gave a sworn affidavit implicating Rodriguez, which made no mention of such a companion.

And according to other reports, eight days before Ramos accused Rodriguez, Beisel obtained approval to arrest Rodriguez and put him in a line up, while also trying to compel Ramos to testify as a material witness. The newspaper said this “account differed sharply from (Detective) Beisel’s memo closing the investigation. There, he wrote that, in a period of hours on March 29, 1989, Ramos implicated Rodriguez; detectives summoned an assistant district attorney who formalized the statement; detectives placed Rodriguez in the lineup and the (prosecutor) drew up an affidavit starting the prosecution.”

In addition, in 2017, after being contacted by an Innocence Project investigator, Ramos recanted his accusation against Rodriguez and said his statements to the police were false and the result of police pressure. He stood by his recantation in a lengthy, voluntary interview with Masters in December 2019, although the prosecution ultimately did not credit his recantation.

On December 30, 2019, at a hearing in Queens County Supreme Court, Masters said that the notes from the Long Island Road detective that were not turned over could have “impeached the entire investigation.”

Queens County Supreme Court Justice Joseph Zayas granted a motion filed by the defense lawyers Morrison and Margulis-Ohnuma to vacate the convictions. The District Attorney’s Office joined the motion, agreeing that evidence favorable to Rodriguez had not been disclosed to the defense. Masters then dismissed the indictment.

Justice Zayas said the case was a miscarriage of justice that “took too long to correct.” He added, “Mr. Rodriguez, you deserve better than that, but you never lost faith.”

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 1/9/2020
State:New York
County:Queens
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Illegal Use of a Weapon
Reported Crime Date:1987
Convicted:1990
Exonerated:2019
Sentence:25 to life
Race:Hispanic
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:22
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No