NYC man cleared in murder case after 27 years behind bars

December 31, 2019 GMT

NEW YORK (AP) — A man who spent 27 years behind bars for the deadly stabbing of a New York City woman was cleared Monday, after prosecutors concluded that evidence that could have helped him was kept from his lawyers.

Felipe Rodriguez, 54, had already been released from prison after Gov. Andrew Cuomo commuted his sentence three years ago. But until Monday, his conviction in the 1987 death of Maureen McNeill Fernandez remained and felt like “chains that were still attached to me,” he told reporters outside court.

“Today, the chains fell,” he said after Queens judge Joseph Zayas tossed out his conviction, with prosecutors’ assent. “Today, I’m a free man.”

Rodriguez always denied involvement in the killing of Fernandez, 35, who was stabbed more than three dozen times and left behind a Queens warehouse. She had three school-age children.

More than a year later, a police informant — who had been a suspect in the killing himself — implicated Rodriguez and became the key witness against him, according to his lawyers at the Innocence Project, working with attorney Zachary Margulis-Ohnuma. The witness said in a secretly recorded interview that he had lied and that police had coerced him, Rodriguez’ lawyers said.

The lead detective on the case has said he did nothing improper, according to the Daily News of New York.

Rodriguez — whose lawyers have said he was a city housing department worker, an auxiliary police volunteer and a married father of a preschooler — was convicted in 1990. He was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.

The Innocence Project, which has worked on the case since 2007, persuaded the Queens District Attorney’s office three years ago to re-examine the case.

Prosecutors found authorities had evidence that was favorable to Rodriguez but apparently had never been given to his initial lawyer, and jurors never heard it.

“It would have been a different trial,” Queens Executive Assistant District Attorney Robert Masters told the court Monday. He said the justice system had failed Rodriguez.

The judge called the case a miscarriage of justice that “took way too long to correct.”

“Mr. Rodriguez, you deserve better than that, but you never lost faith,” Zayas said.

Since his release, Rodriguez has remarried and taken a job at a hotel. He said Monday he kept his focus in prison on trying to return to his son.

“I always said that I would get back to him, however I needed to get back to him,” Rodriguez said. “I just fought as hard as I could. I believe God was beside me ... and I knew this day would come.”