Richard Rosario has been in prison for 17 years. His daughter was three years old and his son was two when he was convicted of murdering a man in the Bronx on June 19, 1996. One of the hardest parts of these 17 years was figuring out how the kids should learn about where their dad was. At first their mother Minerva told them that their father was in the military and based in Japan. He couldn’t come home right now but he would be home soon, she told them. “I didn’t want them to have this portrayal of their father as a criminal,” she says.
But by the time Amanda Rosario was 12, she’d caught on that her mother was hiding something and she told her mother so. Minerva decided to tell her: “your father is in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.” Amanda didn’t understand.
“She would ask the same question that I ask,” says Minerva. “‘Why is he there if he didn’t do it?'”
The victim was a man named George Collazo. Minutes before the shooting, Collazo and a friend had gotten into an altercation on Turnbull Avenue with two other men. One of the men, Collazo’s friend told police, returned and opened fire.
Collazo’s friend and one other witness picked Rosario’s picture from a police photo book and identified him as the shooter. (Rosario’s mug shot was on file because of a robbery conviction on his record.) No other evidence linked Rosario to the crime.
When Rosario, then-21-years-old, heard that police were looking for him, he turned himself in. He claimed that he was in Florida at the time of the murder. He and Minerva had been planning to get married and move away from New York and the influences that had pulled Rosario to the streets throughout his teenage years. He had friends in Florida and Minerva had family there, she said, so he took a trip down to try to find a job there.
John Torres and his wife Jeannine testified at trial that Rosario was at their home in Dentona, Florida on June 19, 1996. They remembered the specific date because their child was born the next day. Jeannine said that she’d been angry that John was staying out late partying with Rosario when she was so close to labor.
Prosecutors argued that the Torres’ were lying to protect their friend. The jury apparently agreed and found Rosario guilty.
The jury may not have agreed, though, if they’d heard from 10 other witnesses supporting Rosario’s alibi. Rosario’s court-appointed defender, in fact, knew those witnesses were out there. He filed a motion for the court to provide funding to track them down and fly them to New York. And the judge approved the request. But then Rosario got a new lawyer and, because of an unfortunate miscommunication, the new lawyer thought that the judge had denied the request and figured there was no way to get the witnesses. Indeed, the defense team was only able to call in the Torres’ because they had moved to Pennsylvania and were just a short and affordable bus ride away.
Rosario felt helpless and alone for the first decade or so in prison. He and Minerva stopped talking. His appeal was stalled. It dawned on him that there was a good chance he would have to serve his 25-to-life sentence.
“To say that this has been a tumultuous and often depressing 17 years does not begin to paint the picture of what I have endured and witnessed as a prisoner,” Rosario says. “I’ve missed my wife and children dearly but I cannot begin to imagine the pain that my family endured and the damage that my absence has done to my children.”
Once Amanda learned where her father was, she told Minerva she wanted to meet him. The family, living in Florida by this time, made the trip to Sullivan Correctional Facility in upstate New York. Richard and Minerva saw each other for the first time in 10 years. The visits became regular and eventually, in January 2013, Richard and Minerva got married.
Rosario’s future does not appear as bleak as it once did. On Friday, lawyers from the Exoneration Initiative filed a motion in state Supreme Court to vacate his conviction on grounds of actual innocence. They are also in talks with the Bronx District Attorney’s Office, which can decide whether or not to defend the conviction.
“We’re having a productive dialogue with the prosecutor’s office,” says Glen Garber, director of the Exoneration Initiative.
The D.A.’s office has good reason to consider the possibility of a wrongful conviction. The Tough on Crime mindset of the ’80s and ’90s produced many wrongful convictions, as we’ve learned in recent years, and every few weeks, it seems, there’s a new headline about some poor guy getting exonerated after spending 20 or so years behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit: folks like Eric Glisson, freed after 17 years; David Ranta, freed after 23 years; William Lopez, freed after 22 years; Anthony Yarbough and Sharrif Wilson, freed after 21 years; Derrick Deacon, freed after 24 years; and the list goes on. On top of those, there are the dozens more questionable convictions that Brooklyn D.A. Ken Thompson is currently reviewing.
Rosario’s case took a turn in 2008, when his appeals lawyer, Chip Lowenson, tracked down seven witnesses who then testified at a hearing that Rosario was in Florida on June 19, 1996. That initial appeal attempt, which cited “ineffective counsel,” failed. Though two of the three U.S. Court of Appeals judges agreed that Rosario’s trial lawyers made a critical error (failing to get the other witnesses), they concluded that this single mistake did not meet New York’s state standard for ineffective counsel, which judges a lawyer’s “overall” performance.
Lowenson calls the case “by far the biggest professional disappointment of my career. It’s the one that’s the most obvious miscarriage of justice. It haunts me. It’s such a failure of the system.” He passed the case over to the Exoneration Initiative, which now seeks to persuade a judge that there is enough evidence pointing toward Rosario’s innocence to demand at least a new trial.
Garber’s motion notes that the NYPD did not disclose to Rosario’s defense team that a third eye witness also looked through a photo book but did not identify Rosario. It states that the two witnesses who fingered Rosario offered different descriptions of the culprit’s attire, which raises “serious doubts about the reliability of their identification.” And it argues that detectives’ “tunnel vision caused them to seek only evidence which confirmed their belief in his guilt.”