20 years ago this week, a young named George Collazo was shot point blank in the face and died in The Bronx. The man convicted for his murder was Richard Rosario. From the outset Rosario has maintained his innocence, saying he was 1,000 miles away in Florida visiting friends at the time of the murder. He even claimed to have 13 people who would back up his alibi, but that didn't stop him from being sentenced to 25 years to life in prison for the crime. His case was the subject of the Dateline NBC digital documentary series Conviction, which made its television debut on Oxygen as part of the Crime Time programming block. We spoke with series producer and reporter Dan Slepian about the case and the issue of wrongful convictions in the United States.
Oxygen: How did you get your start in investigative reporting? Was your background in news or in television production?
Dan Slepian: Well, that’s really what I am, a television producer. But I have always been interested in investigative journalism. I actually started on the Phil Donahue Show early in my career and then I’ve been at Dateline for 20 years. I worked as [To Catch A Predator reporter] Chris Hansen’s producer on a series called Vegas Undercover and did a lot of hidden camera investigative work. Regarding wrongful imprisonments, such as the one we profiled in Conviction, I first became aware of the problem in 2002 when I did a story on the Palladium nightclub murders and met a cop named Bobby Addolorato. He believed two innocent men were in prison for these crimes. I started to follow his investigation and he found information proving their innocence. He went to his bosses at the NYPD and was ordered to remain silent and was kicked off the case. He quit his job as a First Grade Homicide Detective in order to talk about it with me on camera. I ended up finding the real killers and put it on TV and then the D.A. re-investigated the case. The Assistant District Attorney on the case also concluded these guys were innocent but was ordered to protect the convictions. He quit his job in order to talk to me on camera about it. We did a 2-hour show about it and that was the first time I my really witnessing what can go wrong in the criminal justice system, when the people in the system, the police and prosecutors, can’t get people to listen to them, even when the facts are so obvious. As a result of that I became deeply interested in the issue of wrongful convictions. And then after that it became a surreal game of dominoes, where one innocent man has led me to another’s claim of innocence.
How big a problem would you say wrongful convictions are in the United States?
I don’t think anyone really knows for sure but let’s think about this logically; there’s no bureaucracy that works 100% of the time. But let’s just say the criminal justice system in the United States is the best bureaucracy that exists, and works perfectly 95% of the time. We know it’s not 100% perfect because we know some of the people convicted are innocent by scientific proof, such as DNA testing. So if its just 5% that are actually innocent, there’s over 2.2 million people in prison today in the United States. That means there are more than 100,000 people in prison today that have been separated from their families and locked away that are innocent. In 30 years only 1,500 people have been exonerated. So to me, it’s a silent epidemic within the criminal justice system. If you just think about it logically, the numbers could be devastatingly large.
What was it about Richard Rosario’s case that rang true to you and made you think he was innocent of the 1996 murder of George Collazo?
That’s not how I think about it. I don’t set out to try to find people’s innocence. I set out to try to prove their guilt. I’m waiting for someone to trip up. In any of these stories, and I’ve done a lot, there comes a point when you get a sense, “Wait a second, something is wrong here and I’m not finding anything to show their guilt.” And then the picture starts to form and it’s like, this is only going one way, you can only draw one conclusion.
What was the most heartbreaking moment that you experienced during the making of Conviction?
Seeing his kids say goodbye to him after the prison visit. You just put yourself in that position and think about what their lives must have been like. He went away when they were 2 and 4 and now they’re out of the house. They’re grown people. He missed their entire childhood. And that hits you, he went away when they were babies and he didn’t do anything. But I really try not to let emotions get in the way. Emotions can become a shield that doesn’t allow the facts to get through. In the end, the only thing that this is about in every case is the facts. Did this guy do it or did he not do it? And if he didn’t do it, why not? Emotions or how much a guy cries, it’s good storytelling, but it has nothing to do with what happened on June 19th, 1996. And by the way, it’s odd, that this is airing on Oxygen on the 20th anniversary of the murder.
What’s the state of Richard Rosario’s case now? He was released but not exonerated pending a re-investigation.
We’ll hear what the D.A.’s office intends Friday, June 24 when he’s due in court. They’ve been investigating this since his release supposedly. If they watch Conviction and they’ll see some leads they can follow up on. And what’s interesting is the report we talk about in the show, the slapping incident with George Collazo, I know the D.A.’s office has it. But no one will let me see it.
Why do you think they’re so reluctant to admit wrongdoing?
That is a philosophical question. That’s like asking, what is the truth? People don’t like to admit they’re wrong. The human ego is not built that way I guess. But it’s not about one person. It’s a systemic, bureaucratic phenomenon. It doesn’t matter whether its wrongful convictions or anything else where people need to take accountability and responsibility for something they did wrong. So for them to stand up and say “We’re sorry we really screwed up your life.” I don’t know why they don’t do it. But they should.
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