After an investigation by his office's Conviction Integrity Bureau, Suffolk County District  Attorney Ray Tierney announced the dismissal of three felony charges against Rodolfo Taylor, a former Central islip resident who was convicted in 1984 and served nearly 27 years.      Credit: James Carbone

A former Central Islip resident, who spent nearly 27 years in prison for three gas station robberies, held back tears Thursday as a Suffolk County judge vacated his convictions, citing evidence pointing to other potential suspects that was never turned over to the defense.

Rodolfo Taylor, 61, of Brooklyn, who was released from prison in December 2009, said the dismissal of his case was a long time coming.

"I left prison 12 years ago but today, for the first time in 40 years, I feel free," Taylor said in Criminal Court in Riverhead.

For nearly 40 years, Taylor, who is married with an adult daughter, has denied any role in the robberies. Taylor's refusal to take a plea deal during his 1985 trials led to a lengthier prison sentence and he was denied parole after refusing to express remorse for the robberies.

It was only after Taylor, who has no legal background, requested case documents from Suffolk police while still behind bars that he discovered that several witnesses originally identified other suspects but that information was never shared with the defense.

"It's very rewarding," Taylor said outside of court, surrounded by friends and family. "It took patience, perseverance and good family."

The charges were dismissed following a lengthy investigation by the Suffolk District Attorney's Office Conviction Integrity Unit.

"I chose to dismiss all charges against Mr. Taylor because he was unfairly convicted, period," said Suffolk DA Ray Tierney.

Taylor was convicted after two jury trials connected to three gas station robberies in Central Islip and Brentwood in 1984.

At the time of the robberies, Taylor was 24, had a 3-year-old-daughter and had applied to a Northrop Grumman apprenticeship program. Taylor, who is certified in machinery, was accepted into the program shortly after his trial.

Each of convictions, records show, was obtained solely from the testimony of five eyewitnesses who identified Taylor as the perpetrator during lineups or photo spreads.

He was convicted during his first trial of two robberies and sentenced to 9 to 18 years in prison. After rejecting a plea on the third robbery charge, Taylor was convicted and sentenced to 9 to18 years in prison — to be served consecutively with the first case.

During his incarceration, Taylor missed countless birthdays, graduations and weddings and was unable to attend the funeral of his father and great-grandmother, who had helped raised him.

"While the people closest to me lived their lives, my life stood still," said Taylor, who relied on family and his Islamic faith to survive.

Juan Nino was only 8 when his older brother was sentenced.

"This journey has been rough for our whole family," said Nino, who would often travel from Virginia to upstate prisons to visit his brother. "… I always believed in his innocence. He's one of the strongest men I've met."

Taylor would file multiple appeals, all of which were rejected. But in 2006, he filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking records from his case.

Those documents showed the witnesses originally identified several other men, with similar ages and physical descriptions to Taylor, as being potentially responsible for the robberies. All five witnesses, along with the detectives in the case, have died, do not remember the crime or declined to cooperate with the probe.

On three occasions, Taylor went before a parole board, which asked if he felt remorse for the crimes. Taylor continued to press his innocence and parole was denied.

"He has never once wavered in his claim of innocence," said Louis Mazzola, an attorney with the Suffolk County Legal Aid Society's Appeals Division, who along with colleague Kirk Brandt worked Taylor's case for a decade.

Taylor was released on Dec. 22, 2009 but it would take another 12 years to finally clear his name.

In court Thursday, prosecutors said while there is insufficient support for a full exoneration — based on the lack of available witnesses — the failure to turn over documents deprived Taylor of his constitutional right to a fair trial.

"It's clear that justice can only be served by dismissing all of the charges," said Supreme Court Judge Richard Ambro. "Good luck Mr. Taylor. I hope you can enjoy your freedom."

Taylor, who is considering a civil suit, said he never gave up hope that this day would come.

"You've vindicated my family's faith in me," Taylor told Ambro. "Now they can look in the eyes of every person who doubted or believed in me and say, 'Rudolfo Taylor did not commit these crimes.'"

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