A bump by an unknown stranger inside a Brooklyn, New York, club where more than a dozen gang members were celebrating a birthday in 1995, left a man behind bars for a crime he did not commit.
Christian Pacheco was 18 years old when he was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison for the murder of Lemuel Cruz on Dec. 2, 1995 inside Con Sabor Latino Lounge in Sunset Park. While Pacheco, now 42, is up for parole in December this year, he has maintained that he is not the one who slashed Cruz's throat during the violent brawl.
Prosecutors with the Brooklyn District Attorney Office's Conviction Review Unit (CRU) announced on Monday that Pacheco's conviction should be tossed and to dismiss the indictment in its entirety.
However, after fully investigating the case, prosecutors said that "while the investigation did not uncover any error by the police or prosecution, new evidence shows that the testimony that led to the conviction -- which described the defendant slashing the victim’s neck -- was not credible."
"Due process and fairness are both part of the standards of review in all of our reinvestigations and I therefore must set aside this wrongful murder conviction in the interest of justice," said Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez in a statement.
Cruz was wrongly blamed for bumping into a member of the Latin Kings gang during the party. Prior to their racially motivated attack on Cruz, they yelled "get the black guy, get the black guy," according to a report prepared by the CRU.
Pacheco, a member of the Latin Kings, was stabbed during the melee and collapsed outside of the Third Avenue property. He was arrested, indicted, convicted and sentenced in less than a year all based on a sole witness testimony, who identified Pacheco as the "throat-slasher," prosecutors said.
Unbeknownst to the gang, since 1994, federal prosecutors with the Eastern District of the U.S. were investigating their narcotics trafficking activities and did a take down after Pacheco was sentenced in October 1996.
Four of the federal defendants became unidentified federal cooperators and came forward with information about Cruz's murder. Those cooperators did not implicate Pacheco or two convicted co-defendants as the killer.
Those cooperators' testimonies lead to the overturned conviction of both co-defendants in 2002 and 2005, respectively. One of the co-defendants pleaded guilty to first-degree assault and was sentenced in 2005 to time served.
Also in the federal probe of the gang, Melvin Garcia, Gregory Pirrone and Eduardo Velez each pleaded guilty to murder in the aid of racketeering and other charges.
Garcia, in 2004, "admitted that he caused the deceased’s death by 'cutting him up, slicing him up,'" according to the CRU's report. "At his plea, Pirrone admitted that he participated in the fight and 'agreed to kill' the deceased. Neither Garcia nor Pirrone mentioned the defendant, or claimed that any of the defendants in either the state or federal proceedings were innocent."
During Garcia's stint in prison, he left the gang life in 2011 and became a "spiritual person," prosecutors wrote in their report. Garcia said that his new found faith called for him to write a letter in 2013 to prosecutors saying that Pacheco was innocent.
Four other participants in the murder became cooperating witnesses in the federal case and said Garcia slashed Cruz's throat.
There have been 736 cases tossed in the United States where mistaken witness identification was a factor to a wrongful conviction, according to The National Registry of Exonerations.
During the CRU's investigation, they re-tested the evidence from the trial and still found Cruz's blood on Pacheco's shirt.
"This evidence shows that the only reasonable explanation for the deceased’s blood on the defendant’s clothing is he was assaulting the deceased while he and/or other assailants were stabbing and cutting the deceased whereupon the deceased’s blood, flowing from the cutting injuries, was transferred by contact to the defendant," according to the CRU's report. "Regardless of the strong direct and circumstantial evidence of guilt, CRU has concluded that the defendant did not receive a fair trial ... because the evidence upon which the prosecution relied was inaccurate and incorrect."
Pacheco was not available for comment on Wednesday.
In New York, there have been 268 overturned convictions since 1964 when Paul Gatling was sentenced to 30 years to life for a murder he did not commit. At 81 years old, Gatling's case was overturned in 2016.
Of those 268 cases, 94 were connected to a mistaken witness identification.
Since the CRU was revamped in 2014 under the leadership of the late Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson, it has vacated 28 convictions. In the county's history, there have been 74 overturned convictions.