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Wildon Rodriguez

Other Brooklyn Murder Exonerations
https://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/PublishingImages/Wildon%20Rodriguez.jfif
Just after midnight on November 28, 1993, 21-year-old Craig Jolly was shot in the leg and back in a parking lot at the Wyckoff Gardens apartments in Brooklyn, New York.

Jolly was unconscious when police arrived, and he died later that day at Methodist Hospital without saying who shot him. Police canvassed the neighborhood but didn’t get any hard leads on suspects.

A few months later, a witness named Althemease Cort came forward and said she had seen 18-year-old Wildon Rodriguez shoot Jolly after an argument. She knew Rodriguez from the neighborhood and picked him out of a photo array on March 1, 1994 and then from a live lineup on April 1, 1994.

Due to a booking error by police, Rodriguez was not arrested after the live lineup, and he left the police station without incident. It wasn’t until November 23, 1998 that Rodriguez was arrested, while he was at the Riker’s Island jail on an unrelated charge. Rodriguez was charged with second-degree murder and second- and third-degree criminal possession of a weapon.

There was no forensic or physical evidence connecting Rodriguez to the murder. The state’s case relied on Cort’s testimony. Prior to the start of the trial, Rodriguez’s attorney, Paul Madden, and Kings County Assistant District Attorney Kyle Reeves battled over what evidence prosecutors needed to disclose. This included potentially exculpatory information about the state’s witnesses, such as their criminal conduct or any favorable treatment they had received from the state. Eventually, they reached an agreement, and in the disclosure documents provided to Madden, prosecutors noted Cort’s extensive criminal record, including two convictions in April 1994 for possession of stolen property and possession of a controlled substance. For those convictions, she received two separate six-month sentences that ran concurrently.

Rodriguez’s first trial in Kings County Supreme Court began on April 27, 1999. A mistrial was declared on May 6 due to juror illness. The second trial began on October 12, 1999.

At trial, Cort testified about seeing Rodriguez shoot Jolly. She had been one of the persons police interviewed in the immediate aftermath of the shooting and initially told officers then that she didn’t see anything.

Reeves asked Cort a series of questions aimed at vouching for her independence and credibility as a witness. Each time, she answered “no” and said prosecutors had not offered her any deals or given her special treatment.

Rodriguez did not testify, but he presented two witnesses. Azizi Moore, a former girlfriend who was the mother of his child, testified that she was with Cort and two other people driving back from McDonald’s when they heard shots but did not see the shooting. They waited a few minutes, then ran and found Jolly’s body. Moore said several minutes later she saw Rodriguez outside, along with many others, at the crime scene. A woman named Maria Cardona also testfied that she saw Rodriguez just before hearing the gunshots. But she didn’t see Rodriguez with a weapon and he was headed in the opposite direction from where Jolly was found.

In his opening statement, Reeves told jurors that Cort “didn't receive anything for coming forward. No one cut her any deals. No one gave her any breaks.” In his closing argument, he returned to this point and said Cort was the only person who could be believed. He said, “She had to sit here and tell you, ‘Yeah, you know what, at one point in time I did stuff that I am not proud of, I stole, I sold drugs back in ‘86, ‘87. I got caught, and when I got caught, I pled guilty. I pled guilty because I did those crimes. I never took a deal.'”

The jury convicted Rodriguez of second-degree murder on October 20, 1999. He was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.

Rodriguez appealed his conviction in 2001, arguing insufficient evidence. The Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of New York rejected his appeal on December 31, 2001. He also filed an unsuccessful petition for a writ of habeas corpus in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York.

On December 15, 2015, Rodriguez filed a pro se motion in Kings County Supreme Court to vacate his conviction based on the prosecution’s failure to disclose exculpatory evidence and to correct false testimony. While in prison, Rodriguez had spent years filing extensive public-records requests related to his case. These documents undermined the state’s claim that Cort had received nothing for her testimony.

He tracked down the court transcript from a February 10, 1994 hearing, where a judge told Cort that she was a “predicate felon” and looking at between 18 and 36 months in a state prison for the stolen property and possession charges she was facing. The stolen property charge was the most recent, occurring in January 1994. “What was offered you was the minimum plea that can be offered and that’s the minimum sentence that can be imposed,” the judge said.

But Cort’s plea and final sentencing were continued several times until April 15, 1994. In the interim, Cort picked Rodriguez out of the two lineups and testified before a grand jury. It was only then that she received that more lenient sentence, which she served in a city facility, rather than in an upstate New York prison.

Separately, Rodriguez also uncovered evidence that Cort had received more than $35,000 in cash, housing and food allowances as part of a witness-protection program tied to her testimony against Louis Charriez, a defendant in a separate murder case. This assistance began on May 14, 1997 and continued until April 12, 1999, just prior to the start of Rodriguez’s first trial. (Charriez was also unaware of the payments, and his conviction was vacated on February 25, 2021.) In its response to Rodriguez’s motion, the state said that Rodriguez couldn’t point to any specific agreement between Cort and prosecutors. It also said the witness-protection payments didn’t need to be disclosed to Rodriguez, because they were unrelated to his case.

On April 22, 2019, Justice Guy Mangano Jr. of Kings County Supreme Court vacated Rodriguez’s conviction and ordered a new trial. He sharply criticized Reeves for his “blatantly intentional misstatements to the jury” and for not correcting Cort’s false testimony about her deals with prosecutors. He also said prosecutors should have disclosed the substantial assistance and other benefits Cort received for her testimony in the Charriez case.

Rodriguez was released from prison that day. The state appealed Mangano’s ruling.

Rodriguez’s response to the state’s appeal was aided by additional documents released by prosecutors that highlighted the relationship between Cort and Detective Joseph Yates, the lead investigator in the Jolly case. Cort, who died in 2007, was a confidential informant for Yates, and she reached out to him after her January 1994 arrest. There was an unsuccessful effort to void that arrest, and then Yates visited Cort at Riker’s Island. Then on March 1, 1994, they traveled to Brooklyn, where she picked Rodriguez out of a photo lineup.

In its appeal, the state suggested these events were unrelated. Rodriguez’s appellate attorney said that made no sense. “The People seem to think,” he wrote, “this Court is credulous enough to believe police just happened to stop by Cort’s jail cell on a whim, that Cort closed their murder case for them while expecting nothing in return, and that she escaped certain upstate prison time on two open felonies as a result of good fortune.”

On September 30, 2020, the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of the State of New York upheld Mangano’s ruling. It said the records that the state failed to turn over were material to Rodriguez’s defense because they undercut Cort’s testimony that she didn’t have any deals with prosecutors and because they contradicted Reeves’s summation that Cort never “took a deal” or “asked for anything in return.”

A spokesman for the district attorney's office said it disagreed with the court’s ruling, but Cort’s death made it impossible to retry Rodriguez. Prosecutors filed a motion to dismiss the charge, which was granted on January 8, 2021.

Rodriguez told the New York Daily News: “This is like actually being born again, because I have my life back. They took something from me that was unwarranted.”

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 3/1/2021
Last Updated: 3/1/2021
State:New York
County:Kings
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1993
Convicted:1999
Exonerated:2021
Sentence:25 years to Life
Race/Ethnicity:Hispanic
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:18
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No