Martin Sheen shone a spotlight Monday on a prisoner's efforts to get his 1999 murder conviction thrown out, saying the case "cries out for justice."
Meeting inmate Jon-Adrian Velazquez at a suburban prison Monday "confirmed my belief that he is an innocent man," the actor said at a news conference later in the day outside a Manhattan courthouse. "I came away inspired. He is a young man on fire with the truth."
Sheen's appearance trained some star power on a case that involves a longstanding issue getting new attention from the U.S. Supreme Court: the reliability of eyewitness identifications of suspects.
Convicted of fatally shooting retired police officer Albert Ward in an underground betting parlor in 1998, Velazquez is serving 25 years to life in prison. But he and lawyers Robert C. Gottlieb and Celia A. Gordon are trying to persuade Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus. R. Vance Jr. to reinvestigate the case and exonerate Velazquez.
Vance's office is reviewing the case, spokeswoman Erin Duggan said Monday.
With no DNA or other physical evidence against Velazquez, "this case is strictly the result of eyewitness misidentification" from photo arrays and lineups that weren't properly conducted, Gottlieb said.
Retired from the police force since 1977, Ward, 59, was in a Harlem betting parlor when two men came in and announced a stickup on Jan. 27, 1998, authorities said. Ward pulled his gun and fired, and the robbers fired back, hitting him in the face and killing him, according to authorities.
After a witness picked Velazquez's photo out of a police book, that witness and three others identified him in an in-person lineup.
Velazquez and another man, Darry Daniels, were charged. Daniels, who pleaded guilty to first-degree robbery and was sentenced to 12 years, testified during his plea that Velazquez was his partner in the robbery and had shot Ward. Daniels wasn't called to testify at Velazquez' trial.
Two eyewitnesses have since given Velazquez's lawyers sworn statements recanting their identifications of him.
While the suspect was described as a black man with braids, Velazquez is Hispanic and wore his hair short, his lawyers have noted.
His mother, Maria, has long said Velazquez couldn't have been involved in the shooting because he was on the phone to her, from his home, moments before it happened. But "as his mother, I wasn't believed," she said Monday.
Eyewitness identifications are a venerable and crucial part of the criminal justice system, but they also have played critical roles in many cases in which people were wrongly convicted and later exonerated through DNA evidence.
The Supreme Court heard arguments last month in a case involving a New Hampshire man who was convicted of theft based on eyewitness testimony; he wants to extend judges' power to exclude such testimony in some circumstances. The high court hasn't yet ruled.
Since taking office nearly two years ago, Vance — a former defense lawyer — has taken the unusual step of establishing a unit that explores claims of wrongful convictions.
It has received about 100 referrals and reinvestigated about a dozen, Duggan said. One case was dismissed before trial; another case is on track for retrial after the initial conviction was vacated, she said. Prosecutors concluded two other convictions were sound; they're continuing to review the other cases.
Velazquez's lawyers say they're hopeful prosecutors will reach the same conclusions they have about the case. In the meantime, TV viewers will have an opportunity to judge for themselves; a piece about his case is set to air Jan. 8 on "Dateline: NBC."
"I don't think there's anybody who's fair-minded who's not going to be outraged by this," Sheen said Monday. He became aware of the case through his own lawyer, who is a friend of Gottlieb's. Sheen said he'd read Velazquez's voluminous submission to the DA's office and part of the trial transcript.
He went to meet Velazquez intending to encourage the inmate not to lose heart, but instead, "he's encouraging us. He's telling us to stick to it like a stamp," Sheen said. "He's telling us that justice will prevail."