Social media post leads Cuyahoga County prosecutors to drop murder charges against wrongfully accused man who sat in jail for months
CLEVELAND, Ohio (WOIO) - A man is finally free after spending nearly five months in the Cuyahoga County jail, charged with a murder he didn’t commit.
It was a simple social media post that solidified the man’s alibi and got prosecutors to drop the case against him.
He and his attorney shared the story exclusively with 19 News investigators.
Abdel Santiago is from Puerto Rico and doesn’t speak English, so a translator helped tell us his story.
“He said he was just confused. He didn’t understand why he was being arrested,” the translator said.
Santiago was arrested for murder as he was visiting his brother here in the Stockyard neighborhood last October.
“He says he tried to stay calm because he knew he didn’t do anything,” the translator said.
Santiago’s attorney Issa Elkhatib says though Santiago declared his innocence, Cuyahoga County Prosecutors were building a case against him and two others, accusing them in the shooting of 19-year-old Luis Rodriguez-Rivera last September.
The evidence against Santiago, Elkhatib says prosecutors had, was slim.
“There was an undisclosed witness. That was about it,” Elkhatib said.
Santiago said he did not think he was going to be able to get out of the charges, even though he knew he was innocent.
Santiago wasn’t even in Ohio the night of the murder. He says he was in Georgia- a stop he made before traveling up to Ohio.
“He spent the day with his dad, they went off-roading and got pizza,” the translator said.
After months of Santiago sitting behind bars, Elkhatib logged in to Santiago’s dad’s Facebook page.
“I just said oh my god, we have something here,” Elkhatib said.
It was Santiago’s alibi.
A video he found was posted the night of the murder.
“That’s what saved Abdul’s life, really, is social media,” Elkhatib said.
The live stream not only shows Santiago in the car that night, but attorneys were able to match the exit signs you see in the video, to a Georgia highway.
“Because it was a live broadcast on Facebook’s platform, it was almost undisputable that it was recorded at that time,” Elkhatib said.
County prosecutors declined to do an on-camera interview, but after Elkhatib brought the footage to court, in a statement, prosecutors said:
“You saw him just breathe. Even through the mask, you saw his cheekbones kind of lift. He was smiling,” Elkhatib said. “I think in this case, it was just a witness that was wrong.”
A mistake, honest or not, that cost a man months away from his family and his family a significant amount of money to prove he was innocent before the case got in the hands of a jury.
When we asked if his family could get any of the money back, Elkhatib explained, “Unfortunately it’s one of those situations where your proper legal defense costs money.”
Elkhatib says in order to sue police or the county for the money to pay legal costs, there would need to be evidence detectives withheld information or knowingly did something wrong here.
He doesn’t think that’s what happened.
“I think in this case, it was just a witness that was wrong. In this case, I think it was just wrong place, wrong time,” Elkhatib said.
Santiago’s time in jail also cost him his health at one point too. Santiago says caught the coronavirus and spent 10 days sick in his cell.
He did get medical attention, but just can’t help but think maybe he wouldn’t have gotten so ill if he wasn’t in jail in the first place.
“It’s not fair, he didn’t do anything wrong,” Elkhatib said.
While it may not be fair, Elkhatib says the justice, system did not fail Santiago.
“I don’t believe it failed him, because he’s free,” Elkhatib said.
However, he does believe Santiago is part of a national trend when it comes to minorities.
“They are just so easily prosecuted, so easily wrongfully accused, and arrested,” Elkhatib said.
According to data from the national registry of exonerations, 62%of those who wrongfully convicted in the U.S. are minorities.
Thankfully, Santiago’s case didn’t get to a jury, though.
“He ran the risk of being wrongfully convicted, instead of wrongfully accused and his life would have taken a really dark turn,” Elkhatib said.
That’s scary, because what Elkhatib says was bad luck in Santiago’s case could essentially happen to anyone.
“All you really need is to be at the wrong place at the wrong time and someone to mistake you as the perpetrator and it’s so damning for you, and you can lose literally everything- your family, your relationships , your job. It’s incredibly scary,” Elkhatib said.
A lot of us often feel imprisoned to the attachment we have to our phones. Ironically, like in this case, Elkhatib says your phone could one day be the thing that sets you free. He does credit social media for doing good in this case.
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