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Neftali Velasquez

Other Philadelphia County Exonerations
Just before midnight on October 17, 2012, Domingo Rivera was shot to death outside Jecko’s Lounge in the Fairhill section of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

According to the autopsy, Rivera, who was 29 years old, had been shot 10 times, with all the bullets entering his body from the rear. There was no stippling, the autopsy said, suggesting that Rivera was shot from a distance of at least two feet. A crime-scene investigator would later testify that police recovered flattened bullet projectiles under the front of Rivera’s shirt, indicating that the shooter likely stood over Rivera’s fallen body as he fired.

Detectives with the Philadelphia Police Department quickly canvassed the area looking for witnesses. They interviewed Wendy Quiles, who said she had gone to the bar with Rivera, who went by the nickname “June.”

In a statement Quiles signed on October 18, she said that she and Rivera had stepped outside to smoke a cigarette. “And I couldn’t have taken two puffs before I hear all of these gunshots,” the statement said. “I turned a little and saw a Dominican guy wearing a black T-shirt with his hand raised and shooting a gun.”

Her statement, made to Detectives Derrick Jacobs and James Pitts, gave this description of the shooter: “He was dark-skinned. About my height maybe. He wasn’t tall. He was wearing a black T-shirt. It was dark, so I can’t really say what color his hair was, but I can tell you he wasn’t bald... He wasn’t big, and he wasn’t small. I can’t really tell men’s weight, so I would say he was average.” Quiles looked at some photos but did not make any identifications.

The investigation continued. About two weeks after the murder, police picked up Raphael Rodriguez from a city jail and brought him in for questioning. According to a statement Rodriguez signed, a man named “Neftali” had shot Rivera a week or so after Rivera had pulled a gun on Neftali’s brother.

In the statement, Rodriguez said: “Me, Neftali, and Jonathan were already in the bar. [Rivera] came in with two girls. [Rivera] started dancing with the two girls and, as [Rivera] is dancing, he asked Jonathan to join him dancing with the two girls. Asking what we were going to do with them. [Rivera] was being a smart ass, so Jonathan told him to go to hell. After that, Neftali wanted to shoot [Rivera] right in the bar, but Jonathan told him not to do it in the bar or in the bathroom. Neftali left the bar first, and then [Rivera went] out, and then me and Jonathan went outside, too. Once outside, seconds later, the gunshots were fired.”

Jonathan Rodriguez was brought in for questioning on January 4, 2013. In the statement that Jonathan signed, he identified 28-year-old Neftali Velasquez as the person who shot Rivera. According to his statement, Jonathan said: “I am sorry I did not tell you guys sooner what happened. You have to understand, Nefti grabbed me after he killed June, and he told me not to say anything.”

Jonathan said Rivera had a reputation as a hard person to get along with. “Everything was cool until June came in the bar,” he said in the statement. “Then Nefti was getting angry with June. Nefti and June were arguing a little bit in the bar. I know the owner, and that bar is cool. And I told them both to go outside and not to start trouble inside. They both went outside of the bar. Then, as they were both going outside, I was right behind them. Then they went out the door. And once they were outside, Nefti started shooting June. I ran back inside of the bar, and the shots were still going.”

Quiles returned to the police station on January 7, 2013. According to a police statement and her initials, she signed a statement identifying Velasquez as the man who shot Rivera.

An arrest warrant was issued for Velasquez on March 11, 2013. Police went to several addresses and later, on March 29, talked to Velasquez’s mother-in-law, who said that Velasquez and her daughter had moved back to Puerto Rico. He was taken into custody by U.S. Marshals in Puerto Rico that day and returned to Philadelphia on May 22.

Velasquez’s jury trial in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas began in January 2016, presided over by Judge Genece Brinkley.

As a later court filing would note, the state’s case went “south,” as the witnesses—Quiles, Raphael Rodriguez, and Jonathan Rodriguez—each testified that their statements were inaccurate.

Quiles testified that she never identified the shooter, and that her statement was wrong. She agreed that her signature and date were at the bottom of the statement, but only because the police told her she had to pick someone. She said the police made up the answers in her statement.

Detective Thorsten Lucke testified that he and Detective Tracy Byard took Quiles’s statement, and that neither officer told her she had to pick someone. He said that Byard typed up Quiles’s answers, and that Quiles reviewed the responses before signing. He testified that the only photograph Quiles recognized was that of Velasquez, and she said, “That’s the guy from that night.” Raphael Rodriguez testified that he saw Rivera get shot and killed but he did not see the shooter in the courtroom. He said that the person who shot Rivera was fatter and had more hair than Velasquez.

He testified that when officers first questioned him about the case in October 2012, they bound him to a chair and one officer beat him because he didn’t want to talk. He was unable to describe the officer. Rodriguez also testified that did not want his statement videotaped because of concerns that it would end up on the street.

He testified that when he gave a statement to police, he said the shooter was a person named “Nefti,” but the detectives wrote down “Neftali” instead. He testified that police told him to write Velasquez’s name under his photograph and also that his statement was accurate except for the Nefti-Neftali error.

Detective William Sierra, one of the officers who took Rodriguez’s statement, testified that Rodriguez was neither beaten nor forced to say or sign anything. He said Rodriguez never indicated that Nefti was anyone other than Velasquez.

Jonathan Rodriguez testified that he did not know Rafael Rodriguez, although Rafael testified that they knew each other. Jonathan said that he knew Velasquez because they had grown up together in Puerto Rico and were distantly related. He said he was drunk and high on October 17, 2012, and could not remember whether Velasquez was present when Rivera was shot.

Jonathan testified about the police questioning him on January 4, 2013. He said he was at the station for 18 hours before being questioned and that he recognized his signature at the bottom of the statement that police said he made.

Jonathan also testified that he identified a photo of Velasquez and wrote “Shot June” under the photo, but he said that was a mistake. Jonathan said that he never told the police that the person in the photo shot Rivera, just that he knew the person. Detective Thomas Gaul testified that Jonathan was not mistaken when he wrote “Shot June” under the photograph. He said the police did not force him to sign anything. He said that Jonathan appeared very nervous during the interview.

Velasquez presented a limited defense. His attorneys introduced a stipulation that said Velasquez and his wife had bought tickets to Puerto Rico on October 12, 2012, before the murder. The departure date was December 10, and the return date was January 21, 2013. Although Velasquez and his wife didn’t get on the return flight, this was before the issuance of the arrest warrant. Another stipulation said that several witnesses could, if called, testify that Velasquez was a peaceful, law-abiding person.

In its closing argument, the prosecutor said that the state’s witnesses had recanted their statements because they were scared to testify against Velasquez. He said the statements corroborated each other and the witnesses were consistent in identifying Velasquez.

The jury convicted Velasquez of first-degree murder and a weapons violation on January 25, 2016. He received a prison sentence of life without parole.

Velasquez appealed, arguing that there was insufficient evidence to support a conviction. He said the police statements attributed to Quiles, Rafael Rodriguez, and Jonathan Rodriguez were unreliable because they were so inconsistent with their testimony. The Superior Court of Pennsylvania affirmed the conviction on June 20, 2017.

In November 2017, Detective Phillip Nordo was suspended with intent to dismiss after an investigation showed he paid a witness in another case.

Although not the lead detective in the Rivera investigation, Nordo had played a small but critical role when police interviewed Jonathan Rodriguez. At the time, Rodriguez was on probation, and Nordo asked the probation department to detain Rodriguez. The request was illegal, and the department declined to assist. Nordo then held Rodriguez in the homicide unit for nearly a day prior to Rodriguez making a statement.

In February 2019, Nordo was indicted on charges of sexually assaulting witnesses and suspects, including once in an interrogation room. (On June 1, 2022, a jury convicted him on two assault charges​, as well as ​obstruction of justice and official oppression, and he was sentenced to 24 ½ to 49 years in prison.)

After Nordo’s indictment, the Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) of the Philadelphia County District Attorney’s Office began reviewing his cases.

On April 9, 2018, Velasquez, now represented by Karl Schwartz, filed a motion for a new trial under Pennsylvania’s Post-Conviction Relief Act. The motion was amended several times as Schwartz and the CIU re-investigated the case.

In a response filed on January 20, 2021, the CIU asked the court to hold an evidentiary hearing and vacate Velasquez’s conviction, which it said was marred by Nordo’s misconduct, the failure of prosecutors to disclose exculpatory evidence, and misrepresentation of the evidence.

In the state's closing argument, a prosecutor had said that prior to Quiles's trial testimony, she had provided “consistent and corroborated” identifications of Velasquez. But this wasn’t true. Quiles had met with prosecutors on October 17, 2014, and said she could not identify the shooter “because it was all black.” At the time, she acknowledged her earlier identification of Velasquez but said “she simply picked someone at random in the photo spread because police said ‘they needed someone.’” This inconsistent statement, marked as “Confidential Work Product,” was not given to Velasquez’s attorney.

Rafael Rodriguez testified that he had been accused of murder. But that, too, was incorrect. He had been convicted of the crime and sentenced to prison. Prosecutors knew this prior to trial, didn’t disclose it to the defense, and failed to correct Rodriguez’s testimony. According to Velasquez’s motion, prosecutors had also failed to disclose that Rafael Rodriguez received a preferential plea agreement in an unrelated case involving drugs and an attempted murder in Philadelphia.

The CIU investigation uncovered Nordo’s effort to hold Jonathan Rodriguez, which corroborated Jonathan’s testimony about his lengthy wait prior to questioning. Separately, the CIU said prosecutors failed to disclose that Nordo had on more than one occasion, dating back to 1995, used illegal and coercive tactics during interviews and interrogations of suspects and witnesses.

Nordo was not the only tainted officer involved in the Rivera case. Pitts was charged with perjury and obstruction in March 2022, based on accusations that he lied under oath about whether he beat Obina Onyiah into giving a false confession.

On December 6, 2022, Judge Lillian Ransom granted Velasquez’s motion for a new trial and vacated his conviction. Velasquez remained incarcerated.

On July 24, 2023, the state dismissed the charges against Velasquez. He was released from jail. Because of the disclosure issues and the involvement of Nordo and Pitts in questioning two of the witnesses, prosecutors said they no longer had confidence in their statements and lacked sufficient evidence to pursue another trial.

By August 2023, investigations into Nordo’s misconduct had led to the exonerations of eight other men: Gerald Camp, Rafiq Dixon, James Frazier, Marvin Hill, Arkel Garcia, Sherman McCoy, Jamaal Simmons, and Neftali Velasquez.

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 8/14/2023
Last Updated: 9/1/2023
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Weapon Possession or Sale
Reported Crime Date:2012
Sentence:Life without parole
Age at the date of reported crime:27
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No