Amanda Rosario remembered a big gray room, and she remembered the smell of it. She hated the smell of it. She was on her mom’s lap, she remembered, and her dad sat across from them. Her mom wore dark jeans and her dad had a thin face. That’s all she remembered of the last time she saw him. She was three at the time.
She was six when she figured out that the big gray room was inside a prison and that her dad was in prison. There was no single moment of enlightenment. She learned the information gradually, in pieces she had to put together. She was a perceptive child, headstrong and curious. When adults gathered in the living room or kitchen, she eavesdropped behind a wall. They often talked about her dad, and when they did their voices were sad. They talked about visiting him. She sometimes heard them mention the word “prison.”
She knew what prison was. That’s where they keep bad people. It didn’t occur to her, though, that her dad was one of the bad people. He sent her letters, three or four each month, telling her how much he missed her and loved her. She read them in her bed and kept them stored in the corner of the closet tucked inside her copy of The Cat in the Hat, which her dad had bought her. Her mom and auntie and grandparents had told her many things about her dad, too. He wrote songs and made her mom laugh. He was full of life and a good man, and he loved her. The conflicting thoughts — prison for bad people, her dad in prison, her dad a good person — never intersected in her mind. They remained separate, independent truths.
She wasn’t supposed to know he was in prison, she could tell that much. She was supposed to believe he was in the military. That was what her mom said whenever Amanda’s little brother, Richard Jr., asked where their dad was. He’s in the military, stationed in Japan, and he can’t come home right now but he’ll be home soon, Minerva Godoy would say. He misses you very much and he loves you.
Her mom was trying to protect them, Amanda realized as she got older. So that they wouldn’t think their dad was a criminal. So that they had something to tell kids at school who asked about him. Amanda felt bad for her mom. Her mom had to carry this weight alone so that she and her brother could have a stable, normal, peaceful, happy childhood. So Amanda protected her mom. When her mom told them that their dad was in Japan and would be home soon, Amanda smiled and nodded and never questioned.
She was a leader like her father, Amanda’s relatives told her. She’d inherited his forceful personality and his stubborn streak. She took gymnastics classes and sang in the school chorus — a natural performer, just like her father.
She took pride in the comments, but they wore on her, comparisons to a man she had never really met. As her 13th birthday approached, she resolved to see her father again. She told her mother, making it clear she didn’t believe the stories about him serving overseas.
Conceded Minerva: “Your father is in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.”
“Why is he there if he didn’t do it?”
Jorge Collazo was the youngest of five children and the only boy. He came from a two-parent, working-class family and grew up in a small apartment in the Castle Hill projects in the Bronx. For much of his childhood, he shared a bedroom with his four sisters. They were protective of him at first, but by the time he was in high school, he was the one looking out for them. He was a playful boy, and neighbors told his parents how they loved that he always held the door open for them.
On June 19, 1996, the day after his sister Guanica’s birthday, 17-year-old Jorge walked down White Plains Road with his friend Michael Sanchez. It was an overcast afternoon. Two other young men, a Hispanic man and a black man, passed them on the sidewalk. The Hispanic man said something to Collazo and Collazo said something back. They began arguing: “Why you got to front?” “So how you gonna handle this?” and so on, back and forth like that for about 10 minutes. The argument died down and the groups parted ways. Collazo and Sanchez made a left on Turnbull Avenue.
A couple of minutes later, the Hispanic man approached them from behind. When they turned around, the man was already pointing the gun at Collazo. He shot him in the head and ran off.
More than 500 people showed up at the wake. The funeral home director told Jorge’s father that it was the most people he’d ever seen at the place in his 20-plus years.
Police arrested 19-year-old Richard Rosario at his mother’s house in the Bronx on the night of July 1. Rosario had a long juvenile rap sheet, including a stabbing and a robbery. He was also a suspect in a recent armed robbery.
Guanica Collazo and one of her sisters visited Rosario in jail. They wanted to confront him themselves, Guanica told the Voice in a recent interview. He said he didn’t know who killed their brother and that he was sorry for their loss. But he didn’t maintain eye contact and his tone sounded hollow, she says. He seemed angry and callous. The two sisters left the jail certain he was guilty.
Rosario’s murder trial began on November 10, 1998, in Bronx Supreme Court. It took five days. Michael Sanchez and Robert Davis, a custodian who was sweeping the sidewalk 20 feet away from the spot where Collazo fell, testified that they had picked Rosario’s face out of a police photo book and pointed him out in a lineup. They identified him in the courtroom as the shooter.
Jose Diaz, a hot dog vendor, testified that he witnessed the argument. But when he took the stand, and the prosecutor asked him if he recognized “anyone here today in court that may have been involved in the argument,” he replied that he did not.
Rosario testified that he was in Florida on the day of the murder. He had been there since late May, he said. He took a bus to New York City on June 30 after his sister had called to tell him that a detective came by their mother’s house to talk to him about a murder. Rosario had the Greyhound Bus return ticket. He did not have the New York-to-Florida ticket, though, and a record of the purchase was not in Greyhound’s New York City database. “In New York City, because we are so large, we don’t hold them,” a Greyhound terminal manager testified. “We trash them.”
Rosario’s defense attorney called two witnesses who corroborated Rosario’s story. John Torres and Jeanine Seda each testified that Rosario was staying at their apartment in Deltona on June 19, 1996. They remembered the specific date because on the next day, June 20, Seda gave birth to the couple’s first child, John Jr.
Lead prosecutor Jeanne Petrauskas argued that Torres and Seda were lying to protect their friend. With no physical evidence tying Rosario to the crime, this was a battle of witnesses. The two eyewitnesses were far more credible than the two alibi witnesses, Petrauskas said.
“The mind’s eye works like a camera,” she told the jury. “With a camera, you push a button and in moments you have a permanent image in the form of a photograph. And here, when Michael Sanchez saw the defendant shoot his friend, it clicked and it was forever engraved in his mind.”
After deliberating for less than a day, the jury found Rosario guilty of first-degree murder. The sentence was 25 years to life. Upon hearing the verdict, Rosario shouted curses at the judge.
Minerva Godoy moved with her children from Queens to Florida before the trial began. Her parents had relocated to Orlando, and Minerva wanted her kids to grow up around an extended family.
They lived in a two-story house with three big oak trees in the front yard and a sprawling grassy slope in back. It was a big house, but it didn’t feel big. Amanda’s grandparents, her aunt, and her two cousins lived there, too, and Amanda shared a bedroom with her mom and brother. Minerva got a minimum-wage job as a clerk at Blue Cross Blue Shield and worked her way up to a data-analyst position. She got engaged for a time and gave birth to a daughter, Chrystal.
Amanda had had a happy childhood in Florida. But as she made plans to visit her dad, it occurred to her just how far away he was. Thinking of him in prison made her angry: She wasn’t sure how an innocent man could end up in such a fix, but it had to be only a matter of time before somebody in charge — a lawyer or judge or detective — spotted the error.
The cause of his incarceration was abstract and lacked a target for her anger. Instead, she directed her resentment at her mother. “She felt that I shouldn’t have left New York,” Minerva says in retrospect. “She felt I separated her from her dad.”
Though her mother had allowed a visit, it took a lot of planning, and in the end, Minerva couldn’t get time off work. Frustrated, Amanda, now 13, asked if she could fly to New York alone. Her mother resisted, but then gave in.
After the flight, she spent a night at her grandmother’s house in the Bronx and woke the next morning at five o’clock. She took extra care combing her thick black hair. When she looked at her reflection in the bathroom mirror, she saw the round face and calm, dark brown eyes she’d inherited from her mother. The bus ride upstate took six hours and she was tense and eager the whole way.
Prison was a frightening place — loud metallic noises, long corridors, serious faces. The guards nearly didn’t let her into the visiting room. Her tank top, they said, was cut too low. Her grandmother explained that the girl had come all the way from Florida to see her dad, to no avail. Amanda thought she might collapse. Then one of the guards said a man in the parking lot was selling shirts out of his truck. Amanda got one with a picture of the Twin Towers on it for $10.
Her father entered the visiting room at the same time she did and stood on the other side of a counter that stretched across the middle of the room. She began to sob. When she leaned over the counter to hug him, he backed away and said it was against the rules. They patted each other on the back instead. By now they were smiling. They sat down and stared at one another. He asked her if she remembered his face. Of course she did, she said.
Her father spoke with a controlled intensity, like a man trying to hide that he’s in a rush. Prison hadn’t made a dent in his Bronx accent. He was bigger now and had a scar on the left side of his face that ran from his ear to his cheek, and tattoos on muscular forearms. Other than that, he looked just like she remembered: lean face, sharp jaw, serious eyes. His hair was buzzed to a fade. He looked just like her brother.
They talked for six hours. Amanda cried the whole time but laughed a lot, too. When the visit ended, they went into a small adjacent room with a camera set up in front of a red backdrop. They were allowed to hug in this room. Her dad picked her up and rocked her in his arms like a baby.
When Amanda was in high school, her mom started saying her dad might be coming home soon. Her aunt and her grandparents said it, too. So did her dad. Usually, the adults only used those words when Amanda was feeling down, to console her. But now they were smiling when they said it.
The family had grown close in the years since Amanda first flew to New York to visit her dad. Now she, her mom, and Richard Jr. were making the trip together two or three times a year. There had been an adjustment period, of course. Amanda’s dad was overly affectionate, squeezing and kissing his children and speaking to them as if they were five-year-olds. Amanda had found it comforting, but Richard Jr. didn’t like the babying. He wriggled out of the hugs and acted indifferent to the kisses. Where Amanda had her father’s force of personality, Richard Jr. had his mother’s reserve. Unlike his sister, he wasn’t ready to embrace his dad’s attempts at fatherhood.
Richard Sr. began calling them every day. He wanted to know about test scores and whether the house was clean. When Amanda wasn’t home, he asked Richard Jr. where she’d gone, and when Richard Jr. wasn’t home, he asked Amanda where he’d gone. He lectured them for staying out too late and chided them for being materialistic. He set house rules: One friend over at a time. No arguing with Mom. When there’s a disagreement, discuss it as a family, and only the person wearing the special hat can speak. He told them his word was the final word.
Richard Jr. found his father’s incursions unreasonable at times, an unearned assertion of authority following years of absence. “I felt like I had to learn everything myself,” he says now. “I had to be my own father because I didn’t have a father there.”
Amanda sensed that her dad was trying to squeeze a decade of fatherhood into every six-hour visit or 30-minute phone call. He was learning how to be father from 1,000 miles away.
“I was overwhelmed,” Richard Sr. says. “I wanted them to be small kids so bad. Because if I accepted how much they had grown, I accepted how much time we had lost. All that time — they’re not gonna get it back. I’m not gonna get it back.”
Amanda watched as her father’s tone softened. His voice calmed, his pace slowed, and his patience grew. He relaxed his rules, listened to her feedback, and her brother’s. He no longer treated them like little kids, though he still sang “Happy Birthday” to Richard Jr. over the phone. In turn, she and her brother gradually understood what it meant to have a father. They developed a dependency. One Valentine’s Day, Richard Jr. asked his mom what he should do for his girlfriend. Upon hearing her advice, he sucked his teeth and said, “Never mind. That’s obviously what a girl would say. I need to ask Dad.” And after a rough breakup, Amanda turned to her father for advice on guys.
She watched her mom get closer to him, too. She caught them talking on the phone longer. “Why you guys talking so much?” she teased. Then Minerva made a visit by herself. It was clear to Amanda what was going on, and she liked the thought of her parents trying to keep the secret — whispering and giggling into the phone, sneaking around like she and her brother wouldn’t notice.
Minerva was discreet because she didn’t want to rush things. But she saw that Richard Sr. had found a peace and a clarity he hadn’t possessed 15 years earlier. “He transformed himself into a man,” she says now. “The love never subsided.
“But the loneliness was there,” she adds. “It’s the distance. I gave up on the perception that he was going to knock on my door and come home. But even after that, somehow we would always circle back.”
Amanda thought of all the small ways her life would change once her dad was home. “Your dad will be home soon,” she kept hearing.
It went on that way for months. Then it stopped. No explanation: The grown-ups just stopped saying it.
Amanda got used to prison.
Her visits became more frequent. After high school, she’d gotten a part-time job with an insurance company. She spent her money on plane tickets to New York and made the trip every three months. During one of those trips, when she was 19, she stayed out late partying in the city with her cousin and the next day arrived at Sing Sing at 1 p.m., four hours later than scheduled. Her dad gave her a stern lecture about taking their time for granted.
She’d grown numb to the security checks and the sound of steel locks clanging open and shut. The sound was the same at all the facilities: Attica, Great Meadows, Clinton, Five Points, Green Haven, Southport. The guards seemed the same too. But there were important differences. Sometimes she and her dad sat side by side in chairs. Sometimes Richard Sr. was behind a window with bars. Sometimes the family sat around a table.
She liked that setup the best, and so, by this standard, Sullivan Correctional Facility was an OK prison.
The family arrived at 9 a.m. on a Thursday in April. Richard Sr. grinned when he saw them. He gave Minerva a kiss (they had married a year earlier, in 2013). He hugged Amanda, Chrystal, and Richard Jr. There was no catching up to do, because by now they spoke by phone every day. Instead it was the kind of conversation families have around the dinner table: He showed off his impressions. (His best was Family Guy cartoon protagonist Peter Griffin.) He told stories — about the cake he baked for Amanda’s first birthday, about the day he first saw their mom walking with her sister on Morrison Avenue, about how he’d perform rap songs he wrote for them and Minerva. They played Scrabble and chess.
Near the end of the visit, he mentioned his case. It was moving forward, he said. A nonprofit organization that reviews potential wrongful convictions had taken up his cause a few years earlier. Now his lawyer had filed a motion to vacate the conviction, and he had a hearing scheduled for June. He felt good about this one.
He told them about all the things he looked forward to doing once he got home: He’d cook for all of them. He’d teach Chrystal how to box. He’d take Richard Jr. to a Knicks-Heat game. Amanda had recently enrolled at the University of Central Florida to study speech pathology, and he’d drop her off for class and pick her up. He’d help guide her in the singing career she was pursuing and teach her to play an instrument, too.
Amanda looked forward to all that, too, and she told him so. She felt hopeful. She always felt hopeful. But hope had betrayed her before.
She had begun asking her dad the questions a few years earlier: What’s going on with your case? When are you coming home? He’d say the case was going fine and it takes time and he’d be home soon. Then he’d ask her how about a game of chess or how was school going. She’d limit herself to two or three questions per visit. She didn’t want to push. He probably thought about the case every day, and these six hours were his escape. She’d gleaned scattered details but had no way of fitting them together.
She had never looked through the court documents, which resided in a fat file at home in Orlando. She hadn’t felt the need to. She never doubted her father’s innocence. She cared only about when he’d come home. Now, though, she wanted to understand why they insisted on keeping him in prison.
When the family returned from New York, she pulled out the folder and read every page.
“It was depressing and sickening,” she says.
Criminal defense lawyer Glenn Garber read Richard Rosario’s dossier in 2011. Garber is particular about which cases his team picks up. Wrongful-conviction proceedings require full-time focus, and his Manhattan-based law firm consists of three attorneys. The team works a handful of cases at a time, all of them murders, all of them pro bono, devoting hundreds of hours to each one. A single case can cost the equivalent of several hundred thousand dollars. For every five they litigate, they have 300 more under review, a process that lasts at least four months.
The Exoneration Initiative has litigated just 10 cases since Garber co-founded the nonprofit in December 2008. If the effort were baseball, they’d be batting .300. Derrick Deacon, Garber’s client for seven years and a New York state prison inmate for 24, is the team’s most recent home run. After a jury took nine minutes to acquit Deacon of murder in November 2013, Rosario moved to the top of Garber’s docket.
“Richard Rosario is absolutely innocent,” Garber says. “But justice doesn’t come easy. You have to take it. People think these guys are guilty. They think they got the right guy, had the right trial, and they’re wrong. The system is not designed to really ferret out the truth. The system is not designed to dole out fair trials for innocent people.”
There have been more than 1,000 exonerations in the U.S. since 1989. (Over that stretch, Bronx County boasts the highest rate per capita in New York state and the fifth-highest in the nation.) The numbers have escalated with the years, from 11 in 1989 to 46 in 1999 to 87 in 2013. DNA testing, first used in 1989, has much to do with that trend, providing scientific certainty that confessions can be false, eyewitnesses mistaken. But testable DNA evidence is present in comparatively few cases. More than 70 percent of all exonerations have not involved DNA.
Significantly, the growing list of documented wrongful convictions has disproved the prosecutorial dictum that the mind’s eye works like a camera. According to a University of Michigan Law School study, in more than three-quarters of overturned convictions, an eyewitness identified the defendant. Multiple eyewitnesses made an identification in more than a third.
Garber was more than familiar with the statistics by the time he reviewed Rosario’s conviction, which was based on two eyewitness identifications and no physical evidence.
In 2002, Rosario had appealed the original verdict, alleging incompetence on the part of his public defender, Joyce Hartsfield.
After his arrest in 1996, Rosario had given Hartsfield the names and addresses of 13 people who, he said, could testify that he was in Florida when Collazo was murdered. Hartsfield asked the judge to approve funding to send an investigator to interview those potential witnesses. Hartsfield would later tell the investigator, Jessie Franklin, that the judge had denied her request, Franklin stated in an affidavit. In February 1998, Rosario asked for a change in representation, and the court assigned his case to Steven Kaiser. In an affidavit submitted with Rosario’s appeal, Kaiser stated that Hartsfield had informed him “that the Court specifically denied her request to send the assigned investigator to Florida.” So Rosario’s alibi was buttressed only by John Torres and Jeanine Seda, who had moved to Pennsylvania, a modest car ride away from New York City.
But the judge actually had granted Hartsfield’s request, in March 1997. “Those additional witnesses may have caused a very different result,” Kaiser asserted in his affidavit.
Hartsfield was unable to shed light on what had transpired. She couldn’t recall telling Franklin and Kaiser that funding was denied. Nor could she explain why she’d failed to act when the judge had in fact approved her request. “I don’t know why I would say it was denied when it had been granted,” Hartsfield testified at the appeal hearing. “I didn’t recall that it had been granted.” (Hartsfield did not respond to interview requests for this story.)
Chip Loewenson, who handled Rosario’s appeal, argued that the conviction should be reversed on the grounds of “inadequate defense representation.” At the hearing, in August 2004, seven witnesses from Rosario’s list testified. Six said that they remembered seeing Rosario in Deltona, Florida, throughout June 1996.
The seventh witness was Minerva
She and Rosario had planned to move to Florida with their two children, she testified. He’d proposed to her on Christmas Eve 1995 and promised to clean up his act and find a job and an apartment in Florida. They would start fresh. Over the next several months, he made three trips south but found only trouble. During a stay in March 1996, he was charged with burglary and spent a month in jail. On his next sojourn, in late May, Minerva testified, he called her asking for money for a rental deposit. She sent the money but never heard back about the apartment, or a job.
The six other witnesses didn’t paint a flattering portrait of Rosario, but they were adamant and precise about his presence there. He dated women who didn’t know about his fiancée and children in New York, some testified. He spent his days playing video games and smoking weed at John Torres’s apartment, they said. Neighbors returning from work often saw him hanging out in the complex’s parking lot, drinking with friends. Four of the witnesses, friends and relatives of Torres, recalled Rosario’s presence in the days before and after Torres’s son was born mainly because of the discord he caused.
“Richard [Rosario] was the problem with Johnny and Jeanine,” testified Chenoa Ruiz, Torres’s sister-in-law. “They were always arguing over the fact that Johnny would be with Richard and not be with her. You know, this is their first baby. Johnny wasn’t involved like he should have been because he was hanging out with Richard.” When Seda had contractions on June 18, Ruiz added, “I winded up taking her to the hospital and Johnny didn’t because he was hanging out with Richard and all the other guys.”
The witnesses did not persuade Judge Edward Davidowitz, who in April 2005 upheld Rosario’s conviction, ruling that the lawyers’ mistakes didn’t affect the outcome of the case.
In 2010, a three-judge panel denied Rosario’s appeal of Davidowitz’s ruling. “We must presume the state court’s findings of fact are correct and can only be rebutted by clear and convincing evidence otherwise,” the majority wrote. “Whether our own cold reading of the record would lead us to this conclusion is of no moment.”
One member of the panel, Judge Chester Straub, dissented. He argued that the justice system had violated Rosario’s Sixth Amendment rights to effective legal assistance. At minimum, Straub opined, the defendant was entitled to a new trial. “There exists too much alibi evidence that was not presented to the jury and too little evidence of guilt, to now have any confidence in the jury’s verdict,” Straub wrote. “Because the prosecution’s case hinged so much on discrediting Rosario’s alibi defense, these additional witnesses could have made all the difference in the world. . . . Defense counsel put forth a half-baked alibi defense, leaving substantial additional alibi evidence unexplored, and Rosario is paying the price.”
Today, Loewenson calls the defeat “by far the biggest professional disappointment of my career.”
In March, Glenn Garber filed a new appeal, this one based on “actual innocence” — essentially, that the evidence proves innocence beyond a reasonable doubt. Garber’s appeal includes the testimony from alibi witnesses along with other facts that didn’t make it into Rosario’s original trial. Police notes, for instance, indicate that two eyewitnesses viewed photos at the precinct and did not pick out a shooter. Three people, whose names police redacted, had provided statements suggesting that Jorge Collazo, the murder victim, had slapped his ex-girlfriend at her workplace two weeks before he was killed, and that “this girl has some [guys] coming for him.” The trial jury had not known Collazo had been carrying a gun when he was murdered.
Additionally, a Volusia County, Florida, police field report indicated that at 2:42 a.m. on May 30, 1996, an officer questioned four men sitting in a car parked in front of a restaurant. Among the four were John Torres and Richard Rosario.
The Bronx Supreme Court gave the District Attorney’s Office 90 days to investigate Rosario’s claims. On June 26, prosecutors are scheduled to report on the progress of that investigation. If Garber is not satisfied with those findings, he likely will request a hearing to argue the case.
Citing the ongoing legal proceeding, a spokesman for the D.A.’s office declined to comment for this story.
Barring a quicker resolution, Richard Rosario will be eligible for parole in seven years.