THE BRONX — A man who served 20 years in prison for a murder in The Bronx had his conviction vacated on Wednesday based on the determination that he did not receive a fair trial.
Richard Rosario, who was sentenced in 1998 for the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Jorge Collazo II in 1996, was released from prison after his lawyers and the Bronx District Attorney's office both moved to vacate his conviction.
Rosario had been sentenced to 25 years to life in prison after being convicted of murder for shooting Collazo once in the face on the afternoon of June 19, 1996 by White Plains Road and Turnbull Avenue.
Rosario maintained that he was in Deltona, Florida on the day of the murder and had nine witnesses who saw him there, but the witnesses were never interviewed, and his lawyer never sent an investigator to Florida.
"It is our contention that our client's right to a fair trial was undermined," said Glenn Garber, one of Rosario's attorneys.
"In particular, hie was denied the effective assistance of counsel," Garber continued.
Julian Bond O'Connor, deputy counsel to Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark, agreed that Rosario did not receive effective counsel at his initial trial and joined the motion to vacate his conviction.
However, the DA's office stopped short of dismissing Rosario's case entirely, with O'Connor saying that they were continuing to investigate the murder.
The charges against Rosario will remain open while the office decides whether or not to retry him, and Clark already sent members from her office and from the NYPD to Florida last week to interview many of Rosario’s alibi witnesses.
Rosario and his attorneys maintain that he is innocent and that it is only a matter of time until the charges against him are thrown out entirely.
"My family didn't deserve this," Rosario said. "I didn't deserve this."
"I hope this conviction is not just vacated but exoneration is given to me," he continued.
Judge Robert E. Torres granted the motion to vacate Rosario's conviction, and the courtroom burst into applause when he told Rosario that he was released from custody.
"Stay out of trouble," Torres told him. "That's all I need you to do."
This was not Rosario's first attempt to appeal his conviction. He challenged it in state court in 2004 but lost, and he has appealed his case to numerous federal courts as well, all of which upheld the conviction.
His new attorneys from the Exoneration Initiative filed another appeal based on new evidence and asked Clark to review the case in January when she took office.
“Imprisoned for half his life, Mr. Rosario was convicted at a trial where he had ineffective counsel, and several alibi witnesses were never interviewed by his attorney,” Clark said in a statement.
Clark cited reviewing prior convictions as one of her priorities at her inauguration in January and recently requested roughly $470,000 from the City Council to help staff a conviction integrity unit in her office, which would focus on addressing concerns with prior convictions and reducing the risk of wrongful convictions before cases go to trial.
Rosario wiped away tears multiple times during his court appearance, and although he said he has not yet made up his mind about Clark's office, he was extremely grateful to his attorneys for getting him out of prison after 20 years.
"I love my lawyers," he said at a press conference outside the courthouse, kissing both of them on the cheek. "Now can I leave?"