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Christian Pacheco

Other Kings County, New York exonerations with mistaken witness identification
In the early morning hours of December 2, 1995, a brawl erupted in Con Sabor Latino Lounge on Third Avenue at 7th Street in Brooklyn, New York, and culminated in the murder of 27-year-old Lemuel “Lenny” Cruz.

Cruz was stabbed 25 times and his throat was slit. He also suffered numerous bruises from being kicked in the body and the head.

Witnesses said a fight broke out on the dance floor and that 10 to 15 members of the Latin Kings street gang attacked Cruz. Cruz managed to get outside and was told to run, but he stayed because some of his friends were still inside. That’s when a swarm of gang members emerged from a side door and attacked him again. One witness said that someone used a razor knife to slit Cruz’s throat.

Police were pointed toward about 10 people who were walking away from the nightclub, including 18-year-old Christian Pacheco, who was bleeding from a stab wound in the back. Police ordered everyone to stand against a wall. Pacheco knelt near the wall. A witness from the nightclub identified Pacheco, as well as Roberto Correa, Hector Perez, and Hector Gonzalez as participants in the stabbing.

That witness, identified in court documents as Witness 3, said that Pacheco was one of the gang members who attacked Cruz. Pacheco, who had been taken to a hospital for treatment of a collapsed lung, was arrested there not long after. He remained hospitalized until December 20, when he was released and taken to jail.

On December 28, Pacheco, Perez, Gonzalez, Correa (who was charged under the name Suriel Esteban), and Billy Genera were indicted for second-degree murder and weapons charges.

In September 1996, the five went to trial in Kings County Supreme Court. A serologist testified that ABO blood testing identified Cruz’s blood type on Correa’s shoe, and on the clothing of Pacheco, Gonzalez, and Perez. The analyst said that the blood had a marker that was present in Cruz’s blood, but also was present in 54 percent of the population.

A witness who was identified as Witness 1 testified that he lived in the apartment above the club with his girlfriend, whose father owned the club. He said that when the fight started, he came downstairs. He said that he saw Pacheco pull Cruz’s head back and slit his throat with a razor knife. Other witnesses testified that they saw Correa, Gonzalez, Perez, and Genera involved in the fight. One of those witnesses, Marc Mendez, testified that he came to the club with Cruz. Although he admitted he was intoxicated that night, he said Gonzalez was one of the men who attacked Cruz.

On October 3, 1996, the jury convicted Pacheco, Perez, Correa, and Gonzalez of second-degree murder and weapons charges. The jury acquitted Genera, the only person who did not have blood on his clothing consistent with Cruz’s blood. Pacheco was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. Perez and Correa were each sentenced to 20 years to life in prison. Gonzalez was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.

In 1994, the U.S. Attorney’s office, along with the FBI and the New York police department, had begun an investigation of the Latin Kings focused on narcotics trafficking. In June 1998, a cooperating witness who pled guilty to conspiracy to distribute narcotics told federal authorities that Latin King gang member Melvin Garcia was the person who slit Cruz’s throat. The witness said that someone had bumped into Pacheco on the dance floor and that he reacted by attempting to punch the person he thought responsible, but he punched Correa by mistake. The cooperating witness said that when they decided to get the person they thought was responsible—Cruz—Cruz pulled out a knife. Cruz then got bumped and accidentally stabbed Pacheco. At that time, he said that Cruz was on the ground being attacked while Pacheco was on the ground and two girls were trying to help him get up.

Eventually, three other witnesses who were cooperating in the federal investigation said that Melvin Garcia slit Cruz’s throat. At least one of the witnesses said he believed Pacheco had attacked Cruz and stabbed him with a folding knife.

The witnesses also said that two other men, Gregory Pirrone and Eduardo Velez, stabbed Cruz. Ultimately, Pirrone, Velez, and Garcia pled guilty in federal court to narcotics trafficking and to the murder of Cruz in the aid of racketeering. Garcia, in his plea agreement, admitted he caused Cruz’s death by “cutting him up, slicing him up.”

Two of the cooperating witnesses also said that Hector Gonzalez was not involved in the brawl. Federal authorities interviewed Gonzalez, who said he was innocent and that the blood on his clothes came from two injured men whom he had helped. Correa had a bloody nose and another fellow gang member had a cut on his hand.

By that time, the Innocence Project and attorney Glenn Garber were seeking DNA testing of Gonzalez’s clothing. In November 2001, DNA tests on Gonzalez’s clothing confirmed his account. The blood did not come from Cruz, but from the two men that Gonzalez said he helped. On April 24, 2002, the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office requested that Gonzalez’s convictions be vacated. The motion was granted, the charges were dismissed, and Gonzalez was released.

The DNA testing also revealed that Cruz’s blood was not on Correa’s clothing. In 2005, Correa filed a post-conviction motion to vacate his conviction based on the testing, as well as a 2004 letter from Melvin Garcia to his attorney and a January 2005 affidavit. In both, Garcia said he killed Cruz and that Correa was innocent. In December 2005, Correa’s convictions were vacated and he pled guilty to first-degree assault of Cruz. He was sentenced to time served and was released.

In November 2006, DNA testing was performed on Pacheco’s clothing. The tests confirmed the presence of Cruz’s blood in three places—on the front of Pacheco’s shirt, on the left leg of his jeans, and on the right sleeve of his jacket.

In 2013, the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office Conviction Review Unit received a letter from Garcia saying that Pacheco was innocent. In 2017, DNA testing was performed again on Pacheco’s clothing and confirmed the earlier results.

On February 11, 2020, the CRU issued a report on its investigation and concluded that although there was “strong direct and circumstantial evidence” that Pacheco took part in the attack on Cruz, nonetheless, Pacheco “did not receive a fair trial.”

The only direct evidence at Pacheco’s trial was the testimony of Witness 1, who said that he saw Pacheco slit Cruz’s throat. The report said that the CRU “determined that Witness 1’s testimony that the defendant slashed the deceased’s throat, and did so with a razor box cutter, was most probably false.”

The report noted that of the three witnesses (none of whom testified at trial) who identified Pacheco, none of them said that Pacheco possessed a razor or box cutter. “Two witnesses stated that the defendant stabbed the deceased; one witness stated that the defendant stomped on the deceased.”

The CRU report also noted that Witness 1 told police initially that the person who slashed Cruz’s throat was wearing a Shearling coat and had gold teeth. It was undisputed that Pacheco was wearing a brown coat that night and he did not have gold teeth. Although Cruz’s blood was on Pacheco’s shirt, the investigation showed that when Cruz’s throat was slit, Pacheco was on the ground after being stabbed and was not near Cruz.

Because of the testimony of witnesses that Pacheco was otherwise involved in the beating, the CRU report said that he was “not factually innocent.” At the same time, the report said the CRU concluded that Pacheco “did not receive a fair trial because the evidence upon which the prosecution relied was inaccurate and incorrect.”

On February 11, 2020, Assistant District Attorney Mark Hale requested that Pacheco’s convictions be vacated. Supreme Court Justice Matthew D’Emic granted the motion. The charges were dismissed and Pacheco was released.

After Gonzalez was released, he filed a federal civil rights lawsuit that was settled in 2008 by the city of New York for $3.4 million. He also received $1.8 million in compensation from the New York Court of Claims.

Days after Pacheco was released, he filed a claim for $100 million in compensation in the New York Court of Claims.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 2/24/2020
State:New York
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Illegal Use of a Weapon
Reported Crime Date:1995
Sentence:25 to life
Age at the date of reported crime:18
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No