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Bronx Man, Convicted In 1996 Murder Despite Alibi, Freed After 20 Years In Prison

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) -- Richard Rosario thought he'd quickly clear himself of suspicion in a New York City killing when he gave police the names of 13 people who could vouch he was in Florida when the shooting happened.

Instead, he was arrested, found guilty and imprisoned for 20 years. He lost multiple appeals.

Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark asked a court Wednesday to overturn Rosario's murder conviction and release him as her office reinvestigates the 1996 case.

As CBS2's Sonia Rincon reported, this may be the first of many new looks at old cases from the Bronx D.A.

Rosario wiped at his eyes and smiled as Bronx state Supreme Court Justice Robert Torres dismissed the conviction.

With is conviction vacated, his handcuffs were removed, most likely for the last time.

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

He had the support of his wife and kids and other wrongfully convicted men like Derrick Hamilton whose case was among those in Brooklyn found to have been manipulated by disgraced Detective Louis Scarcella.

The decision came two months after Clark succeeded 27-year DA Robert Johnson, and days ahead of a planned release of a digital series on the case. It adds to a roster of over 25 convictions from New York's high-crime 1980s and '90s that prosecutors have disavowed in the last five years.

"It's a great result. It just should have happened a lot earlier,'' said Chip Loewenson, one of Rosario's lawyers.

Rosario's attorneys called the case an illustration of unreliable eyewitness testimony, bungled defense and the difficulty of fighting a guilty verdict.

"It really is a case study in a wrongful conviction,'' said one of his lawyers, Glenn Garber of the Exoneration Initiative. "But he hung in there... and finally he's getting some level of justice.''

Rosario, now 40, was arrested after two witnesses identified him from a police photo book as the man who'd shot 16-year-old George Collazo in the head after an exchange of words on a Bronx street on June 19, 1996. No forensic or physical evidence tied Rosario to the crime.

Rosario said he'd been over 1,000 miles away, staying with friends in Deltona, Florida at the time of the killing. After returning to the Bronx once he heard police were looking for him, he listed over a dozen people who'd seen him in Florida.

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 initial attorney got a judge's OK to pay to send a private investigator to Florida, but the attorney later acknowledged she never did it. Another 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, according to a 2010 appeals court decision.

The couple who said they'd hosted Rosario testified at his trial and said they had good reason to remember his presence and other details from the day of Collazo's killing: Their first child was born the next day. But the trial prosecutor urged jurors to discount them because of their friendship with Rosario.

During Rosario's appeal, a judge said additional alibi witnesses wouldn't have added significantly to his defense. Rosario's lawyers argue otherwise, noting that some of the witnesses weren't close with Rosario and so might have been more difficult to discredit.

Witnesses at the scene only picked out Rosario's photo. Attorney Rebecca Freedman said it's an unreliable form of evidence.

"Why that happened, maybe he looked like the guy who did it. But there was no corroboration, and that's very dangerous, because memory just doesn't work that way," she said.

The district attorney isn't seeking to dismiss the charges, at least for now, in the killing of Collazo.

"We will continue to investigate the murder of George Collazo... so that his family might have closure," Clark said in a statement. "Charges against Mr. Rosario will remain open while we complete the alibi witnesses interviews and reinvestigate the case in order to decide whether to retry Mr. Rosario."

Rosario said there are others like him in prison, and he hopes they are freed someday.

Clark recently announced the creation of a new integrity unit. It's similar to the one in Brooklyn which uncovers wrongful convictions, except it's not just for cold cases.

"The main goal of the new Conviction Integrity Unit is to reduce the risk of wrongful convictions before cases go to trial," Clark said.

The unit hasn't gotten started yet, so it wasn't involved in Rosario's case, but it's important to his attorney who's working to free other people believed to be innocent.

"We're very hopeful that the office is going to be looking at these cases and considering some of the problems that happened in the prior regime," Garber said.

Rosario was eager to get home and didn't say much to reporters after he was freed, but he's also eager to see what the DA does next, as WCBS 880's Alex Silverman reported.

"The jury is still out on Mrs. Darcel Clark's office," he said.

Rosario and his lawyers are hoping he'll be fully exonerated, with the indictment dismissed, perhaps on June 24 when he's back in court.

The hope is that the investigation is complete by then. Witnesses who verified his alibi in Florida were only formally interviewed in the last few days.

Rosario's conviction has been vacated, which means he's free for now. The judge can decide to dismiss the charges or order a new trial.

(TM and © Copyright 2016 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2016 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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