An inmate whose wrongful-conviction claim has been championed by Martin Sheen is asking a court to throw out his murder conviction after prosecutors declined to do so.
Jon-Adrian Velazquez's lawyers filed papers Thursday. Attorney Robert Gottlieb says there's not enough proof left in the case after some eyewitnesses in the killing of retired police officer Albert Ward have backtracked.
Gottlieb was once a trusted adviser to Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, working on his transition team. Now Gottlieb is accusing Vance of failing to honestly investigate Velazquez's conviction.
The Manhattan district attorney's office reviewed the 1998 case during the last two years. Prosecutors have said they didn't find enough evidence to show Velazquez is innocent.
Gottlieb believes Vance is ignoring clear evidence that exonerates Velazquez, who is serving a life sentence in Sing Sing.
"It makes me feel like I've been dehumanized," Velazquez has said in an exclusive I-Team/Dateline NBC interview.
“It’s been a cruel joke what the DA has played on this family,” said Velazquez’s mother, Maria. “He will be a free man, because he must be a free man, because he is an innocent man.”
Initial reports after the murder had police looking for a black man named Mustafa who had cornrows or dreadlocks. Velazquez is Hispanic and at the time had short hair. Still, he was convicted after witnesses, including a drug dealer and a heroin addict, picked him out of a lineup.
Two eyewitnesses later recanted their identifications of Velazquez as the shooter. But prosecutors say one later changed his mind again.
Two other eyewitnesses stand by their testimony, while two additional witnesses have come forward saying a man named Mustafa told them he killed Ward.
Gottlieb and attorney Celia Gordon presented the new evidence to the Manhattan DA's Conviction Integrity Unit, but after an 18-month inquiry, Vance declined to dismiss the conviction.
In a statement, a spokeswoman for Vance said, “We have told defense counsel in writing, that the potential suspect identified by his team… was not even in New York state on the day of the murder.”
The spokeswoman did not elaborate.
Velazquez, who initially believed in the Conviction Integrity Unit, now says his hopes are dimmed.
“If anybody was to have hope it would be me,” he said. “Everybody had hope in me, but I'm still here. So anybody else in the same shoes as me, anybody else fighting a wrongful conviction, they're looking at me like, 'How could he still be in prison?'"
Sheen spotlighted Velazquez's case after visiting him in prison in 2011.