Free At Last

January 14, 2022


The son of a retired 1199 organizer is granted clemency after nearly 24 years behind bars.

“Whenever I felt despair, I thought about my family. It was my Mom who sustained me,” says Jon-Adrian Velazquez, who was finally released on September 9th after being wrongly incarcerated for almost 24 years.

The only son of retired 1199 Home Care organizer, Maria Velazquez, he was granted clemency by former Governor Andrew Cuomo shortly before he stepped down.

When 1199 Magazine visited the Velazquez family in Haverstraw, New York, just two months after his release, emotions were still very raw. When Jon- Adrian, known as JJ, was imprisoned in Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York, his eldest son was three and a half and his youngest was only five weeks old. The boys went to live with his mother shortly afterwards. His then girlfriend simply could not contemplate waiting for him through a 25-year sentence. Aged 46 when he was finally released, Velazquez says: “I have now spent more of my life in prison than out in society.”

Recalling how she faithfully brought his boys up to the prison every Saturday for visiting hours throughout his entire sentence, his mother breaks down, and JJ immediately stands up to comfort her with a strong embrace.

She was in her late 40s when he was convicted, and now she is 72. “There were many dark, hard times,” she says. “Whenever I broke down, he lifted me. “All I ever wanted was to be alive when he came home,” she continues. “My house was always empty. It was just me and the dogs. My biggest fear was that I would die without ever seeing him free.”

The killing for which Velazquez was convicted took place following a botched robbery at an illegal gambling parlor on Harlem’s 125th Street, run by a retired New York Police Department (NYPD) Sergeant named Albert Ward.

While the robbery was taking place, JJ was in his Bronx apartment on the phone with his mother. Ward was shot dead just 12 minutes after the call ended. Mother and son were planning a visit to the graveside of Velazquez’s father, who had died the previous year, to commemorate his birthday.

“My apartment at the time was on 168th Street in the Highbridge district of the Bronx,” says JJ Velazquez, adding: “There is no way I could have gotten to that part of Harlem in 12 minutes…except by helicopter.”

“The man who died was a retired sergeant from that precinct, who was now running an illegal betting establishment. The detectives wanted to wrap the case up quickly and quietly enough so that the illegal activity didn’t come out,” reasons Velazquez with a couple of decades worth of hindsight into his case.

My biggest fear was that I would die without ever seeing him free.”

– Maria Velazquez, retired 1199 Home Care organizer

When he was initially called in for questioning, Velazquez’s lawyer directed him to leave the police station. But like so many other wrongly-convicted individuals– knowing he was innocent–Velazquez went back the police station to “clear things up.” After that fateful day in 1998, his mother did not see him again as a free man for another 23 years, 8 months and 7 days.

In 2013, the Conviction Integrity Unit set up by the Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, investigated Velazquez’s conviction. But it was not overturned. Neither the testimony of Velazquez’s mother, nor his former girlfriend who was in the Bronx apartment with him, were believed when they said he was on the phone at a key point in the murder timeline.

The only witness to the shooting in Harlem to point to Velazquez, only did so after looking at 1,800 photos over a period over nearly eight hours in the police station, before saying: “That’s the guy, but his eyes look different in the picture.”

When Andrew Cuomo was about to leave office in August 2021, says Velazquez, “He didn’t have to answer to anyone anymore. His political career was over. All you have to do is look at the facts to see that I should never have been convicted.”

Since his sons were minors when Velazquez was imprisoned at age 22, they were never allowed to speak to their father without their grandmother, Maria Velazquez, being present. They were not allowed to call him on the phone either. They grew up without a father. “Since I was released, Jon-Adrian Jr. now calls me every single day,” says Velazquez proudly.

1199 Magazine | November - December 2021