(CBS News) — A man who was wrongfully convicted of murder nearly 25 years ago was released from prison last week and is now suing the state of New York for $100 million. Despite the confession from another man 16 years ago, it took more than a decade for Christian Pacheco, 42, to be freed.
Pacheco, who was a member of the Latin Kings gang, said he was at the New York City bar when someone cut the throat of Lemuel Cruz in 1995, but he insisted he was not the murder. He was convicted of the crime in 1996 on the testimony of the bar’s bouncer.
But two years later, other gang members came forward to give their account of the deadly fight, naming Melvin Garcia as the murderer, according to the prosecutor’s officer.
Pacheco said he believes he knew about Garcia in 1999. “I knew that they had gotten arrested for some charges in the feds and somehow my case had to do with those charges,” he told CBS News correspondent David Begnaud.
Garcia was eventually arrested during a federal investigation into the Latin Kings. He was convicted of Cruz’s murder in 2004, and told federal prosecutors in 2005 that “Christian Pacheco did not participate in the murder.” But it would take 15 years for Pacheco to be freed.
Asked what he thought when he heard someone had confessed to the murder, Pacheco said,”I believed in my heart I was going to come home soon. It was just a matter of days, probably months, and that never happened.”
Criminal defense attorney Ken Belkin said wrongful convictions are very difficult to overturn.
“That’s a flaw of the system,” he said. “If you’re the DA, do you really want to go questioning the people that you rely on to prosecute cases … They sort of have this wall of silence where they say, ‘Hey, we’re all on the same team. Whatever happened, happened.'”
Pacheco’s conviction was vacated and his indictment was dismissed last week, when he walked out of prison a free man for the first time in nearly 25 years.
Asked if the freedom feels foreign to him, Pacheco said, “No. I’m not going to say it feels foreign because I always believed I was going to get it back.
“I feel peace because I was able to prove my innocence,” he added.
The Brooklyn district attorney has made it clear he believes Pacheco is not completely innocent, and that he did stab the victim, but they admit it was Garcia who dealt the fatal blow. Two other defendants connected to the case were also cleared.
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