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Man Freed After 20 Years: Keep Case Open Until I'm Cleared

"I've been in prison for 20 years for a crime I didn't commit"

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    NEWSLETTERS

    A man who spent 20 years in prison for a New York City killing he says happened while he was in Florida could have his murder charges dropped, but asked a judge to keep his case open so he can be fully vindicated. Chris Glorioso Reports. (Published Friday, June 24, 2016)

    A man who spent 20 years in prison for a New York City killing he says happened while he was in Florida could have his murder charges dropped, but asked a judge Friday to keep his case open so he can be fully vindicated.

    Richard Rosario's unusual request came after prosecutors said they were ready to drop murder charges against him but stopped short of fully exonerating him.

    Surprised, Bronx state Supreme Court Justice Robert Torres agreed to leave the case open at least through Aug. 30, over objections from prosecutors who said they had already robustly reinvestigated the killing.

    Rosario, 40, had been freed in March, when prosecutors agreed he had been wrongfully convicted in the 1996 killing of Jorge Collazo, also called George Collazo. But they held off fully clearing Rosario as they reinvestigated. 

    He was released after newly installed Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark agreed that Rosario's former attorneys hadn't done enough to find and talk to 13 people Rosario said could vouch that he was in Florida when Collazo was killed on a Bronx street. 

    "I've been in prison for 20 years for a crime I didn't commit," Rosario said at the time. "My family didn't deserve this. I didn't deserve this, and nor did the family of the victim." 

    Collazo's sister has said, however, that his family remains convinced of Rosario's guilt. 

    Rosario's case, which has been featured in a "Dateline" digital series on NBCNews.com, is among more than 25 convictions from New York City's high-crime 1980s and '90s that prosecutors have disavowed in the last five years. 

    Rosario's attorneys have called his case an illustration of unreliable eyewitness testimony, bungled defense and the difficulty of fighting a guilty verdict. He had lost multiple appeals over the years. 

    Rosario was arrested after two witnesses identified him from a police photo book as the man who'd shot the 17-year-old Collazo in the head after an exchange of words on a street on June 19, 1996. No forensic or physical evidence tied Rosario to the crime. 

    He said he'd been staying with friends in Deltona, Florida, and he listed over a dozen people he said had seen him there. 

    Police didn't contact those people, according to Rosario's current lawyers. And his own court-appointed attorneys at the time didn't fully explore the alibi witnesses, either. 

    After phoning the witnesses proved difficult, his first attorney got a judge's OK to pay to send a private investigator to Florida but then never dispatched the investigator, according to a 2010 appeals court decision. Another defense lawyer took over before Rosario's trial, mistakenly thought the court had nixed funding for the investigator's Florida trip and didn't pursue it further. 

    Some of the witnesses did testify at Rosario's trial, but prosecutors at the time urged jurors to discount them because they were friends of Rosario's. 

    During Rosario's appeal, a judge said additional alibi witnesses wouldn't have added significantly to his defense. Rosario's lawyers argue otherwise.