In November 2008 I was offered an opportunity to travel to Sing-Sing Prison and interview JJ Velazquez. JJ had written Dateline some very poignant letters proclaiming his innocence.
Before I took the assignment, I read JJ’s letter. The emotion of his words was striking. They did enough to plant a seed in the back of my mind that perhaps, this man was locked up for a crime that he not only didn’t commit but was too far away to have anything to do with. When I first met him, I said, “if you could admit to doing this and get out in 5 years guaranteed would you do it?” He told me, “I’d rather die in prison to ever admit to being a murderer. It would be tough for my kids but I’ve never killed anybody.”
WATCH BELOW FOR A PREVIEW OF DATELINE’S ‘CONVICTION’ SPECIAL:
For three and half years I corresponded with JJ, I interviewed him in prison twice and got to know his family. You will encounter the details of the case in the Dateline piece. But long story short, JJ is behind bars today because of eyewitness identification.
His blood, fingerprints or a weapon were never found at the crime scene. The only thing that places him there is the word of four individuals who were either on drugs or involved in their trade. They have since recanted; however, they are still free. The system does not have a real mechanism in place to expedite recantations of eyewitnesses so JJ wakes up every morning lacking the ability to be a father and son. Yet, he remains optimistic while facing a seemingly hopeless struggle.
One of the earliest lessons I remember from Sunday school was taught through John 8:32: “For you shall know the truth and the truth will set you free.” The idea of truth has always fascinated me. It seems everybody lies and growing up with a mom for an investigative journalist and a dad who was a political reporter I was instructed early on how to spot somebody who was “a phony.” I believe for all journalists, that is our lot in life, finding the truth no matter what is being done by those who benefit from lies to cover it up.
I hope this piece makes you think and demonstrates that sometimes the criminal justice system acts with a lack of conviction.