Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez this week announced his office will move to vacate a nearly 25-year-old gang-related murder conviction after new evidence shows that the testimony that led to the conviction – which described the defendant slashing the victim’s neck – was not credible.
Christian Pacheco, 42 , who was convicted with three other men in the December 1995 murder of Lemuel Cruz appeared before Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Matthew D’Emic on Tuesday who vacated his conviction and dismissed the indictment.
“After a complete and thorough investigation by my Conviction Review Unit (CRU), including an examination of newly discovered evidence, we have concluded that the sole eyewitness, who testified to the defendant’s actions in this case, provided an inaccurate and unreliable account,” said Gonzalez.
The murder unfolded at about 1:45 a.m., Dec. 2, 1995, when about 15 members of the Latin Kings gang were celebrating a birthday at Con Sabor Latino Lounge at 423 3rd Avenue in Gowanus. They got into a fight with Cruz, which spilled into the street with the Latin Kings punching, kicking and stabbing Cruz, whose neck was also slashed with a razor blade. The evidence showed that Pacheco was also injured that night.
A bouncer at the club testified at trial about seeing the defendant slitting the victim’s throat. The defendant was convicted of second-degree murder along with three other men and was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
In 1994, the federal authorities conducted a citywide investigation into the Latin Kings, resulting in federal convictions of three additional participants in the homicide. That investigation elicited new evidence in the case, which exonerated one of the co-defendants who was tried together with Pacheco.
In 2002, the Brooklyn DA’s Office asked the Court to vacate that person’s conviction and a judge agreed. In 2005, the conviction of a second co-defendant was also vacated, and he then pleaded guilty to first-degree assault and was sentenced to time served after serving 10 years in prison.
The CRU conducted an investigation into Pacheco’s involvement, which included interviews with some of the witnesses in the state and federal cases. It concluded that the defendant was involved in the incident. In fact, numerous witnesses mentioned that he was one of the victim’s attackers and subsequent DNA testing revealed that the victim’s blood was on Pacheco’s shirt. However, the specific testimony used to convict him was not credible and most likely false because it has since been contradicted by other Latin Kings who participated in the attack.
No other witness described Pacheco slashing the victim and the bouncer’s description of Pacheco was erroneous. Because the error by the eyewitness was so prejudicial, the CRU could not be confident that the jury would have convicted the defendant of murder without it.
“While we have not fully cleared Mr. Pacheco from any involvement in this incident, he was unquestionably prejudiced because the testimony presented against him is not supported by a review of the facts and evidence. Simply put, the goal of accurately establishing what happened during this homicide wasn’t achieved during Mr. Pacheco’s trial,” said Gonzalez.
“Due process and fairness are both part of the standards of review in all of our reinvestigations and I, therefore, must set aside this wrongful murder conviction in the interest of justice. I remain committed to our continuing endeavor to correct all mistakes and injustices that happened in Brooklyn,” he added.
To date, the work of the Brooklyn CRU has resulted in 28 convictions being vacated. In addition, the CRU has found that of the cases reviewed thus far, 80 convictions are just and will not be recommended to be vacated. Approximately 80 cases are pending review.