Jabar Walker Exonerated After 25 Years of Wrongful Conviction in Manhattan Double Homicide

New evidence of Mr. Walker’s innocence revealed police from the notorious “Dirty 30” precinct pressured a witness to incriminate him.

Breaking News 11.27.23 By Innocence Staff

New evidence of Mr. Walker’s innocence revealed police from the notorious “Dirty 30” precinct pressured a witness to incriminate him.

Breaking News 11.27.23 By Innocence Staff

@innocence

BREAKING: Jabar Walker was exonerated in New York City foday after 25 years of wrongful conviction for a double homicide he did not commit. ⁠ ⁠ Read more about Jabar’s story at the link in our bio, and donate to his personal fundraiser to help him rebuild his life after more than a quarter century of wrongful conviction. ⁠

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(Nov. 27, 2023 — NEW YORK)  Jabar Walker was exonerated today in Manhattan after more than a quarter century of wrongful conviction and incarceration for a double homicide he did not commit. The exoneration came after a joint reinvestigation by the Innocence Project and Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s Post-Conviction Justice Unit revealed new evidence of Mr. Walker’s innocence.

Mr. Walker was convicted in the 1995 murders of Ismael De La Cruz and William Santana Guzman on 148th Street in Manhattan, following an investigation by officers from New York Police Department’s 30th Precinct. The precinct was known at the time as the “Dirty 30” due to widespread corruption amongst its officers.  

Misconduct in the precinct was so rampant that an investigation by the Mollen Commission, formed by New York City to investigate allegations of NYPD corruption, resulted in the arrest of 33 officers  — a staggering one-sixth of the precinct — in the 1990s. The Mollen Commission found that officers in the “Dirty 30” routinely engaged in perjury, record falsification, thefts during searches and seizures, and distribution of narcotics.

The Innocence Project and Post-Conviction Justice Unit’s joint re-investigation revealed police from the precinct pressured a witness, John Mobley, to incriminate Mr. Walker by falsely saying that Mr. Walker had admitted to the crime. Police questioned Mr. Mobley, showing him photos of other crime scenes and implied that they would charge him with those homicides if he did not cooperate. On the day of Mr. Walker’s sentencing in 1998, Mr. Mobley went to Mr. Walker’s attorney’s office seeking to recant that testimony — and has recanted his testimony under oath a number of times since. 

Further new evidence of Mr. Walker’s innocence includes the fact that the prosecution’s sole eyewitness to identify Mr. Walker as the assailant, Vanessa Vigo, misidentified another innocent man in a different neighborhood shooting and received monetary benefits in connection with her testimony against Mr. Walker. Ms. Vigo’s account of the shooting was riddled with inconsistencies and inaccuracies, and key facts in her account changed from the time of her first conversation with police to the trial. Another eyewitness to the shooting who was familiar with Mr. Walker is adamant that he is not the person he saw committing the crime. 

“We thank DA Bragg’s Post-Conviction Justice Unit for a truly collaborative and transparent joint-reinvestigation, which stands as a model for how post-conviction innocence claims can and should be investigated in a non-adversarial process. The joint re-investigation, guided by a commitment to transparency and the ascertainment of truth, revealed a myriad of ways where the system failed Mr. Walker, and uncovered pervasive misconduct that led to his wrongful conviction and new evidence of what he has stated all along — he is innocent. He has now spent more than half of his life in prison for a crime he did not do,” said Vanessa Potkin, Innocence Project’s director of special litigation.

Jabar Walker exonerated in Manhattan on Nov. 27, 2023 surrounded by his family. (Image: Elijah Craig II/Innocence Project)

Jabar Walker exonerated in Manhattan on Nov. 27, 2023 surrounded by his family. (Image: Elijah Craig II/Innocence Project)

A Police Investigation Tainted by Misconduct and Manufactured Evidence

In May 1995, Mr. De La Cruz and Mr. Santana Guzman were shot and killed in a drug-related hit by a single assailant while seated in a double-parked vehicle on 148th Street near the corner of Broadway.

Officers from the NYPD’s 30th Precinct canvassed the area the night of the shooting, and were told by a witness that the gunman had run off to the basement area of a next-door building, 560 West 148th. Mr. Walker’s relatives lived in an apartment there, and Mr. Walker grew up in a building nearby. 

The double murder went unsolved for over two years. The “break”’ in the case came in May 1997 when police were trying to close out another unsolved homicide in the 30th Precinct. Investigating a different open homicide on 148th Street from 1994, police went back to question Vanessa Vigo, who had been interviewed at the time of that murder and claimed to have seen an assailant fleeing from her window. Shown a photo array, Ms. Vigo said she was “pretty sure” a man she identified was the assailant. In 1997, police re-interviewed Ms. Vigo who “immediately” identified the same man again. Despite her repeated identifications, that case remained unsolved with no arrests. It later emerged during the 2022 joint re-investigation that the man she identified in this homicide was in another state when that crime happened. 

Still, with Ms. Vigo’s cooperation, detectives saw an opportunity to close out the double homicide from 1995, and asked Ms. Vigo if she had any information about it. For the first time in 1997, she told them that she saw that incident too and that the shooter was Mr. Walker, who she knew from the neighborhood. During this encounter, which occurred at Ms. Vigo’s house, detectives showed her two polaroids of Mr. Walker. It is unclear why they had the polaroids on them — and presents the possibility that police expressed interest in him first and Ms. Vigo acquiesced to their suggestion. In a written statement the following day, Ms. Vigo said that she saw Mr. Walker, whom she claimed to have known for 25 years, fire two shots into the car killing both men. She also claimed that Mr. Walker used the street name “Black” or “Snoop.” This was highly significant because police received several tips throughout the two years the crime went unsolved that the shooter went by the name “Black.” No one else from 148th Street — including dozens of witnesses interviewed in the joint re-investigation — knew Mr. Walker to ever go by that name. 

In addition to these false claims, Ms. Vigo’s account of the shooting changed from the time she gave a written statement to the police to the time of her grand jury testimony. For example, she did not initially know the color of the car in which the victims were shot, but before the grand jury, she testified that the car was red. In her initial statement, she said the assailant shot from the driver’s side of the car, but that was not consistent with the fact that there was a bullet hole in the windshield. Ms. Vigo subsequently changed her account and testified, both in grand jury and trial, that the shooter came up to the passenger side to match the actual details of the crime. 

Importantly, at trial, Ms. Vigo testified that she received no consideration for her testimony and the prosecution argued to the jury that she had no motive to identify Mr. Walker. In fact, the joint re-investigation revealed that in connection with her testimony, she received monetary benefits from the prosecution, including payments for her apartment. This was never disclosed to the defense. 

Jabar Walker exonerated in Manhattan on Nov. 27, 2023 with his brother and nephew. (Image: Elijah Craig II/Innocence Project)

Jabar Walker exonerated in Manhattan on Nov. 27, 2023 with his brother and nephew. (Image: Elijah Craig II/Innocence Project)

A False Nickname Attributed to Mr. Walker Obscures Evidence of Another Suspect 

A few weeks after police spoke with Ms Vigo, Mr. Walker gave a written statement to police. He said that, on the night of the double homicide, he was staying at his mother’s home in Queens and didn’t return to 148th Street until the following morning with his friend Ismail. Police never spoke with Mr. Walker’s alibi witness, who confirmed this account during the post-conviction re-investigation. Ismail told the Innocence Project and Post-Conviction Justice Unit that he had given Mr. Walker a ride from Queens to 148th Street, and that, when they arrived, people were saying “two people just got killed around the corner.”

The handwritten statement Mr. Walker gave to police made no mention of the nickname “Black,” but a detective falsely wrote in his report that Mr. Walker said he went by that name.  The false attribution of this nickname was especially pernicious because it obscured the existence of information pointing to a different person who went by the nickname “Black” and who could have been investigated as the person who actually committed the shooting. The investigation also revealed police had received information that the assailant never left the area and was on 148th Street on occasions in 1996 when Mr. Walker was living with family in Atlanta.  

Eyewitness Accounts Supports Mr. Walker’s Innocence

There was evidence supporting Mr. Walker’s innocence from the very beginning that police and prosecutors ignored. A young man, Carlos Jimenez, witnessed the shooting while playing dominoes in front of 562 West 148th Street, and told police that the assailant ran to the basement area of a next-door building. Just feet away from the assailant when the shooting happened, Mr. Jimenez had the best opportunity to view the person who committed the crime. 

During the joint re-investigation, he revealed that, just before testifying at Mr. Walker’s trial, he was shown photographs of people including Mr. Walker and he indicated that Mr. Walker was not the assailant. Mr. Jimenez’s non-identification was not documented or disclosed to the defense. In the joint reinvestigation, Mr. Jimenez further told the Post-Conviction Justice Unit and the Innocence Project that he knew who Mr. Walker was from the neighborhood and did not identify him as the shooter because Mr. Walker was not the person he saw commit the crime. 

A third eyewitness to the crime also did not identify Mr. Walker as the assailant. On the eve of the trial, police located another eyewitness (documented in reports only as Mr. Santiago) who said he had seen the shooting, recognized the assailant from the neighborhood, and did not identify Mr. Walker. 

Police Pressure Another Witness to Testify Against Mr. Walker; He Immediately Recants

The State’s theory of the crime when they took Mr. Walker to trial in 1998 was that he was hired to shoot Mr. De La Cruz because of a fight and Mr. Santana Guzman was in the wrong place at the wrong time. A month before the trial date, the State’s case consisted entirely of Ms. Vigo’s account — there was no other evidence against Mr. Walker.

Right before the trial, police went to talk to John Mobley, who was in jail. There is no documentation of this encounter, or any of the five encounters police and the trial prosecutor had with Mr. Mobley. He wound up testifying against Mr. Walker at trial but, even before trial, admitted that he was pressured into incriminating Mr. Walker by police. According to his trial testimony, detectives “kept coming at me asking me questions,” and the officers came two to three times within the week before his testimony and were “putting a lot of pressure” on him. Mr. Mobley revealed in the reinvestigation that he feared he would be falsely implicated in the double homicide or another murder if he did not tell the police that Mr. Walker was the assailant. 

Over the past 25 years, Mr. Mobley has come forward on numerous occasions and said that his trial testimony was untrue, and that he felt pressured into falsely implicating Mr. Walker. 

The Injustice of the Trial Penalty

Mr. Walker was failed by his defense attorney — who had only graduated from law school a year and a half before taking on his case  and had never done a criminal trial before, much less one involving a double homicide. 

Unbelievably, just before the trial, when the assistant district attorney disclosed that a third eyewitness (Mr. Santiago) had been located and had recognized the shooter from the neighborhood and didn’t identify Mr. Walker, no one on the defense team seemed to have followed up in any meaningful way to see whether Mr. Santiago should be called as a witness at trial. Nor did they interview other alibis who could confirm that Mr. Walker was in Queens the night of the shooting. 

Prior to his trial, the State had offered Mr. Walker a nine-year minimum sentence in exchange for a guilty plea. Insisting on his innocence, Mr. Walker rejected the offer and exercised his constitutional right to a trial. Then, at sentencing, the State asked for the maximum sentence to be imposed. In a stark example of the trial penalty — the threat of severe sentences for taking cases to trial and losing — Mr. Walker was sentenced to 50 years to life. 

“Mr. Walker’s experience is emblematic of how punishing the system is to a person who places their trust in it by refusing a plea and believing the process will be fair and that truth will matter and prevail at trial,” said Ms. Potkin. “Had he given up his constitutional right to a trial, and accepted the State’s office to plead guilty, he would have received a minimum sentence of nine years. Refusing to plead guilty to a crime he did not commit cost him decades of freedom. The State sought the maximum after trial and he was sentenced to 50 to life — five times longer than if he had taken the plea deal.”

At trial, Mr. Walker remained steadfast in his innocence saying to the court, “I did not commit this crime, your Honor, and that’s why I came here to trial … because I’m 100 percent innocent… I did not kill those people.”

Mr. Walker is represented by Vanessa Potkin, director of special litigation at the Innocence Project.

The Innocence Project works to free the innocent, prevent wrongful convictions, and create fair, compassionate, and equitable systems of justice for everyone. Our work is guided by science and grounded in anti-racism. For more information, please visit www.innocenceproject.org.  

Jabar Walker exonerated in Manhattan on Nov. 27, 2023 (Image: Elijah Craig II/Innocence Project)

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