“In December of 2002, NBC News producer Dan Slepian got a letter from a New York state prison. It was detailed and meticulous, almost like it had been written by a lawyer. But it wasn’t. It was from a man serving 25 years to life for murder. And it ended with a desperate plea: look into my case.” This marked the beginning of Dan Slepian’s 20-year quest to uncover the truth and eventually help secure the freedom of the writer of that letter.
Jon-Adrian Velasquez was at his apartment in the Bronx, talking on a landline phone with his mother in Haverstraw, when Al Ward, a former police officer who ran a betting parlor, was shot and killed in a robbery seven miles away in Harlem. All the eyewitnesses described the shooter as a light-skinned black man with braids; Jon-Adrian is Puerto Rican, and at the time his hair was cropped short. Some witnesses even identified the shooter’s name, calling him Mustafa. Under pressure to identify the shooter from a book of mugshots, one of those witnesses pointed to Velasquez’s photo. Another witness pointed to him in a lineup, where he had been instructed to don a large knit hat (thus covering his short haircut). No other evidence was presented against him. Yet “JJ” Velasquez was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to prison for 25 years to life.
Dan Slepian has been a producer at Dateline NBC for over 25 years. He’s known as the “TV Gumshoe” for his investigative reporting that has led to the exoneration and release from prison of over a dozen wrongfully convicted men. My friend JJ is one of them. That desperate letter from Sing Sing began a journey of nearly 20 years as Slepian doggedly pursued every lead, challenged every interview, uncovered evidence of witness tampering and juror bullying, produced two episodes about the case for Dateline NBC, and refused to give up on the man he was convinced was telling the truth.
All the eyewitnesses described the shooter as a light-skinned black man with braids; Jon-Adrian is Puerto Rican, and at the time his hair was cropped short.
Now he is telling the story in a different way. Letters from Sing Sing is an eight-episode podcast produced by NBC. Slepian carries a camera and a tape recorder everywhere he goes, and he has 20 years of recorded interviews regarding this case. They include moving conversations with JJ, his mother, and his sons. They also include live interviews with witnesses, jurors, attorneys, the superintendent of Sing Sing, the head of the misnomered Conviction Integrity Unit (which was charged with investigating possible wrongful convictions and is now defunct), and many more. He also provides an intimate look at life in prison, one that might surprise you. The result is a compelling look at the outrageously uncaring and irresponsible justice system in New York and, by implication, in America as a whole. When prosecutors brag about a 100% conviction rate, I cringe. For that to be both true and just, it would mean that the police get it right, every single time. Often the justification for overzealous prosecutorial practices has been, “He might not be guilty of this, but he’s guilty of something. Next!” But justice is never served when an innocent person is condemned to live in a 6’ x 10’ box.
Listening to this podcast was very personal and emotional for me, because I’ve known JJ for 15 of the nearly 24 years he spent in prison. He was a student in the very first class I taught for Mercy College at Sing Sing. My first impression of him was his strong instinct for leadership. In any other setting, JJ would have been the student body president. In fact, as you listen to the podcast, you’ll discover that he did indeed lead many resident-run organizations inside Sing Sing. During class discussions he listened attentively to what the other students said and responded thoughtfully with insights of his own. He encouraged, tutored, and uplifted them. He ran programs that helped the men manage their time and benefited their children. I often said to him, “What happened to you is horrible. But you can make your life count no matter where you are. Even in here.” JJ did. But it wasn’t enough, and it wasn’t fair. He belonged out here. He deserved to be free.
Slepian also explores the devastating effect incarceration has on the family members, especially children who must now be fatherless. The podcast includes two intimate conversations with JJ’s son Jon, one with JJ during a prison visit, and one with Slepian in which he talks man-to-man about choice and accountability. That conversation is one of the most powerful moments in the series.
Slepian doggedly pursued every lead, challenged every interview, uncovered evidence of witness tampering and juror bullying, produced two TV episodes about the case, and refused to give up on the man he was convinced was telling the truth.
JJ’s mother Maria is another important voice in the series. Her tearful interviews, dashed hopes, and disheartened expressions of motherly guilt over choices made during the arrest and trial provide emotional context for the tragedy of JJ’s wrongful incarceration. I knew Maria, having met her at JJ’s graduations and at local screenings of Zero Percent, the award-winning HBO documentary about the education program inside Sing Sing. She never gave up on JJ, as so many family members of incarcerated individuals eventually do. As she says with conviction and emotion in the podcast, “I had something most parents don’t have. I knew my son was innocent. I knew where he was during the murder. He was talking to me.” Prosecutors scoffed at her testimony and convinced the jurors that she was lying to protect her son — that someone else had been talking to her from JJ’s apartment that day. But she knew. And it sustained her. (Liberty editor Stephen Cox is featured in Zero Percent, available at https://zeropercent.vhx.tv.)
Letters from Sing Sing is a masterly exposé of strongarmed police investigations, prosecutorial mismanagement, bullying of jurors by other jurors anxious to go home for the weekend, and the sorry state of our criminal justice system. Dan Slepian’s dogged determination to find the truth and free the men whose lives have been stolen from them, not only for JJ but for at least a dozen others, makes him a hero in my book. Download the podcast. And maybe grab a hankie.
Review of “Letters from Sing Sing,” produced by Dan Slepian, Rob Allen, and Preeti Varathan. NBC, 2023, 8 episodes.