NBC News' 'Dateline' Examines 1999 Murder Conviction

Dateline Jon-Adrian Velazquez - H 2012

"A missing blond girl sells, but this shows a dedication by NBC News to break beyond that and allow us to take a guy that nobody knows and investigate his story to find the truth," says Luke Russert of the case of Jon-Adrian Velazquez.

Television has made stars out of aspiring rock stars, squabbling housewives and children of the rich and not-really famous. Now, an inmate in New York’s infamous Sing Sing prison – where Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed in 1953 – is surely hoping a turn in the spotlight will change his life.

Jon-Adrian Velazquez, 36, has been incarcerated at the maximum-security facility on the banks of the Hudson River in Ossining, New York since 1999. He was sent away for 25-to-life for killing a retired cop during a botched robbery at an illegal gambling parlor. There was no physical or DNA evidence and Velazquez’s guilt rested largely on the identification of dubious eye-witnesses, one of whom has recanted. Velasquez was 22 years old when he was convicted of second-degree murder and the father of two baby boys who have grown up without him.

He started writing to Dateline producer Dan Slepian 10 years ago. Slepian’s 2007 hour, In the Shadow of Justice, about a murder at New York’s Palladium nightclub, helped to exonerate two men convicted in that case. Slepian admits he gets hundreds of emails and letters from convicts asking for his help and “I’m innocent” is a predictable refrain of the incarcerated. But Velazquez’s pleas were different.

“There was something about his letters,” says Slepian. “They were articulate, intelligent, emotional, engaging. So I went out to see him.”

Then three and a half years ago, he brought Luke Russert into the story. Russert, then a first-year NBC News correspondent who had just lost his father Tim Russert, a towering figure in TV journalism, was given a handheld camera and began to visit Velasquez at Sing Sing.

The result is the Dateline hour Conviction, which bows Sunday at 7 p.m. on NBC. It is an examination of an imperfect criminal justice system but also of a life unlived and stunted by the tyranny of a prison cell.

But, says Slepian, “We’re not putting this on the air to advocate for his release. We’re putting this on the air to tell a story about someone who says he didn’t get a fair shot and we are demonstrating why he might be telling the truth about that.”

It is Russert’s first full-length news hour amid his duties on the political beat during a particularly helter-skelter GOP primary battle. He says tracking the narration was challenging and time-consuming. And he laughs that since he started working on the story in 2008, he’s lost 20 pounds.

“You can see how long the process takes,” says Russert. “And we’re not anywhere near the end of it.”

Velazquez’s case has attracted the attention of actor Martin Sheen, who made headlines last December when he visited Velazquez in prison and advocated, in a press conference in front of the criminal courthouse in lower Manhattan, for a new trial. “I don’t think there's anybody who's fair-minded who's not going to be outraged by this,” said Sheen at the time. (Dateline cameras filmed Sheen’s visit with Velazquez.)

Velazquez's lawyers, Robert Gottlieb and Celia Gordon, who are interviewed throughout the Dateline hour, hope that the media attention will compel the Manhattan District Attorney’s office to re-open the case.

“I’ve been down this road before,” says Slepian. "I think what we’re advocating for is a fair system. And I don’t think that’s a controversial position.”

Conviction is the kind of long-lead investigation that is increasingly rare in TV news, which has tacked from a mission of public service to the economic realities of bottom-line concerns.

"It’s very much the reality of where journalism is today," says Russert. "A missing blond girl sells. Donald Trump sells. Caylee Anthony sells. But I think this shows a dedication by NBC News to break beyond that and allow us the time and the effort -- and I won’t forget the money, it was not cheap to do this -- to really take a guy that nobody knows and to investigate his story and try to find the truth." 

Adds Russert: “As journalists, our first responsibility is to hold those in power accountable. What we’re trying to do is show that this is one of thousands of cases like this. If you’re willing to take the time and do the research, you have a real opportunity to change lives. If this taught me anything it’s that journalism is a powerful tool, especially if you do it in the visual medium that is television. It can touch so many people.”

Email: Marisa.Guthrie@thr.com

Twitter: @MarisaGuthrie