When Prosecutors Cross the Line
A Prosecutor, a Wrongful Conviction and a Question of Justice
Michael Vecchione, head of the rackets division in the Brooklyn district attorney’s office, takes questions from the media in 2008. Vecchione is named in the wrongful conviction lawsuit brought against the city by Jabbar Collins and Joel Rudin. (Jesse Ward/New York Daily News)
by Joaquin Sapien
ProPublica, May 23, 2013, 9 a.m.
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Edwin Oliva, a 29-year-old petty thief and drug addict, says he was a wreck as he sat in a chair in the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office in winter 1995. A year earlier, he’d told police a lie that helped implicate a possibly innocent man in a murder. Now, prosecutors wanted him to repeat his story in court; he wanted to take it back.
Oliva says he had been on a crack and heroin binge at the time he’d made his initial claim, and that he told prosecutors he implicated the man only because of relentless pressure from police. A statement he had signed — asserting that he had heard a young man named Jabbar Collins discussing a murder plot days before a man wound up shot to death in a Brooklyn apartment building — was a fiction that detectives had fed him.
But the prosecutors, Oliva says, weren’t having it. Collins, the man Oliva had fingered, had already been arraigned based in part on Oliva’s word. Collins, then 21, was sitting in a Rikers Island jail cell awaiting trial, and the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office was intent that he stay behind bars for a very long time. Oliva was going to be a critical witness, whether he liked it or not.
When Oliva refused to testify, the prosecutors, led by senior Brooklyn Assistant District Attorney Michael Vecchione, threatened to charge him with conspiracy to commit murder, Oliva says. Prosecutors then held Oliva for several days at Lincoln Correctional Facility, a minimum-security prison in Harlem. But Oliva held firm.
“I refused to testify to a lie,” he said in a sworn statement submitted years later in federal court.
Vecchione’s team, Oliva says, finally found a way to leverage him: Oliva was out of prison on a work release program, so prosecutors got the privilege revoked, and on March 1, 1995, Oliva was transferred to Ulster Correctional Facility, a maximum security state prison two hours north of New York City.
Oliva was brought back to the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office for a meeting with Vecchione’s partner, Assistant District Attorney Charles Posner. According to Oliva, Posner told him that he could have his work release privileges restored if he’d testify against Collins.
“I felt trapped and desperate,” Oliva said. “And so I agreed.”
Oliva took the stand against Collins, insisting that his testimony was not a result of any agreement with prosecutors. And Vecchione, in a powerful closing argument, vouched for Oliva’s credibility.
“He saw something. He heard something,” Vecchione told the jury. “Someone asked him about it. And he is telling what he saw and he is telling what he heard. Nothing else.”
Jabbar Collins in a meeting at the law firm where he now works. Collins was convicted of murder in 1995, but won his release in 2008. (Andrew Burton for ProPublica)
Jabbar Collins was convicted of murdering Abraham Pollack, a rabbi from the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, and spent the next 15 years in prison. But he eventually gained his freedom through a rare federal petition in 2010, one asserting that prosecutors and police had invented, distorted and withheld evidence in his case. And now Collins is suing for $150 million, naming the individual prosecutors and detectives as defendants along with the city.
Based on an assortment of prosecution and government documents, as well as a number of sworn statements, Collins and his lawyer have asserted a staggering array of misconduct on Vecchione’s part:
Vecchione, they charge, coerced an illiterate drug addict named Angel Santos to testify against Collins by physically threatening him and sending him to jail for a full week. Vecchione, they claim, persuaded a minor drug dealer named Adrian Diaz to testify by chasing him down in Puerto Rico and helping him avoid violating the terms of his probation. In court, they maintain, Vecchione suborned perjury; he concocted cover stories about how Collins’ family threatened one or more witnesses. And while Collins spent a decade and a half in a state prison, Vecchione oversaw an effort to deny Collins access to the information that might have freed him.
In a series of filings in state and federal court, the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office has refuted Collins’ claims of misconduct. Officials say Oliva was promised no deal for his testimony; Santos took the stand voluntarily; Vecchione took no special steps to protect Diaz in exchange for his testimony; and the office handled Collins’ requests for records in good faith.
Today, Vecchione, 63, remains a senior figure in the office of Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes. Hynes has stood by him, heralding Vecchione as a principled lawyer and an effective prosecutor. Both Vecchione and Hynes refused to be interviewed for this article.
Benjamin Brafman and Alan Dershowitz, two prominent defense lawyers who say they have known Vecchione for years, cautioned against concluding Vecchione was guilty of what has been alleged.
“These allegations are based largely on unproved claims made in an adversarial complaint,” the lawyers said in a letter. “They have not yet been subjected to the full truth testing mechanisms of a judicial proceding.”
“In our view,” they asserted, “Mr. Vecchione has not been found to have committed any judicial misconduct.”
A review of Vecchione’s career shows that he has been a lightning rod for criticism for years. In a 1993 murder case, Vecchione was accused of withholding a cooperation agreement between himself and a key witness. State judges have chastised him for over-the-top behavior in court. Some defense lawyers, judges and former colleagues have said Vecchione is an all-too-willing lieutenant to Hynes, a loyalist interested in making headline-producing cases and then winning them at all costs.
Vecchione’s aggressive pursuit of Clarence Norman, the onetime Brooklyn political kingpin, failed to produce what the district attorney’s office most hoped it would — evidence that judgeships were for sale in Brooklyn.
Vecchione tried to prosecute a former FBI agent for helping arrange the murders of gangsters, only to have the case fall apart in embarrassment when it was revealed that Vecchione’s chief witness was disastrously unreliable.
And just last year, a prosecutor leading a sex trafficking unit overseen by Vecchione resigned amid accusations that she had withheld a victim’s recantation in a high-profile rape case.
For many legal experts, defense lawyers and advocates for the wrongly convicted, Vecchione is a prominent example of a troubling aspect of the American criminal justice system: Prosecutors who are implicated in misconduct often seem immune from meaningful punishment.
A recent investigation by ProPublica looking at more than a decade’s worth of court records found that New York judges don’t routinely refer prosecutorial misconduct to state panels that handle attorney discipline, even when they overturn convictions and upbraid prosecutors for constitutional violations. State disciplinary panels, when they do get referrals, rarely impose meaningful sanctions. The city’s district attorneys lack the will to punish their subordinates, perhaps out of fear of embarrassment. All told, ProPublica found 30 cases in which judges reversed convictions based on misconduct by New York City prosecutors. Just one of these prosecutors was publicly disciplined.
The pattern is much the same across the country. The Northern California Innocence Project reviewed 12 years of court opinions and found that California prosecutors were hardly ever disciplined after convictions were overturned because of their misconduct.
Frederic Block, the federal judge presiding over Collins’ civil lawsuit, has expressed something like amazement at Hynes’ unwillingness to sanction Vecchione.
“I’m just puzzled why the district attorney did not take any action against Vecchione,” Block said in court last fall. “To the contrary, he seems to ignore everything that happened. And an innocent man has been in jail for 16 years.”
Hynes appears more willing to investigate detectives who might have helped make bad cases. Earlier this month, his office said it would review 50 murder cases handled by a single retired Brooklyn homicide detective. The action came after Hynes supported the release of a man who had been wrongly convicted based on the work of the detective, Louis Scarcella. So far, there’s been no indication that Hynes’ review of that case, or the larger case review, will extend to the prosecutors who investigated side by side with Scarcella for years, attending the same possibly suspect lineups, accepting the now supposedly dubious confessions, vouching for the witnesses Scarcella helped identify.
Collins’ lawyer, Joel Rudin, is not at all surprised. Rudin has a long record of holding the city’s prosecutors accountable. He’s won millions of dollars in settlements from the city for wrongfully convicting people, and maintains a long list of cases in which prosecutors have broken ethics rules to win convictions, all without disciplinary sanctions. Often those prosecutors have been promoted after state and federal judges have excoriated their conduct.
Rudin’s allegations against Vecchione and the office he works for are built on a formidable assortment of depositions, prison records, sworn affidavits and a review of state appellate court records. Rudin is scheduled to depose Vecchione on June 14.
Jabbar Collins — guilty or not — never got a fair trial. Two federal judges have declared it so. Both have been unsparing in condemning the conduct of Vecchione. Block, who is handling the civil lawsuit, has said in open court that he’s eager to dig deeper.
“This was horrific behavior on the part of Vecchione,” Block said. “We are going to have a civil proceeding, and all of this is going to be uncovered. I kid you not.”
Hynes, meanwhile, does not seem outwardly concerned about Vecchione’s record, or any damage it might have done to his office. As he runs for a seventh term, Hynes has agreed to have his office be the subject of a prime-time CBS television show, “Brooklyn DA.”
A Second Coming
Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes at his office on March 21, 2013. Hynes has stood by Vecchione despite allegations of misconduct against him. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)
Brooklyn in the early 1990s was rife with racial tension, particularly between the borough’s large Jewish and African-American populations. The conflict was most visible in Crown Heights, where in 1991 the mutual suspicions erupted in several days and nights of unrest.
The newly elected Brooklyn District Attorney, Charles “Joe” Hynes, quickly found himself on the hot seat. The Jewish vote had helped him win office, but he had reason to fear losing that support: In October 1992, his prosecutors failed to convict a 16-year-old black man named Lemrick Nelson for chasing down a 29-year-old rabbinical student and stabbing him to death during the 1991 disturbances. Hynes’ handling of the case eventually became the subject of a damning state critique.
Under fire, Hynes wound up benefiting from the work of a prosecutor recently returned to his ranks. Mike Vecchione — who had begun his career in the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office 15 years earlier, followed by a career as a defense lawyer — had come back to the office at Hynes’ urging. Vecchione, a seasoned trial lawyer, was soon made chief of Hynes’ homicide bureau, taking on the most sensitive cases involving Jewish victims.
There were more than a few, and Vecchione consistently won convictions.
There was the 1992 case of 15-year-old Tziporah Yagodayev, strangled to death on the Williamsburg Bridge. Vecchione proved that a drug-addicted thief named Raymond Vargas was the killer, sending him away for 25 years to life. Later that year, a 37-year-old Hasidic mother died after being stabbed more than 35 times during a botched robbery. Vecchione won a murder conviction by showing that the defendant’s palm matched a bloody handprint found at the crime scene. When Vecchione emerged from the courtroom, he got a hero’s welcome from a group of overjoyed Hasidic women.
“He’s very smooth and confident in the courtroom,” said Alan Vinegrad, a former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, who once helped prosecute a kidnapping case with Vecchione. “He’s an excellent trial attorney. He had a great rapport with witnesses and could talk to real people in a real way.”
Vecchione, who had grown up in the Prospect Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, first came to work in the office in 1973 when Eugene Gold was the district attorney. He had gone to St. John’s University, and graduated as part of the first class of Hofstra University’s law school. He then took a job as a junior prosecutor.
His illusions of legal grandeur, however, were roughed up a bit on his very first day in criminal court.
“I was so proud, standing right in front of the bench, wearing my brand new suit,” Vecchione wrote in a 2009 book about his role in a famous police corruption case. “I was officially part of the great American tradition of jurisprudence. And then the judge, wearing the solemn robes of his office, cleared his throat, opened a top drawer in his desk, and spit right into it. And then closed the drawer. Well, so much for majesty.”
Vecchione said in the book that his first major case was a mob murder, and winning it meant more than anything to him. In a closed office late at night, preparing for trial, Vecchione said he came across a report that called into question the integrity of his main witness.
“It would have been absolutely nothing for me to take that report and tear it up or just throw it away,” Vecchione wrote. “No one would have known the difference. Not one person. I would be lying if I said the prospect of getting caught didn’t enter my mind. It did.”
Vecchione said he kept the report in the file and went to trial. He lost.
“One lie leads to another and another and another,” Vecchione said in explaining his decision. “And then the whole house of cards falls down.”
In the coming years, Vecchione won dozens of cases. Cases with loads of evidence, and cases with less than overwhelming proof.
“He had a passion for trying cases. He was very aggressive,” recalled Tommy Dades, a retired New York City detective who worked for years with Vecchione and who collaborated with him on the 2009 book. “Other prosecutors would want a video of the guy with a gun doing the shooting. Mike would say, ‘Tommy, get me a case, and we’ll try it. Corroborate it, and we’ll try it.'”
After a decade in the office, Vecchione left to start his own practice, and he proved to be a respected defense lawyer, too. One of his more noteworthy accomplishments came in a murder case involving a battered woman who killed her abusive husband by setting him on fire with cleaning fluid. The woman was found guilty of a lesser charge — criminally negligent homicide — and spared prison time.
Back for a second stint in the district attorney’s office, and piling up noteworthy triumphs, those who worked alongside Vecchione said his confidence only grew.
“Even back in the ’70s, he looked at himself as a tough guy, a take-no-prisoners kind of guy,” said one Brooklyn judge. “But at the time, nobody knew where he’d end up.”
Prosecutors live in the rough-and-tumble world of investigating often terrible crimes, and confronting the people who commit them. Deception, a bit of intimidation, the patience to wait out reluctant witnesses or suspects — much of it is condoned, even admired.
But some people in and around the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office in the 1990s, even fans of Vecchione, became wary of his ambition. They said they noted an emerging arrogance, and a habit of discarding friends and colleagues as he climbed in Hynes’ esteem.
“Mike, years ago, was a humbler guy, but when Hynes brought him back, that was the turning point,” said Dades, the retired detective. “That was when his ego started to get the better of him.”
‘I Refused to Testify’
Vecchione, by his own account, certainly exuded self-assurance when, early in 1994, he took over the investigation into the murder of a 35-year-old rabbi in Williamsburg. Shortly before noon on Feb. 6, 1994, Abraham Pollack was found crumpled in an apartment building hallway, oozing blood from six bullet wounds. Just moments earlier, Pollack, the father of nine, had been walking that hallway, collecting rent from his tenants.
When a homeless handyman living in the basement of the building heard gunshots, he ran to tackle the gunman, and tried to slash him with a knife. The handyman, Paul Avery, lost the tussle, badly, and ended up with two bullets in his body — one in his leg, another in his chest.
The killing stoked fear in the tight-knit Hasidic community. Early reports suggested a black man had been the assailant. Detectives hit the streets. And Mike Vecchione took charge.
In a sworn statement the district attorney’s office filed in state court years later, Vecchione declared that nothing of significance happened in the Pollack investigation without his knowledge and approval.
The investigation into Pollack’s murder was a couple of weeks old when, just past midnight on March 2, 1994, Edwin Oliva, high on crack or heroin or both, was brought into an interrogation room in the 90th Precinct in Williamsburg.
Oliva, in addition to a drug habit, had a lengthy rap sheet: First arrested at 17, he had, by age 28, been in and out of jail for most of his adult life. He was into stickups, burglaries, car thefts. When he got arrested, he typically pleaded guilty, did a short term behind bars — a year, maybe two — and then went right back to life on the street.
Inside the precinct that night, Oliva thought he’d be taking another routine trip through the revolving door of the New York justice system. He’d been picked up for yet another robbery. But this time, Brooklyn detectives Vincent Gerecitano and Jose Hernandez wanted to talk about something else. Oliva’s latest robbery had taken place in the dead rabbi’s building. The detectives pressed Oliva for any information about the murder there weeks before.
Detectives had initially been interested in two brothers from the neighborhood as the possible culprits. They were well-known local thugs and drug dealers, and under active investigation for a separate robbery. A witness said she saw one of the brothers bleeding heavily not long after the murder, raising suspicions that it was he who had been slashed by the handyman the day of Pollack’s murder.
The police said they had put out an alert immediately after the killing asking hospitals to report anyone being treated for a stab wound. Detectives soon talked to members of the brothers’ family, but they had denied any involvement and then got lawyers.
Not long after, police received a telephone tip from an anonymous caller saying that a young man named Jabbar Collins had killed Pollack. The focus of detectives and prosecutors turned quickly to Collins.
Collins lived in a nearby housing project and was a high school dropout who had been arrested once as a teenager for a robbery. He’d been treated as a youthful offender, and had no other record. He also, when first interviewed by police, said he had an alibi. He said he’d been at home at the time of Pollack’s killing, cutting his brother’s hair in his mother’s living room. His mother and girlfriend gave police statements backing him up.
Collins volunteered to participate in several police lineups. No one picked him out.
Yet when Oliva was in custody on March 2, the detectives began to ask insistently about Collins. Oliva, in sworn statements years later, said he told them the truth.
“I told detectives I knew Jabbar Collins for years, that we got high together,” Oliva said in a 2006 statement. He said he told police he’d heard Collins was “in trouble” concerning Pollack’s murder, but had no details.
“I told them I had no personal knowledge about it,” Oliva said.
But the detectives weren’t satisfied; Oliva was in the stationhouse for hours. Oliva said he began to feel sick, suffering from drug withdrawal. The police, he said, presented him with a narrative implicating Collins.
The detectives, who are named defendants in Collins’ lawsuit, could not be reached for comment. Arthur Larkin, senior counsel for the New York City Law Department, said the city “vigorously” disputed the allegation that detectives invented a statement for Oliva.
Oliva says that on that night in 1994, he at last succumbed to pressure. He signed a statement saying that he had overheard Collins and another man plot to rob Pollack days before the rabbi was killed. Oliva later said he signed it without so much as reading it.
Oliva pleaded guilty to the robbery he had been brought in on, and a year later was out of prison, living in a halfway house on a work release program. Collins was now going to trial, and Vecchione and Posner brought Oliva to their office. They wanted him to tell a jury the details of the robbery plot.
Oliva says he was dumbfounded. He was shown his signed statement. He insisted he had been tricked.
“I told them I had no knowledge that Jabbar committed the murder,” Oliva said in his recent sworn statement. “I refused to testify.”
In short order, correction department records show, Oliva was back behind bars, his work release freedom a thing of the past.
“I was devastated,” Oliva said. “I realized that Vecchione and Posner were serious and could do whatever they threatened.”
Vecchione and the district attorney’s office have denied the claim; Posner died a decade ago. Vecchione has said he first met and interviewed Oliva the night before the trial. There was no intimidation or coaching, he has insisted. Collins’ trial lawyer, Vecchione has pointed out, knew Oliva wanted to be returned to the work release program, and asked him about it at trial.
Oliva, in the end, relented, and under questioning on the witness stand, he turned into Vecchione’s star witness. He said he, Collins and another man had been snorting heroin together in a housing project staircase when it was suggested that Pollack would be a good target for a robbery. Oliva said the third man in on the plot, Charles Glover, lived in Pollack’s building, and had helped persuade everyone that the crime would be fairly easy.
“You don’t even need a gun to do it. All you have to do is go over there to rob the man, take the money and just get out the building,” Oliva testified that Glover had said.
Oliva testified further that after Pollack was killed, Glover told him not to say a word about their involvement to anyone.
“He told me to shut up because I talked too much,” Oliva testified. “He had told me that Jabbar Collins had got rid of the gun. I don’t know where.”
Glover — the man who, in Oliva’s telling, had helped hatch the robbery plan, and who lived in the very building where Pollack had been slain — never testified at trial.
According to police records, Glover was interviewed by investigators two days after the shooting and said he had been in the building when it happened and had not been involved. There is no record that police spoke with Glover after Oliva supposedly told investigators that Glover had been present for the planning of the robbery. Glover, who still lives in the same Brooklyn neighborhood, would not comment when reached this month.
Oliva, all these years later, has now signed another formal statement. He has done it on Collins’ behalf. And it has been submitted in federal court.
“During my testimony, I falsely accused Jabbar Collins of planning the robbery and of discarding the weapon,” the statement says. The assistant district attorneys “knew that I told them this was untrue.”
Joe Hynes had been elected in 1990 as a professional prosecutor of integrity and courage. As a special state prosecutor, he had gained acclaim three years earlier by winning manslaughter convictions against three white teens who were part of a mob that savagely beat three black men in Howard Beach, Queens, leaving one man dead and another paralyzed.
But after his election, Hynes came to be criticized by some as just another political animal. He had populated his ranks with highly paid assistants, and lost a handful of the office’s most seasoned and respected prosecutors. Some of those who left said Hynes had a vengeful side, and that he rewarded loyalty above all else.
“He’s another politician on the make, and his office is run in service to that,” Alan Broomer, a former prosecutor in Manhattan and State Supreme Court Justice in Brooklyn told The New York Times in 1994. “He’s used the office for his own ends.”
In that office, Vecchione was a man on the rise, winning promotions and raises, and moving into Hynes’ inner circle of strategists and confidants. His missteps did not seem to cost him. In 2001, in response to a Newsday reporter’s persistent inquiry, Vecchione, the divorced father of two sons, publicly admitted that he had had an affair with a subordinate — his trial partner on the Collins case, as it turned out. But his power in the office only increased.
Current and former Brooklyn prosecutors said in interviews that Vecchione had made clear to Hynes that if the boss wanted an indictment won and a case made, he was the man to do it.
Brooklyn firefighters climb to the roof of a Waldbaum’s supermarket in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Aug. 2, 1978. Minutes later, the roof collapsed, killing six firefighters. Eric Jackson-Knight was tried and convicted of setting the fire in 1980. Eight years later, a state appeals court overturned the conviction. (AP Photo)
Consider the case of Eric Jackson-Knight. In 1980, Jackson-Knight had been convicted of setting a Brooklyn supermarket on fire in what became one of the city’s most notorious crimes. The fire killed six firefighters, provoking weeks of grief and recrimination. Jackson-Knight was sentenced to 158 years on six counts of murder.
But doubts about Jackson-Knight’s guilt began to surface years later, and in 1987 the case took a stunning turn: A lawyer representing the families of the six dead firefighters seeking compensation for their loss determined that the fire had been accidental. The evidence was so clear to the lawyer, Bob Sullivan, that he agreed to help Jackson-Knight win his freedom. And in 1988, a state judge in Brooklyn overturned Jackson-Knight’s conviction.
Subsequent hearings to consider a retrial revealed a breathtaking assortment of misconduct by prosecutors that included concocting a false witness statement and concealing evidence that the fire had been accidental.
Nevertheless, Hynes, by then district attorney, decided in 1992 to retry Jackson-Knight. He was acquitted in 1994.
Even as that case was pending, Jackson-Knight could not seem to escape Hynes’ crosshairs. In the early 1990s, Hynes indicted Jackson-Knight for a variety of crimes, from car theft to gun possession, sometimes prevailing and sometimes not.
In 1992, Hynes’ office charged Jackson-Knight in a brutal attack: the rape and murder of a pregnant homeless woman in Coney Island. The development moved Supreme Court Justice Joseph Slavin to ask out loud in court: “Are you going to arrest this guy for every unsolved crime in Brooklyn?”
Vecchione took the case to trial.
The evidence against Jackson-Knight was far from overwhelming. Tests showed that his DNA didn’t match semen in a used condom found at the scene of the crime. Vecchione’s key witnesses were both drug-addicted prostitutes. One made the remarkable assertion under oath that she sold Jackson-Knight used condoms from her work with other clients so that he could cover his tracks when he raped women.
The other witness, Christine Maroney, fell apart on the witness stand, charging that prosecutors had kept her in a hotel, against her will, and coerced her to testify that she had seen Jackson-Knight rape the victim. Jackson-Knight was acquitted.
Hynes and Vecchione were not done. They took the rare step of formally charging Maroney with perjury. When she was convicted, the judge in the case, who had suspicions about the prosecution from the start, instantly set aside the verdict.
Sullivan, the fire union lawyer who represented Jackson-Knight during the rape and murder trial, said he thought Vecchione was an effective lawyer. But perhaps a too obedient one.
“In my opinion, he was just taking marching orders from Hynes,” Sullivan said.
A Witness Goes to Jail
Angel Santos was working as a part-time employee at a furniture store next door to Pollack’s building the day the rabbi was killed. When police interviewed him days after the murder, Santos told them he had called 911 after his father-in-law, who lived above the store, heard gunshots. Santos said he saw a black man run past the store window.
The police eventually showed Santos an array of photographs of possible suspects that included Collins. Santos said Collins was the man he saw and later picked him out of a lineup.
About a year later, Vecchione wanted Santos to appear at trial and issued what is known as a “material witness” order to force Santos to retell what he had told police.
It didn’t go well.
Santos later said in federal court that he had confessed to a serious drug habit; he was high “basically 24/7.” He then said he would not testify.
Vecchione became enraged, Santos later testified. He threatened to hit Santos with a coffee table. He threatened to prosecute him for perjury.
Santos said he was scared, but still refused.
“That’s when they send me to jail,” Santos said.
Prosecutors can legally lock up reluctant witnesses. But there are certain requirements for doing so. They must bring the witness before a judge. And they must see that the witness has a lawyer.
In this case, Vecchione persuaded the judge overseeing Collins’ murder trial, Judge Francis X. Egitto, to grant a material witness order remanding Santos to “civil jail,” but no evidence has come to light showing that Santos was actually presented in court, much less given a lawyer. Indeed, a federal judge said she was convinced no such basic legal steps were taken.
Hynes and Vecchione insist all protocols were followed.
Santos, in any event, remained locked up.
A week elapsed. Vecchione then arranged for Santos to be brought back to his office. Finally, Santos agreed to testify.
Collins’ current lawyer, Joel Rudin, alleges that Vecchione needed to create a phony story about why Santos had been picked up and sent to jail in the first place.
Vecchione, records show, directed a paralegal in his office to prepare a “Threat Analysis” report showing that Santos had received anonymous phone calls from people warning him not to testify against Collins. One of the detectives on the case then filed a complaint report with the New York Police Department saying that Santos had received similar threats months before.
Santos took the stand against Collins. Vecchione told the judge Santos had been placed in “protective custody” because of the threats he’d received. And Vecchione underscored in the courtroom that Santos and the others who had testified against Collins had appeared voluntarily.
“There is nothing in the evidence, there is nothing in the record, there is nothing directly brought out by the defense, there is nothing impliedly brought out by the defense that suggests that any of those witnesses had any reason to come in here and lie about Jabbar Collins,” Vecchione told the jury. “Nothing.”
Sixteen years later, Santos took the stand in a different proceeding — the federal court consideration of Collins’ bid for freedom.
He said he had never wanted to testify against Collins. He’d told prosecutors he had identified Collins at a time when he was on drugs all day, every day. He said, unequivocally, he’d never been threatened by anyone about testifying.
Except, he said, for Vecchione.
Win, Baby, Win
Conviction rates are a concern for every district attorney. They are one measure of an office’s success in fighting crime. According to people who worked for Hynes, conviction rates were a major factor in determining raises and promotions.
“Joe was the kind of guy who made it immediately clear that statistics were important and you were accountable for your conviction rate. Every Bureau Chief had to regularly report convictions and pleas and there was certainly a keen desire to meet target rates,” said one former Brooklyn prosecutor, who did not want to be quoted by name because of ongoing work in the courts.
In 1995, 30 prosecutors in Hynes’ office were fired.
“Those of us that were asked to leave left because our stats were not what they wanted them to be,” said one of the prosecutors who were forced out.
Vecchione never had issues with conviction rates. For Vecchione, summations were his specialty, emotional performances that helped win over juries. He said in his book that he loved it when he left people in the courtroom in tears, and he was unembarrassed about crying himself.
Others, including some state judges, found Vecchione’s performances improper, even abusive.
In one case, a state appeals court, while upholding the 1996 conviction of two young men in the killing of a New York police officer, said Vecchione’s theatrics in closing arguments might well have been improper. In his summation, Vecchione had called the defense’s argument “a fairy tale,” and told the jury it would be “making a mockery of this system” if it credited any aspect of one defendant’s testimony. Vecchione then read aloud the “Police Officer’s Prayer,” and urged the jury to convict so that the officer’s rest with the Lord would be “long and peaceful.”
But the state court’s modest rebuke of Vecchione was nothing like what was to come: Vecchione was accused by a man he’d convicted of armed robbery of having withheld a cooperation agreement with a key witness at trial. The accusation resulted in a rare federal court hearing, during which Vecchione, under oath, was pressed about the allegation.
Vecchione insisted on the stand that, while he had talked with the witness about a cooperation deal for his testimony, there was no written agreement until after the trial. He insisted he had no obligation to disclose anything about a cooperation agreement.
Bruce Barket, the defendant’s lawyer, was at the hearing and said Vecchione‘s attitude “seemed to be disdainful of the entire process,” as if asking, “How dare you ask me questions.”
The federal judge conducting the hearing, Edward Korman, certainly seemed unimpressed with Vecchione’s account. The judge had interviewed the witness, who had been in prison before and, before testifying for Vecchione, was facing gun and rape charges. The witness had wound up with an extremely lenient sentence for a violent and repeat offender.
The judge called the witness “a pretty shrewd piece of work,” and said he doubted the witness would have testified at all without a promise of a deal.
“The notion that he wouldn’t ask for anything,” Korman said in court, “that he would affirmatively say he didn’t want anything, strikes me as being almost totally inconsistent with his personality.”
Ultimately, Vecchione and the district attorney’s office folded before Korman could rule on whether the convicted robber should go free. While conceding no wrongdoing, the office agreed to release the man, who they suspected of being involved in at least three murders.
False Threats, Damaging Testimony
As Vecchione prepared to try Jabbar Collins, he was determined to enlist every possible witness. Which is why in early 1995 he set off for Puerto Rico to track down Adrian Diaz.
A year before, Diaz, a small-time drug dealer who had been working as a grocery store clerk, had given police some promising information: He’d identified Collins as the man he’d seen exiting Pollack’s building with a gun in his hand the day of the murder.
But Diaz had since moved to Puerto Rico, in violation of the terms of his probation. Vecchione wanted to bring him back.
Diaz, based on his statement to police, could be critical. Diaz was 19 and working at a Western Beef grocery store when he reached out to police. Records show that Diaz, among other things, was interested in the possibility of reward money. Gerecitano and Hernandez, the two detectives on Pollack’s murder, soon showed up at the Western Beef store. The detectives, records show, first tried to clear up the issue of reward money. They told Diaz that the police department did not pay rewards, but that community groups often did if the information provided helped lead to an arrest and conviction.
Diaz then told the detectives that he had heard gunshots the day of the murder and seen someone he knew from the neighborhood come out of the building. That person, as he fled, seemed to be trying to hide a gun in his waistband. Diaz picked Collins out from a number of photographs, and again in a lineup.
Vecchione, preparing to find Diaz in Puerto Rico, went to court and submitted an affidavit stating that Diaz had fled the country because he had been threatened by people involved in the Collins case. At that point, Vecchione had never met Diaz. No evidence has surfaced that recorded anything about threats against Diaz.
Vecchione ultimately led a small team to Puerto Rico, tracked down Diaz and persuaded him to fly back to New York and testify. On March 10, 1995, Diaz testified that Collins was the man he saw exiting Pollack’s building the day of the murder. But his testimony concerning what Collins was wearing differed markedly from the testimony of other witnesses. It differed, in fact, from what Diaz had said to police a year earlier.
There was no mention of threats against Diaz. No talk of intimidation.
After the trial, Vecchione wrote a letter notifying the Probation Department for the first time that Diaz had returned to New York to testify.
Vecchione’s letter said that Diaz had fled to Puerto Rico because “the perpetrator of the crime and his family and friends” threatened “that anyone who testified against the defendant would be killed” and had to return there for his safety.
That, Diaz now says, was untrue.
“I moved to Puerto Rico without the permission or knowledge of the Probation Department,” Diaz said in a sworn statement that is now part of Collins’ lawsuit. “I moved for personal reasons having nothing to do with the Collins case. I was not threatened by anyone connected to Mr. Collins before I moved to Puerto Rico and fear for my safety played no part in my decision to move to Puerto Rico.”
Vecchione’s ascent in Hynes’ office took its most dramatic turn in 2001 when he was promoted to lead the office’s high-profile Rackets bureau. He would oversee a wide array of organized crime, political and other kinds of cases and conspiracies.
To his predecessor in the job, Vecchione’s appointment was warranted.
“I know Michael Vecchione to be an honest, hard-working, dedicated prosecutor with outstanding trial and investigatory skills,” Dennis Hawkins, who ran the Rackets bureau prior to Vecchione, said in an email.
But some of Vecchione’s critics and colleagues found his new title worrisome: Vecchione’s influence, seemingly unchecked, was now only being enhanced.
“He was a guy confident of his status in the office, who felt like he was untouchable, who could do no wrong, and who had the full support of Joe,” said a former senior Brooklyn prosecutor who has known Vecchione for two decades and who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were now a criminal defense lawyer in New York.
Vecchione’s first major case as head of Brooklyn’s Rackets bureau was against Brooklyn Democratic Party Leader Clarence Norman, seen here waving to supporters before surrendering to the district attorney. (Diane Bondareff/AP Photo)
Vecchione’s first big case in his new job was against then Brooklyn Democratic Party Leader Clarence Norman. Hynes, with considerable reason, had declared that judicial elections in Brooklyn were a sham, complete with rigged outcomes orchestrated by the Brooklyn political machine.
Vecchione empaneled a grand jury. Norman would be charged multiple times, and tried in four separate cases. But the cases never involved the sale of judgeships. And in the end, the “corruption” proved against Norman — steering campaign work for judges to certain consultants, improperly billing the State Assembly for $5,000 — struck many as fairly pedestrian. Former Mayor Ed Koch was one of them.
“While I disagree with Clarence Norman on every political fact of life, and certainly on the way judges are appointed in Brooklyn, Joe Hynes got into the case expressing the belief that Norman had some part in a corrupt process,” Koch said after the initial indictments. “Instead, he comes up with a cockamamie indictment that he took a $5,000 check made out to the county Democratic organization and was double-dipping on reimbursements for gasoline.”
Norman went to prison; Hynes claimed unqualified triumph, and credited Vecchione and the office with having the rare courage to go after the borough’s political powerbrokers.
Paul Schoeman, a former assistant U.S. Attorney, who represented Norman and won him an acquittal in one of four jury trials, said it was clear Hynes had a lot invested in the prosecution because he “assigned his top lieutenant to handle the case personally.”
Norman, now out of prison, said the case “was politically important to Joe Hynes,” but he isn’t so sure Hynes was actually the man steering it.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if [Vecchione] was the driving force behind the whole thing. You see his M.O. You see how he works.”
In March 2006, Vecchione set his sights on another powerful target: a former FBI agent named R. Lindley DeVecchio. Vecchione charged DeVecchio with having provided critical confidential information to a mob informant, Greg Scarpa, who, armed with the information, then killed several rivals.
“The most stunning example of official corruption I have ever seen,” Hynes said after Vecchione had won murder indictments against DeVecchio.
The U.S. Justice Department, it turned out, had investigated similar allegations against DeVecchio a decade earlier, and found that while Scarpa killed a lot of people while he was an informant, DeVecchio never helped him do it.
Still, Vecchione went forward, building his case on the testimony of Scarpa’s mistress, a woman named Linda Schiro. Schiro, by numerous accounts, was an unstable woman, furiously trying to land a book deal about her life as a mob mistress.
DeVecchio, in his own book on his case, said he knew Schiro could not stand up as a witness. And he had nothing but disdain for the prosecutor who put her at the center of his case.
“Dark-skinned, vacant-eyed, with an aggressive, bulky body topped by a moon face and a graying crew cut,” DeVecchio wrote of Vecchione. “He always seemed to be on the verge of toppling forward. He had one of those rock-star beards that never grows more than a quarter inch and endows the wearer with a degenerate look. Someone should tell him it looks ridiculous on a middle aged man with a potbelly.”
At trial, Schiro gave detailed descriptions of how DeVecchio would effectively assist in the murder of mobsters. Her star turn, however, was short-lived. The day after Schiro testified, Tom Robbins, a respected New York journalist, produced tapes of interviews with Schiro from years earlier that undercut her claims.
Michael Vecchione, right, sits in Brooklyn Supreme Court, next to Assistant District Attorney Joe Alexis, where he asked that all charges against former FBI agent Roy Lindley DeVecchio be dropped, in November 2007. (Jesse Ward/New York Daily News)
Schiro was effectively destroyed as a witness. Vecchione’s case soon crumbled completely, with the office having to drop all charges against DeVecchio.
Mark Bederow, a former Manhattan assistant district attorney who represented DeVecchio, said Vecchione had turned over records that discredited Schiro before trial.
“It is inconceivable that they brought this case,” Bederow said in an email. “The star witness was known to be a compulsive liar.”
About a week after trial, Vecchione’s onetime police partner, New York detective Tommy Dades, also told the news media that he and Vecchione had known for years that Schiro had given inconsistent stories about the murder accusations.
Vecchione denied the claim. Hynes, for his part, tried to downplay the embarrassment. For the office and Vecchione, he said, the failed prosecution was “nothing more than a bump in the road.”
And indeed, for Vecchione, that’s all it was. Vecchione still heads the Rackets Bureau, which expanded three years ago to include a sex trafficking unit. His salary of $189,000 is among the highest in the office.
And, it turns out, Vecchione was at the center of the decision to cooperate with CBS’s plans for a six-part documentary series on the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office. In a court filing, a spokesman for the office said Vecchione was a party to negotiations over the nature and terms of the arrangement.
Richard Huff, a spokesman for CBS, would not say if Vecchione will be featured in the series, which premiers May 28, and would not discuss the controversy surrounding his role in the Collins case.
“These hard-charging prosecutors have larger-than-life personalities both inside the courtroom and out,” CBS said in a March press release. “They’re eccentric and living right on the edge.
“We are allowed to watch their successes and their failures — it’s immediate, compelling and often heartbreaking.”
The Long Escape
The sentencing of Jabbar Collins took place on the morning of April 3, 1995, and it began with him asking the judge to set aside the guilty verdict because he had been denied adequate counsel. Collins, acting as his own lawyer, cited the proper motion language; he referenced his Sixth Amendment rights; he noted that he had been identified in lineups without a lawyer present; he said his lawyer had prevented him from presenting his alibi witnesses.
Vecchione, present for the sentencing, derided the young man’s appeal.
“Nothing more than boilerplate probably gotten from a jailhouse lawyer,” he said.
Judge Egitto wasted little time ruling. “The motion in all respects is denied,” he held.
Rabbi Pollack’s widow went next.
“The defendant sitting here in this courtroom is not a destroyer of one life,” Rivka Pollack told the court. “He is a destroyer of several lives. He destroyed the love of the father of my children. He destroyed the love of my dear husband.”
“I wish the defendant here, I wish my husband’s murderer, a very, very long, long life in jail,” she continued. “He forfeited the right to live as a normal, functioning human being. He has no right to see the sunshine. He has no right to walk in the park, to hear children.”
When Judge Egitto pronounced a sentence of 34 years to life, he said his only regret was that he could not sentence Collins to hard labor.
Collins, himself the father of three young children, entered Green Haven Correctional Facility, 45 miles north of New York City. Once inside, he immediately set his mind on getting out.
He wanted, first and foremost, access to the formal records of his prosecution. He wanted to examine police statements. He wanted to check if there had been cooperation agreements with the witnesses who had testified against him. He wanted to know if any of the witnesses had been held against their will, and, if so, if there were records to prove it. He requested material witness orders, subpoenas and other documents.
Rejection only fueled his persistence, and rejection came often. His requests for the basic underlying records of his trial were repeatedly denied. He was often told the records he was asking for didn’t exist. On other occasions, he was told “to the extent that such documents even exist, they are not in the possession of the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office.”
Joel Rudin, left, and Jabbar Collins have brought a wrongful conviction lawsuit against New York City for $150 million. (Andrew Burton for ProPublica)
Collins and his lawyer, Rudin, have alleged in court papers that the denial of this material was part of a concerted effort overseen by Vecchione.
Over a period of more than 10 years, Collins broke through the wall of denials. He managed to communicate directly with Oliva, the man who had put Collins at the center of a murder plot. Oliva four years later signed an affidavit detailing the circumstances of his false testimony.
Collins also obtained a full audiotape of 911 calls the day of the murder that showed that Santos had never actually spoken with a 911 dispatcher. And, in an astounding display of resourcefulness, Collins tracked down Diaz, another one of his accusers, using a ruse to gain access to Diaz’s legal record and mining that information to determine where Diaz was living. Posing as an investigator for the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office, Collins secretly recorded a telephone conversation with Diaz in which Diaz told the complete story of how Vecchione got him to testify. He said he had never been threatened by anyone associated with Collins.
In 2006, Collins, joined by Rudin, filed an appeal to state judges, claiming he had been the victim of prosecutorial misconduct.
Monique Ferrell, who had worked with Vecchione on the Norman and DeVecchio cases, was assigned to represent the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office and filed one indignant brief after another dismissing Collins’ claims. She obtained affidavits from Vecchione, who insisted there had been no wrongdoing, and that he alone made all decisions in the case. There had been no deals. No one had recanted before the trial. Nothing had been withheld. No witness had been locked up as a means of compelling false testimony. Instead, Ferrell said, Collins was not only a murderer, but a clever jailhouse lawyer, scheming to acquire evidence through “frauds on the court.”
A state judge accepted the office’s defense, denying Collins so much as a hearing. “Incredible,” the judge wrote of Collins’ arguments. “Fanciful.” “Without merit.”
But Collins didn’t give up. In April 2008, he filed a habeas corpus petition in federal court as a last-ditch effort to have the case reconsidered. While the appeal awaited review, Collins hatched an idea: He would file a request for much of the information he’d been seeking for years, but he would do so under another inmate’s name. Remarkably, the method worked. Collins received documents he’d been denied for over a decade, showing that Vecchione forced Santos to testify by filing a material witness order and taking him into custody.
Federal Judge Dora Irizarry granted a hearing to review Collins’ claims and Vecchione’s conduct. She also directed the district attorney’s office to share documents with Rudin. Soon he obtained hundreds of pages of records that the office previously denied Collins or told him didn’t exist.
And then, in a critical development, one of the detectives in the case disclosed that Oliva had, in fact, recanted prior to trial, and that he had made the disavowal in the presence of prosecutors.
Hynes offered to retry Collins in state court within 90 days. Irizarry refused. In June 2010, days before Vecchione was scheduled to explain his conduct to the judge, Hynes authorized the dismissal of the case against Collins.
Still, Brooklyn officials insisted no one had done anything wrong. And they insisted Jabbar Collins was guilty.
Irizarry, in a brutally frank rebuke, called the conduct by Hynes’ office sad and shameful. She made clear she found Vecchione’s continued claim that he didn’t know about Oliva’s recantation beyond belief. She picked apart the office’s handling of witnesses who were clearly under the influence of drugs at the time they gave their ostensibly damning information. She questioned what kind of training prosecutors received in Hynes’ office.
“And we talk about justice,” Irizarry exclaimed from the bench. “It’s very difficult to talk about justice in the situation we’re confronted with now.”
“Whether or not Mr. Collins is guilty or not guilty is not really the issue here,” Irizarry added. “Because what is the issue is whether or not he was deprived of his constitutional rights during that trial, and it should have been up to that trial jury to make the determination of the facts based on everything that it should have considered. And it was not given that opportunity.”
Collins, who today works as a paralegal in Rudin’s law firm, was in court as Irizarry spoke. She asked if he had anything he wanted to say. Collins spoke of how his three children had lost their father for 16 years, and his mother her son. He spoke of his frustration with a prosecutor’s office that made him work on his own for 11 years just to get basic information about his case. And then he expressed gratitude.
“I just want to thank the court for its time,” he said in closing. “For finally giving me my day in court.”
Correction: Originally, this story said that Vecchione had told the jury that Angel Santos, one of the witnesses in the Jabbar Collins trial, was in “protective custody.” In fact, Vecchione had told the judge