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Bloodstains From Helping Two People Hurt During A Nightclub Murder Put An Innocent Man In Prison For Six Years: The Hector Gonzalez Story

Hector GonzalezAndrea Mohin/The New York Times

By Hans Sherrer, JD Special Correspondent
In November 1995 Hector Gonzalez was at a New York nightclub when gang members attacked and killed a man they thought had slighted them. Mr. Gonzalez helped two people hurt during the attack, and spots of their blood on his pants was characterized by prosecutors as coming from the victim. Wrongly prosecuted, convicted and imprisoned for more than six years as a murderer, DNA tests of the blood proved Hector Gonzalez is a Good Samaritan and not a killer.
"I feel great, I feel better than great," were the words of Hector Gonzalez as he embraced his mother on the morning of Wednesday, April 24, 2002 after a Brooklyn judge ordered the reversal of his 1996 murder conviction and his immediate release from custody.

In November 1995 Mr. Hernandez was at New York's Con Sabor Latino nightclub when members of the Latin Kings gang attacked Lemuel Cruz for bumping into one of their members. During the ensuing melee Mr. Cruz was beaten, kicked and stabbed 25 times before his throat was slit. After the attack on Mr. Cruz was over, Hector Gonzalez wrapped his shirt around the wounds of several injured people. He had to kneel by the people to help them, and small amounts of their blood stained his pants in several places.

Although not a member of the Latin Kings, Mr. Gonzalez was arrested on December 2, 1995 based on the statement of a lone eyewitness that he was involved in the fight. The witness, however, didn't claim to see him take part in Mr. Cruz's murder.

The police tested the bloodstains on Hector's pants by crude blood-serum analysis methods that showed they were "consistent with" Mr. Cruz's blood. However, Mr. Cruz's blood type is shared by 54% of the people in New York City - or more than four million people: so the blood could have come from any one of those people. Although he unwaveringly maintained he did not participate in the attack and only helped injured people after it was over, Hector Gonzalez was convicted in 1996 along with three members of the Latin Kings gang. He was sentenced to a prison term of 15 years to life.

After settling into prison life, Hector's chance for freedom became a shimmering hope when the FBI began investigating the Latin Kings and Lemuel Cruz's murder. That investigation found participants in the attack who said Mr. Gonzalez was standing 10 to 15 feet away when Mr. Cruz was killed. Those statements supported Hector's statement of what had occurred. The federal investigators then arranged to have DNA tests performed on his bloodstained pants.

About the time the FBI began looking into Hector's case, attorney Glen Garber replaced the lawyer that had represented him at his trial. Jacqueline Rodriguez, a cousin of Hector's worked as a paralegal for Mr. Garber. She had encouraged him to take her cousin's case, telling him simply, "You have to do something."

Hector's unwavering retelling of what happened the night Lemuel Cruz was killed was corroborated by the DNA test results that indicated the blood on Hector's pants wasn't from the murdered man, but it could have come from the injured people he had been saying all along he had helped.

Mr. Garber is a former student of Barry Scheck of The Innocence Project at New York's Cardozo School of Law. Armed with the favorable witness statements and the DNA test results, he contacted Mr. Scheck and sought his assistance in building the case to free Hector Gonzalez from prison. That effort culminated on April 23, 2002 when Mr. Scheck and Mr. Garber called the assistant DA that had prosecuted Hector. They told him they were prepared to file a motion for Hector's release if the DA's office didn't agree that his innocence warranted his release. The prosecutor was agreeable to supporting Mr. Gonzalez's release if he pled guilty to the lesser charge of participating in a riot. Mr. Garber refused the deal and Mr. Scheck concurred, saying: "He was an innocent man."

The defense lawyers then called the Brooklyn district attorney and described the results of the DNA test clearing Hector Gonzalez, and the sworn statements of four eyewitnesses who said he had not taken part in the attack. Possibly realizing he would lose if he contested a defense motion for Mr. Gonzalez's release considering the overwhelming evidence of his innocence, the DA agreed to have his office make a motion in court the next day for Hector's conviction to be reversed and his sentence to be vacated.

Two detectives were dispatched the next morning to the Eastern Correctional Facility in Napanoch to transport Hector to a Brooklyn courtroom to appear before the same judge, Alan Marrus, who had presided over his trial and sentenced him to prison six years before. The State of New York was represented by the same deputy prosecutor who the day before had refused to agree to Hector's release unless he pled guilty to something he didn't do. After the deputy DA made the motion to reverse Hector Gonzalez's conviction that his superior had ordered him to make, Judge Marrus granted the motion and said to Hector: "Mr. Gonzalez, you are a free man."

Gladys Gonzalez, Hector's mother, had been a pillar of support during his ordeal. Notified of what was going to happen that morning she said while waiting at the courthouse for Hector to arrive with the detectives: "I am the happiest mother in the world."

Barry Scheck, Hector's lawyer told the press, "In this case, a sole eyewitness and (blood) evidence with little probative value sent an innocent man to prison."

Hector was nearly speechless at the speed with which he went from being caged like a rabid dog in a maximum security prison to being told he was free to walk out the front door of the courthouse. Overcome with the emotions of the moment he said: "I can't describe it."

It is sobering to consider that Mr. Gonzalez would not have spent a day in prison if he hadn't responded to the suffering of those two injured people at the Con Sabor Latino nightclub. The injustice of Mr. Gonzalez's prosecution is reminiscent of what happened to Ellen Reasonover. In 1983 she was a Good Samaritan by reporting to the police that she had seen two men drive away from a Dellwood, Missouri gas station at about the time the station's attendant had been murdered. The police, however, didn't look for the men and car Ellen had described, instead she was wrongly accused, prosecuted and convicted of the attendant's murder. She then spent 16 years in prison after coming within a single juror's vote of being sentenced to death. A federal judge finally ordered her release in August 1999 after ruling that her trial had been fundamentally unfair.

Now twenty-five and having had more than six years of his life robbed from him, Hector Gonzalez said of the prosecutors who had falsely accused and prosecuted him with no substantive evidence he had participated in Lemuel Cruz's murder: "I hated them, of course. But how am I supposed to feel now?" After thinking about it for a few moments, he added, "Right now, I'm just glad I'm free."

Sources: "After 6 Years in Prison, Man is Cleared By DNA Tests in 1995 Killing," William Glaberson, NY Times, April 25, 2002.

"DNA Frees Man Jailed For Murder," The Guardian Unlimited, New York (AP), April 25, 2002 at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/uslatest/story/0,1282,-1688229,00.html

"DNA Frees Brooklyn Man Imprisoned For Six Years," New York (AP), April 24, 2002 at: http://1010wins.com/StoryFolder/story_290866194_html

"Good Samaritan Freed 16 Years After One Juror Saved Her From A Death Sentence, Hans Sherrer, Justice Denied, Vol. 1, No. 8, at: http://www.justicedenied.org/v1issue8.htm

Justice Denied

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