Ruddy Quezada, a 54-year-old man wrongfully convicted of a deadly drive-by shooting in 1993, has won a $4.5 million settlement from New York state, according to court papers.
Quezada spent 24 years in prison for murder before winning his freedom in 2015 when, after decades of failed appeals, the Brooklyn district attorney’s office conceded that prosecutors involved in his case had withheld critical evidence during his trial.
At issue was the testimony of the case’s single eyewitness, a man named Sixto Salcedo. Salcedo recanted his testimony after defense lawyers tracked him down in the Dominican Republic in 2001. In a sworn affidavit, Salcedo said he had been coerced into testifying falsely against Quezada when a New York Police Department detective threatened him with jail time if he didn’t.
ProPublica reported on Quezada’s then pending appeal in 2013 as part of a larger examination of prosecutorial misconduct in New York City.
Salcedo had been arrested on what’s known as a material witness order, a powerful, discretionary tool used by prosecutors to hold reluctant witnesses in custody until they agree to testify. Prosecutors at Quezada’s original 1993 trial told the court that Salcedo had agreed to testify on his own accord. They did not share a copy of the material witness order signed off on by a judge with the defense.
Material witness orders are meant to be used as a kind of last resort, usually when prosecutors worry that a key witness might flee out of fear. A hearing is supposed to take place where a judge can explore the witness’ hesitation to testify. Defense attorneys and others have alleged that prosecutors under former Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes routinely skipped this crucial step in the 1990s, often bringing witnesses to a hotel overnight before the courts opened. By morning, witnesses like Salcedo wound up bullied into testifying.
Hynes, while in office, said he had not approved of any inappropriate use of material witness orders. The district attorney’s office today says it has reformed the use of the orders to prevent abuses.
In Quezada’s case, prosecutors failed to disclose the material witness order, despite multiple opportunities to do so beginning with his original trial in 1993.
At the time, Ephraim Shaban, the prosecutor who had signed the material witness order and handled the original trial, instead told the jury they should believe Salcedo because he was the rare witness who “came forward” and “was not hesitant.”
In 2003, Quezada appealed for a new trial, citing Salcedo’s recantation. In legal filings, the district attorney’s office called Salcedo’s claim incredible and insisted he testified truthfully. To back up this argument, the office said there was no evidence of a material witness order used to compel Salcedo’s testimony.
“There is no copy of a material witness order in the file,” Marie-Claude Wrenn, a veteran prosecutor who handled the appeal, wrote in court papers, adding that Shaban did not recall one being necessary.
A year later, documents uncovered during the appeals process showed, Wrenn discovered the material witness order in the trial file. She gave it to her boss. The office still did not turn the order over to Quezada and continued to deny its existence for another seven years.
It wasn’t until 2011, with a federal court considering a new trial for Quezada, that Wrenn produced the order.
In 2013, a federal judge ordered a state court to once again review Quezada’s claims.
That court granted a hearing two years later, in the spring of 2015, and Quezada’s attorneys questioned both Wrenn and Shaban under oath.
Wrenn admitted to finding the order, but not until 2011.
Shaban said he did not remember the order until he was shown a copy of it in 2011 that he himself had signed. He said he would not have turned it over to the defense after the witness had been located per the office’s policy at the time.
In late August 2015, the Brooklyn district attorney’s office, then led by the late Ken Thompson, said it could no longer defend Quezada’s conviction. A search had unearthed an email by Wrenn telling her boss of the material witness order in 2004.
Wrenn resigned shortly after Quezada’s release.
Thompson, who won his seat as Brooklyn district attorney in 2013 after accusing his predecessor of condoning misconduct, allowed Shaban to stay on.
At the time, a spokesman for the Brooklyn district attorney’s office told ProPublica it “had found no evidence of misconduct on the part of Shaban during the original trial or the appeal process.”
Today, that spokesman said the office maintains a policy against making statements on such settlements.
But he did affirm that Shaban still works in the office as the deputy chief of a trial bureau.
Quezada filed his lawsuit in November 2016, saying in court filings that his wrongful conviction “was a direct consequence of acute and systemic prosecutorial, investigative and police misconduct,” including “the fabrication of evidence; and the presentation of false testimony and arguments” on the part of the Brooklyn district attorney.
The settlement with the state is just a first step. Quezada still has a $44 million lawsuit pending against New York City.
His attorneys declined comment.