After 17 years in prison, Martinez savors freedom

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A walk in the park with his wife. Ice cream on a hot summer day. Cutting steak with a knife. These are the little things Brooklyn’s Angelo Martinez has savored since being released July 22 after serving 17 years in prison for a Richmond Hill murder he did not commit.

Days after a federal judge in Buffalo freed him on $10,000 bond, Martinez, 36, excitedly began his search for a job, an apartment and a bit of normalcy.

“I’m just happy I got my life back,” he said during a news conference at his lawyers’ office in Mineola, L.I. on July 24.

Martinez discussed topics ranging from his desire to become a construction worker to the hopelessness that prompted him to sell cocaine in prison, to the flaws in the justice system that led to his lockup in the first place.

He was found guilty of killing Rudolph Marasco, 70, on Atlantic Avenue near 110th Street in 1985, but a reinvestigation of the case conducted by the Queens district attorney’s office 13 years after another man admitted to the killing set the stage for State Supreme Court Justice Stephen Fisher to vacate the conviction on June 13.

In 1993, Martinez was convicted of selling cocaine to other inmates at the Southport Correctional Facility in Elmira, N.Y. He admitted that peddling the drugs showed “poor judgment,” but said he was desperate and did it to pay for an attorney to investigate his case.

“Knowing I was innocent was the toughest part about being in prison,” said Martinez, who was shifted between eight state facilities over the 17 years. But he said he did not let that knowledge break his spirit. He earned a GED, college credits and was selected by other inmates as a grievance counselor. He married his high school sweetheart, Vanessa Campos, in a prison ceremony a little over a year ago.

Martinez passed the time reading history books and the Bible and exercising. Monthly visits from his mother, Gloria Viruet, who never doubted his innocence, sustained him until Queens Assistant District Attorney Charles Testagrossa and Detective Gerry Shevlin showed up and told him they had discovered what he knew all along: that someone else killed Marasco.

“At first I was shell-shocked when they came and brought the information to me,” he said. “I said ‘let’s not play any games.’”

Martinez is expected to be placed on probation when he returns to court in Buffalo Sept. 9 to face sentencing for the cocaine sale. He is looking for a construction job and an apartment (“definitely not in Brooklyn or Queens”) and plans to renew his wedding vows.

He said he feels lucky to have gotten out and called attention to the countless other wrongfully convicted prisoners who will never be released.

“I’m not the only one that’s innocent,” he said. “We have flaws in our justice system that need to be addressed.”

Martinez said he experienced many of those flaws firsthand. He was convicted based on the eyewitness testimony of a man with whom he had a history of problems and his public defender never told him about evidence that could have exonerated him.

Because he had a prior conviction for felony assault, Martinez was sentenced under stiff federal sentencing guidelines for career criminals to 292 months for the drug sale.

Martinez, who said “I am totally against the death penalty,” is looking forward to speaking in public forums about the dangers of capital punishment. “If I was in Texas, I wouldn’t be alive,” he said. “I would have been executed already.”

Attorney Oscar Michelen, who late last month filed a $50 million wrongful conviction suit against the state on behalf of Martinez, called the case “a cautionary tale for those who support the death penalty.

He added, “If this had arisen in a state the supports the death penalty, this would be the estate of Angelo Martinez.”

Another of his attorneys, Donald Birnbaum, said Martinez’s release was a fluke. A year ago, while looking into a separate case of a possible wrongful conviction, Queens ADA James Quinn decided to reopen the Martinez case. Testagrossa was appointed to investigate.

“The system didn’t vindicate Mr. Martinez,” said Birnbaum. “The conscience of the prosecutor did. There was no mechanism to free Mr. Martinez.”

Martinez, who did not appear bitter, turned stern when a television reporter suggested justice had ultimately been served in his case. Queens District attorney Richard Brown made a similar statement in a news conference after Martinez’s conviction was overturned.

“While unfortunately justice for Mr. Martinez has long been delayed, it has not been denied,” the DA said June 13.

“It’s eventually worked out, but the same individual who says that, let’s see if he spends 17 years in prison and feels the same way,” Martinez responded.

Reach reporter Daniel Massey by e-mail at or call 229-0300, Ext. 156.

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