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