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Pablo Fernandez

Other Manhattan Exonerations with Official Misconduct
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In the late afternoon of June 10, 1993, a car pulled up in front of 504 West 135th Street in Manhattan and a man got out holding what witnesses said looked like an Uzi. The man fired several shots, then got back into the car, which drove off.

Eighteen-year-old Ramon “Manny” Quintero was killed and 18-year-old Henry Gomez was struck in the neck and left hand, but survived.

Witnesses described the gunman as a light-skinned man in his 30s or 40s, with a slight build and gray hair that was in a pony tail.

The crime was still unsolved in 1994 when police, during an investigation of street gangs selling crack cocaine in Manhattan, obtained the cooperation of Raymond “Dillinger” Rivera, Jr. and Martin “Chango” Mejias, who were leaders of a gang known as YTC, which alternatively stood for Young Talented Children or Yellow Top Crew (for the color of the tops of the vials of cocaine that were sold). Both admitted to committing hundreds of felonies, primarily drug sales and weapons crimes, but also to ordering murders and violent assaults.

According to detectives, Rivera said that Pablo Fernandez had admitted he shot Quintero. Mejias said that Jose Luis Marte, the leader of the Red Top Crew, another crack-selling gang, told him that he hired Fernandez for $2,500 to kill Quintero because Marte was angry at Quintero.

On June 13, 1995, Fernandez, who was 20 years old at the time of the shooting, was indicted on charges of second-degree murder, first-degree criminal use of a firearm, and second and third-degree criminal possession of a weapon.

On July 13, 1995, Detective Albert Melino, who was one of the lead investigators on the case, brought Hickliff and George Rosario, who were cousins of Quintero, to the police station. There, they identified Fernandez as the gunman, even though Fernandez was much younger that the description of the gunman, did not have gray hair, had a stocky build, and was dark-skinned.

In January 1996, Fernandez went to trial in New York County Supreme Court. Hickliff Rosario, who was 13 at the time of the shooting, identified Fernandez as the gunman. His cousin, George Rosario, who was just days away from turning 14 at the time of the crime, also identified Fernandez.

Two other witnesses, Jesus Canela and Manny Medina, also testified that they had identified Fernandez as the gunman. Canela said that police knocked on his door a couple of weeks prior to the trial offering protection to anyone who would talk to them about the case. Medina gave conflicting versions of his location, and testified that he was playing dominoes on the corner when he saw the gunman through the window of the car as it passed. He said Fernandez was the passenger and he was laughing.

Two other witnesses testified, although neither identified Fernandez. Both said the gunman was a light-skinned man and one said the gunman had long gray hair.

The prosecution contended that Fernandez had been wearing a disguise that made his hair appear gray.

Mejias and Rivera testified that Fernandez admitted shooting Quintero and that after he shot him, he picked up a shell casing from the fatal shot. No witness, however, ever said the gunman had picked up any shell casings. Rivera and Mejias said Fernandez claimed he left Quintero “like a piece of shit on the floor.”

Gomez, who had survived his wounds, did not testify. Police said they could not locate him, although they were looking for him under a different name.

Fernandez’s defense attorneys presented a photograph of Fernandez taken two months prior to the shooting. His hair was not gray, and it was too short to have grown long enough to be in a ponytail in two months.

The only charge submitted to the jury was second-degree murder. On February 6, 1996, the jury convicted Fernandez.

Nine days later, on February 15, 1996, the defense was informed that Detective Melino had been arrested on February 9 on charges of possession and sale of cocaine in 1991, before he was hired as a New York police officer.

Fernandez’s attorneys filed a motion for a new trial, claiming that the prosecution had failed to disclose evidence of Melino’s criminal conduct, which could have been used to impeach his testimony at the trial.

At a hearing on the motion, evidence showed that in 1991, undercover New York State Police officers were investigating the trafficking of cocaine from New York City to Ulster County, New York. The undercover officers were introduced to Melino—who was not yet a police officer—who sold one of the undercover officers a half a kilogram of cocaine. The undercover officers recorded several conversations with Melino during which they negotiated the purchase of two kilograms of cocaine from Melino for $40,000. Although a meeting was set up to make the purchase, Melino never showed up.

One of the undercover officers and his supervisor claimed that Melino had bragged at the time that he was on the list to enter the New York City police academy. At the time, despite numerous inquiries of the New York City applicant investigations unit, the undercover officers were repeatedly told that Melino was not a recruit. The investigation of Melino went dormant at that point.

But in January 1996, about the time Fernandez went to trial, one of the undercover officers saw a photograph in a newspaper of Melino receiving an award for his work as a police officer in breaking up Harlem-based cocaine-selling street gangs. Ultimately, a call was placed to the New York Police Department Internal Affairs Bureau to advise them about the prior investigation. Copies of the audiotaped conversations with Melino as well as surveillance photographs were sent for review.

Assistant District Attorney William Burmeister testified at the hearing that on January 30, 1996—while Fernandez was on trial—Burmeister met with the chief of the Internal Affairs Bureau and Melino’s name came up randomly. The IAB chief told Burmeister about the drug-dealing allegations. Burmeister said he was “very skeptical” of the allegations because of the state police investigators’ failure to pursue such a serious case. Burmeister said, however, that he reviewed the state police case file, interviewed the undercover officer, and listened to the audiotapes.

On February 8, Burmeister authorized Melino’s arrest. On February 10, 1996, the day after the arrest, the drug possession and sale charges against Melino were dismissed and the case was sealed. Melino was subsequently dismissed from the police department.

Burmeister said he was not aware that Melino was testifying in the Fernandez case or any other case.

The trial judge denied the motion for new trial, ruling that the prosecution’s obligation to disclose the allegations against Melino was not triggered until February 8, when Burmeister approved Melino’s arrest.

Fernandez was then sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.

In April 1998, the New York Supreme Court Appellate Division upheld Fernandez’s conviction. The court held that Melino’s testimony at the trial was “largely collateral.” Even if the evidence of Melino’s drug-dealing charges had been available for impeachment, the court ruled, there was little likelihood of a different verdict in light of the four identifying witnesses and the testimony about Fernandez’s admissions.

“Melino's testimony was hardly ‘pivotal’ in securing (the) conviction,” the appeals court ruled. “Melino testified regarding his investigative efforts in attempting to re-contact witnesses in the unsolved Quintero homicide, and recanvassing of the area for additional witnesses. He and another officer were successful in locating two witnesses who observed the shooting and participated in interviewing them. He further testified that he had assisted in escorting two eyewitnesses to a lineup. This type of testimony concerning police investigative work is generally not the type that, if subject to impeachment, is material to a defendant's guilt or innocence.”

In 2001, Hickliff and George Rosario told Quintero’s mother, Rosa Rosario, who also was their aunt, that they had testified falsely. Both said that Melino had shown them a photograph array and pointed to Fernandez, saying that he was the shooter.

In 2003, attorney David Samel filed a petition seeking a new trial on behalf of Fernandez. The petition was accompanied by affidavits from Hickliff and George Rosario recanting their identifications of Fernandez. The petition also contained an affidavit from Henry Gomez, who had survived the shooting that killed Quintero. Gomez said that Fernandez was not the gunman.

Gomez also said that after he was released from the hospital, he went to the police station and viewed photographs. He said he told the police that he did not recognize anyone as the gunman. There was no record of which photographs Gomez viewed, and Fernandez’s defense had not been informed that Gomez had failed to identify the gunman.

Following a hearing during which Hickliff Rosario and Gomez testified, the trial judge denied the petition for a new trial. The judge found that Hickliff Rosario’s recantation and Gomez’s negative identification were not credible.

In 2010, another petition was filed accompanied by an affidavit from Canela, who also recanted his identification of Fernandez. Canela testified at a hearing that Melino told him to identify Fernandez. The trial court again denied the motion for a new trial, concluding that Canela’s recantation was not credible. Fernandez was denied permission to appeal.

In 2000, Fernandez had filed a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus in U.S. District Court. Over the years, the case had been held in abeyance while Fernandez litigated his state court petitions. In 2013, lawyers from the law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, which had been representing Fernandez since 2005, filed a third amended petition for a writ of habeas corpus. This petition claimed that Fernandez’s trial was unfair because the prosecution failed to disclose information to the defense and because the trial was marred by perjured testimony from witnesses.

In 2009, a private investigator had interviewed Mejias, one of the two gang members who claimed Fernandez admitted shooting Quintero. Mejias said that he had lied at the behest of the prosecutor and the detectives, including Melino. Mejias said that after he began cooperating, police took him to bars, where he got drunk and was provided with women to have sex with.

In 2014, federal Magistrate Judge Gabriel Gorenstein recommended that the writ be denied because the state court denials had been reasonable decisions. U.S. District Judge Kimba Wood adopted the recommendation and Fernandez’s lawyers appealed.

In February 2019, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed and granted the writ. The court ruled that the state court’s denial of Fernandez’s petition for a new trial based on Canela’s recantation was erroneous. The appeals court upheld the denial of the writ on the claim that the prosecution should have disclosed Melino’s drug-dealing allegations sooner, but concluded that “the state court’s rejection of Jesus Canela’s recantation—in part premised on the finding that Canela was ‘trying too hard to be convincing,’” was an “unreasonable” determination.

The prosecution then offered Fernandez an opportunity to plead guilty to manslaughter in return for his immediate release. Fernandez refused the offer.

He was released on bond on August 2, 2019 pending a retrial. On September 13, the prosecution dismissed the charge.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 10/7/2019
State:New York
County:New York
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1993
Convicted:1996
Exonerated:2019
Sentence:25 to life
Race:Hispanic
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:20
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No