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Ricardo Jimenez

Other Exonerations from the Bronx, New York
Just after midnight, on July 3, 1989, 20-year-old Sean Worrell was shot to death at the Whitestone Cinemas complex in the Bronx, New York. The shooting occurred in a crowded theater during the opening minutes of the new Batman movie. As a later court filing would note, “Even to a city numbed by rampant gun violence, the Batman shooting was notable for its brazenness.”

Detectives with the New York Police Department quickly began interviewing witnesses and gathering evidence. Several witnesses mentioned an argument a few minutes before the shooting between Worrell and his friends and another man while they all stood in line for popcorn.

James Williams, who was working the concession stand, told police that two Black men were arguing about who was first in line. One guy said, “I’ll come back and shoot your ass,” then left the building. The other man stayed, got his food, and went into the theater. Williams said the argument lasted about a minute, and that the men “had words in Rastafarian.”

Linda Salter, another concession worker, also described the man who argued with Worrell as a Black man, and she said that both the victim and the shooter had Jamaican accents.

Esco Blaylock told police he had seen the argument and the shooting. He was 15 years old and worked at the theater but was just hanging out after his shift ended at midnight. He was near the concession stand during the argument and then went into the theater to watch Batman while he waited for his girlfriend to get off work.

In his first statement to police, made on the afternoon of July 3, Blaylock did not give a description of the shooter but said he recognized him as a “Leon,” whom he had met through friends about two years earlier. Blaylock gave a second statement to police later that day. He described Leon as a Black man with a high top haircut and shaved sides, with blond streaks. He said that Leon “looks Puerto Rican and can mimic a Jamaican accent.” Blaylock also said that Leon had a girlfriend named “Sharon,” who had been reported missing a few months earlier.

On July 10, detectives interviewed Sharon Ramroop. She said she knew a man named “Leon,” whom she described as being of “Jamaican and Indian extraction” and having a flat top haircut. She said she hadn’t seen him since April 1989.

The next day, police “confronted” Blaylock and Ramroop at the station, and a police report said the two teenagers “exchanged information” based on the witness descriptions. “It now appears that Blaylock knows the perpetrator as ‘Leon’ and Ramroop knows him as ‘Ricky,” a police report said.

The two then looked at mugshots. Ramroop viewed a photo of a man named Manuel Jimenez and said that his brother was Ricky. The police then found a photo of 21-year-old Ricardo Jimenez. Blaylock said this was the person he knew as “Leon.” Ramroop said she knew him as “Ricky.”

Salter, the concession worker, viewed a photo of Jimenez on July 17. She said she recognized him from other occasions, but he was not one of the men she saw arguing in the moments before the shooting. Separately that same day, Blaylock gave another statement to police. Now, he said that he had not witnessed the shooting but had just heard about it.

At some point prior to July 17, Jimenez was arrested, but Blaylock failed to show up to view a lineup. Jimenez was released.

The case then went cold. In 2000, Andrew O’Brien contacted the New York police department and said he had information about the case. At the time, O’Brien was in federal prison for a wide range of crimes, including drugs, racketeering, and murder.

Because of a cooperation agreement, he had already received a sentence reduction, from life in prison down to 30 years. During the next few years, O’Brien met several times with Detective Wendell Stradford, who worked in the police department’s cold case unit.

On January 17, 2001, Stradford interviewed O’Brien at an undisclosed location. O’Brien said he was with Worrell and several other friends at the theater when the argument at the concession stand occurred. O’Brien said Worrell was armed (police had found a .38-caliber revolver in his hand), but he was not sure whether Worrell ever fired the weapon.

During the interview, according to Stradford, O’Brien looked at a photo array and selected Jimenez’s photo. Stradford’s report gave no details about how he conducted the viewing.

Despite that identification, five more years passed. In 2006, Stradford interviewed Blaylock. Now, Blaylock said he had seen the shooting, and he picked Jimenez out of a photo array.

On August 31, 2006, Police arrested Jimenez outside the barber shop in the Bronx that he managed. It was more than 17 years after the shooting.

On June 8, 2007, just before the start of Jimenez’s trial in Bronx County Supreme Court, the state disclosed an additional witness named Kevin Morrissey, who said that Jimenez had confessed his involvement in the shooting while he and Jimenez were awaiting trial in a jail barge anchored off the East River.

Prior to trial, Jimenez moved to suppress the identifications by Blaylock and O’Brien. His attorney argued that Blaylock’s initial identification, done in the presence of Ramroop, who wasn’t a witness, didn’t adhere to proper police procedure. The officer who conducted those interviews had retired, and Stradford merely read from that officer’s notes at the hearing. The attorney, Paul Bruno, also said that Stradford was evasive about the cold-case investigation that led to O’Brien’s identification of Jimenez 12 years after the shooting. Justice Megan Tallmer, who heard the suppression motion, ruled against Jimenez on the identifications.

At the trial, which was presided over by Justice Robert Torres, Blaylock identified Jimenez as the shooter and described the events that he said led to Worrell’s death. He said he saw and heard only two shots, both fired by “Leon.” (In his statements to police, he said he heard at least three shots, including one fired by Worrell.) He testified that he stopped cooperating with the investigation because the owners of the theater told him not to talk to the police and because his parents became scared he would get hurt.

During cross-examination, Blaylock said he couldn’t recall telling police that he didn’t see the shooting.

Throughout his testimony, Blaylock consistently called Jimenez “Leon.” Bruno asked Blaylock whether he thought it was unusual that a man named Ricky or Ricardo had the nickname “Leon.” Prosecutor Lisa Mattaway objected, the judge sustained the objection, and Blaylock never answered the question.

In disclosure documents provided to Bruno, Mattaway wrote that O’Brien was in federal custody on a murder conviction and was serving 30 years. “[He] has asked for a letter to be prepared by the undersigned that he can have put in his file stating that he testified for the Bronx District Attorney’s Office,” the memo said.

O’Brien testified that he, Worrell, and two friends went to see Batman, and Worrell and the other two men brought guns into the theater. O’Brien said he left his weapon in the car because he wasn’t wearing the right clothes to carry it discreetly. “We was into drugs and selling things,” O’Brien said. “So we just always carried a gun.”

He testified about the argument at the concession stand and the shooting that followed. He identified Jimenez as the shooter and said that Worrell was behind him when Jimenez began shooting. O’Brien also said that he was wounded in the shooting when a bullet grazed his arm. He testified that Worrell and another friend of his had their guns out when the shooting began. He did not testify that either man ever fired their weapon.

Mattaway asked O’Brien: “What is your understanding of what, if anything, I can or will do for you in exchange for your testifying here today for us?

He answered: “Well, my understanding is that you’ll just tell the Federal prosecutors that I cooperated with y’all and that’s it.”

O’Brien later said he was also testifying because he felt guilty because he was the one who started the argument in the popcorn line. “I got [Worrell] killed and I never really tried to help his family, you know,” O’Brien said. “And second is that because I cooperated with the federal government and they said that my agreement that I had to cooperate with all law enforcement and everything else and so that’s the reason why I started talking to the New York NYPD.”

O’Brien described his agreement with the government, which he said required him to divulge crimes he knew about or had participated in.

On the eve of the trial, the state had disclosed that O’Brien had been considered a suspect in the Worrell shooting in 1996. During cross-examination, O’Brien said he didn’t know about this. He said his initial discussions with the FBI about the Worrell shooting had come about because of his cooperation agreement.

Morrissey testified that he had struck up a friendship with Jimenez while they were on the barge. Morrissey had a lengthy criminal record, and he said that he often helped other inmates as a “jailhouse lawyer.” He said that Jimenez confessed while Morrissey was helping him on a due-process issue related to his arrest. According to Morrissey, Jimenez said that he gave the gun used in the shooting to his brother.

During cross-examination, Morrissey denied that he had learned details about the case by examining Jimenez’s court documents. He said this was the third time he had testified against a fellow inmate and that he hoped his testimony would lead to a reduced sentence in a pending fraud case in Queens, New York.

The state also introduced forensic evidence about bullets and the weapon recovered in the theater. Besides the .38-caliber pistol found on Worrell, police also found a .38-caliber bullet and a .45-caliber shell. Detective Victoria Burton, who testified as a firearm expert, said that the presence of a discharged shell casing inside the weapon did not mean the gun had been recently fired.

Dr. Susan Ely, a medical examiner, testified that Worrell was shot twice. One bullet came through the rear of his left arm and traveled through his chest before exiting. The second bullet entered through the back of Worrell’s head and exited through the front right.

On July 13, 2007, after five days of deliberation, the jury convicted Jimenez of second-degree murder. He was later sentenced to 22 years to life in prison. At his sentencing, Jimenez said: “All I can say right now is I’m sorry for the family, what happened to their family, but I didn’t do it. I never was there at that movie theater when that happened. The court system is unfair … You need to look deep into the case.”

Jimenez appealed, arguing that the conviction was against the weight of the evidence. The Supreme Court of New York’s Appellate Division affirmed the conviction on March 11, 2010.

In 2011, Jimenez moved for a new trial in state court, arguing that prosecutors had failed to disclose exculpatory evidence that would have undermined the testimony of Morrissey and O’Brien.

With regards to O’Brien, the motion said the state hadn’t disclosed the extent of his criminal record, that he and his friends were members of a gang called the “Poison Clan,” whose propensity for violence meant the gang had numerous enemies.

In addition, the state hadn’t disclosed its true arrangement with O’Brien, which went beyond merely writing a letter for his file. O’Brien had made clear in his initial contact with authorities that he wanted a sentence reduction, and after the Jimenez trial ended, Mattaway wrote an effusive letter to the U.S. Attorney’s Office on behalf of O’Brien, who later received a five-year reduction in his sentence.

With regards to Morrissey, the motion said the state didn’t disclose the full extent of his criminal record, omitting his fraud convictions in federal court. The pre-trial disclosures also didn’t disclose the severity of Morrissey’s mental illness, including his requests for competency hearings in several criminal cases.

The motion was expanded to encompass other instances where Jimenez said prosecutors didn’t disclose exculpatory evidence.

For example, O’Brien testified that he first told federal authorities about the Worrell shooting in 1996 and spoke with Stradford about the case in 1999, but an undisclosed FBI report of a 1997 interview with O’Brien only contained a brief mention of the Batman shooting, and nothing about Jimenez. At the time of the interview, O’Brien had already entered into his cooperation agreement with the federal government, requiring him to disclose information about any crimes he had witnessed or participated in.

In a series of rulings between 2014 and 2018, the trial and appellate courts rejected Jimenez’s claims. The courts said that while prosecutors had failed to disclose the extent of the criminal conduct for Morrissey and O’Brien, the omissions were merely cumulative of their lengthy and “unsavory” conduct and wouldn’t have made a difference in the trial’s outcome. The claim that received the most scrutiny involved whether prosecutors failed to disclose a deal with O’Brien, where he would receive help in reducing his sentence in exchange for his testimony.

Justice Torres ruled on June 29, 2018, that there was no quid pro quo between O’Brien and the state. Jimenez moved to appeal the ruling, but the request was denied.

With the state courts closed off, Jimenez and his attorneys turned to the federal courts. In 2011, had Jimenez filed a pro se petition for a writ of habeas corpus in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. The federal petition, stayed while his state motion was reviewed, was amended and refiled on April 23, 2019. It repeated many of the claims in the state petitions, arguing that the judges had erred in their application of federal law on when the failure to disclose exculpatory evidence required granting a defendant a new trial.

The federal habeas petition also said the state failed to disclose forensic evidence. Police technicians had recovered two additional .45-caliber shells in the theater. One was reported different from the .45-caliber shell introduced into evidence at trial. According to the petition, this suggested another weapon was used during the shooting, supporting Jimenez’s claim that Worrell was killed by “friendly fire.”

The petition also said that Jimenez’s attorney had been ineffective, because he did not move to strike Stradford’s testimony at the suppression hearing, where he merely read from another officer’s report.

Stradford’s interview with Blaylock in 2006 also came under scrutiny. Blaylock had recanted part of his testimony in 2012. He told an investigator working for Jimenez that when Stradford interviewed him in 2006, he was working for the Transportation Security Administration and forced to cooperate because it was “Homeland Security Rules.” Blaylock said he was shown multiple arrays where Jimenez was the only person in each array. He compared the process to the video game, “Where’s Waldo.”

On July 15, 2022, Judge Paul Oetken granted Jimenez’s habeas petition, vacating his conviction and granting him a new trial. His ruling said the case against Jimenez was “weak,” and the New York appellate courts had applied “unreasonable” standards for evaluating the importance of the undisclosed evidence.

While the state disclosed that Mattaway wrote a letter for O’Brien’s file, it didn’t disclose that the letter only came after O’Brien asked about a sentence reduction. (Mattaway had testified at an evidentiary hearing that she did not disclose to Jimenez’s attorneys that O’Brien was seeking leniency from a federal judge because “[h]e wasn’t seeking it from me,” and that “the only thing he wanted from me was a letter after he testified and that’s what he got.”) The state defended that reasoning, saying it complied with disclosure requirements by providing the defense with the “essential facts.”

Judge Oetken disagreed. “The defense could not ascertain the intended purpose of the letter except by fishing around during O’Brien’s cross-examination,” he wrote. “The State, however, would put criminal defendants to a Hobson’s choice: ask a question on cross-examination to which one does not know the answer, or refrain from asking the question at all. Brady relieves defendants of the burden of such tactical guesswork.”

Judge Oetken also said the state should have disclosed the FBI report, because it was material to evaluating O’Brien’s credibility about the timing of his disclosures on the shooting and the circumstances in which he identified Jimenez to Stradford.

Following Judge Oetken’s ruling, Jimenez was released from prison in November 2022. The state dismissed the charges on April 10, 2023.

On July 21, 2023, Jimenez filed a civil-rights lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York against the city of New York, several police officers, and the Bronx County District Attorney’s Office, seeking compensation for his wrongful conviction. He also filed a claim for compensation from the state of New York.

“Nothing can make up for 16 years of being locked up,” Jimenez told the news website, The City. “These jailhouse informants know how the system goes. They know how to work it.”

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 8/21/2023
Last Updated: 3/30/2024
State:New York
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1989
Sentence:22 to Life
Age at the date of reported crime:21
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No