When Ricardo Jimenez was freed from state prison in July 2022 after serving 16 years as the so-called “‘Batman’ killer,” his wife and one of his sons greeted him at the gate.
“We all started crying in the car like three babies,” he told THE CITY. “Seeing that sun, it was a whole different story.”
Jimenez’s release was the culmination of a saga spanning more than three decades beginning when 20-year-old Sean Worrell was gunned down in a July 1989 dispute over popcorn before a midnight “Batman” screening at the Whitestone Multiplex in The Bronx.
Its latest twist is a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday that accuses the Bronx district attorney and NYPD detectives of relying on the testimonies of a key witness doing a lengthy stint in federal prison and a jailhouse informant to wrongfully put Jimenez behind bars.
“Nothing can make up for 16 years of being locked up,” Jimenez told THE CITY from his home in Troy, New York.
“These jailhouse informants know how the system goes,” he added. “They know how to work it.”
Former Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson and current Bronx DA Darcel Clark repeatedly opposed his appeals despite evidence showing most witnesses who were interviewed identified someone that looked very different.
Over the last few years there has been a vast expansion of conviction review units, both nationally and in New York, including one in The Bronx. But those units typically only tackle cases that have exhausted all their legal options, a process that can take years.
Jimenez’s legal salvo alleging prosecutorial misconduct comes as district attorneys face increasing scrutiny over their use of jailhouse informants and their handling of what is called “Brady” material, exculpatory records that prosecutors are required to disclose under the landmark 1963 U.S. Supreme Court case Brady v. Maryland.
“Jailhouse informant testimony is one of the leading contributing factors of wrongful convictions nationally, playing a role in nearly one in five of the 367 DNA-based exoneration cases,” according to the Innocence Project.
Representatives for the Bronx DA and city Law Department declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation.
A Weak Case
In The Bronx, the theater was packed for the premiere of the Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson classic. The line for popcorn was long, and witnesses differed over what triggered the fight.
One witness told cops it started after the alleged shooter squeezed his way to the front of the line, while others said the dispute was over the last bag of popcorn.
Either way, the witnesses all agreed the alleged shooter then threatened to go back to his car to get his gun. The shooting began inside the darkened theater right as the movie was starting.
The case remained cold for 16 years until around 2000 when a man serving a 30-year sentence for an unrelated federal case told cops he saw Jimenez shoot his friend Worrell as the two confronted each other in the theater’s aisle.
The case remained dormant for another five years until a separate jailhouse informant told police that Jimenez confessed to him while the two men were locked up inside the Vernon C. Bain jail in Hunts Point.
In July 2007, a jury convicted Jimenez of second-degree murder after five days of deliberation. He was sentenced to 22 years to life.
Jimenez, a former barber, has long maintained his innocence, saying he was actually at his mother’s apartment in The Bronx that night — and not at the Whitestone multiplex movie premiere.
He filed multiple appeals from prison, and last July a federal district judge ruled that Lisa Mattaway — the Bronx prosecutor who tried the case — had failed to disclose exculpatory evidence she was legally required to share with his defense lawyer before and during the trial.
“It cannot be stressed enough that the case against Jimenez was weak,” U.S. District Judge J. Paul Oetken wrote in a decision ordering his release from prison.
Oetken noted that Mattaway failed to reveal that the two witnesses who pinned the shooting on Jimenez — Kevin Morrissey and Andrew O’Brien — would be given letters that pushed for sentence reductions in return for their testimony.
Mattaway did not respond to an email seeking comment.
Court records say Morrisey had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and point out that prosecutors turned to him as a witness or informant in 10 other criminal cases.
The new lawsuit charges that detectives “improperly created and/or obtained evidence” and also contends the Bronx DA had a “longstanding culture” of withholding evidence favoring the defendant.
“Prosecutors were allowed to violate ethical norms and well settled legal rules with impunity,” the lawsuit alleges.
The law has come under steady attack from prosecutors who contend they don’t have enough staff or resources to properly implement the new guidelines.
Supporters of the law, including public defenders, note that many other states already have similar evidence-sharing rules in place.
When Jimenez was tried, prosecutors often violated the evidence-sharing laws and procedures then in effect, according to his lawsuit.
In The Bronx, between 1975 and 1996, just one prosecutor was disciplined for violating the Brady rules, according to the lawsuit.
“The office had no written code of conduct or policy setting forth rules of behavior or specifying consequences for trial misconduct,” the lawsuit said.
In the case of Jimenez, then-Bronx DA Johnson relied heavily on Morrissey, the jailhouse informant, and O’Brien, who at the time was serving a 30-year prison sentence for a federal conviction.
At least eight moviegoers and theater staffers told police the gunman was a Black man who spoke with a Jamaican accent and had distinctive blond streaks dyed into his hair, according to internal police reports made public in multiple court proceedings.
Jimenez is Hispanic and doesn’t have an accent.
“Ricardo Jimenez’s rights were violated at every step of the process — from the police obtaining false witness statements to the DA’s office violating its legal and ethical obligations at trial,” said his lawyer Josh Kelner. “This lawsuit is about holding them accountable.”
At trial, Morrissey, the first witness called to testify against Jimenez, told jurors that he served as a sort of amateur jailhouse lawyer who helped multiple incarcerated people fight their cases.
Morrissey testified that Jimenez was among those who sought his advice — and that he confessed to shooting Worrell inside the theater after the two men fought over popcorn prior to the movie.
Jimenez and his legal team argued that Morrissey lied in exchange for a letter from prosecutor Mattaway urging the judge in Morrisey’s case to give him a shorter sentence.
Morrissey had a long rap sheet and “boasted about providing information in three homicide cases, and had served as an informant in as many as ten cases,” according to Oetken’s 30-page decision.
In a separate case, Morrissey wrote a letter to two federal judges in which he accused a man living inside his body of “making him do bad things,” according to court documents.
“Federal prosecutors in an unrelated case withdrew him as a witness,” according to Jimenez’s lawsuit.
Additionally, the Bronx DA’s office said it would not call Morrissey as a witness even in the case of a retrial, according to Jimenez’s lawyer.
Shortly after the murder, police briefly detained Jimenez after Esco Blaylock, a 15-year-old working at the theater’s popcorn stand, identified him as the shooter in a “highly suggestive one-photo procedure” provided by cops, according to the federal appeals judge.
Jimenez’s mugshot was in the NYPD’s system from prior arrests.
The photo ID came after Blaylock had initially told police the shooter was a Black man named Leon with gold stripes in his hair and a gold tooth, NYPD records show.
Blaylock then failed to show up for a lineup and recanted his story implicating Jimenez, court documents show.
So police let Jimenez go after a few hours, due to lack of evidence.
“I offered to take a lie detector test,” Jimenez recalled, noting he never thought about the case afterwards.
“I thought it was over,” he said. “I didn’t do it. It wasn’t nothing over my head if they’d come back.”
The case remained dormant until inmate O’Brien reached out to a cold case detective around 2000. O’Brien then identified Jimenez in a photo array, but authorities felt they still didn’t have enough information to make the case, according to case file records.
Five years later, a detective re-interviewed Blaylock, who once again identified Jimenez in a photo array.
Cops arrested Jimenez in 2006 outside the Late Night Hustler’s barbershop that he had managed for several years.
“It seemed like a nightmare,” Jimenez recalled. “You are not talking about robbery or stealing out of stores. You’re talking about a murder.”
In the months before his trial, he begged his family for money so he could pay for a private attorney to represent him.
“My mother kept saying, ‘Leave it in God’s hands. He knows you didn’t do it,’” he recalled.
The jury took five days to deliberate before coming back with a guilty verdict.
Jimenez was despondent and said he contemplated suicide when court officers brought him to a courtroom holding pen.
At his sentencing, he insisted he was innocent.
“I never was there at the movie theater when that happened,” he told the judge. “The court system is unfair. You need to look deep into the case.”
In prison, he did his best to keep in touch with his six children, and desperately tried to get the conviction overturned.
When it finally was overturned, the federal district judge gave the Bronx DA 120 days to decide if she wanted to retry him.
When that deadline passed, Jimenez remained locked up and his lawyers filed another court petition demanding his release, arguing Clark and her staff violated the deadline.
That’s when he was rushed out of Sullivan Correctional Center within minutes.
“I barely had time to get all my pictures and stuff,” he recalled. “I had a lot of stuff over all those years.”
Jimenez says he doesn’t hold grudges against the people who pushed to lock him up. But he says adjusting to life after 17 years in prison has not been easy.
“I don’t trust nobody,” he said. “I always wait for people to walk in front of me. I don’t want anybody behind me possibly attacking.”