Cook County prosecutors on Monday dropped charges against a convicted murderer who has been in custody for 16 years, citing errors at his trial.

John Velez’s mother, Concepcion, began weeping in Judge Kenneth Wadas‘s courtroom as he threw out her son’s conviction at the request of prosecutors.

The elder Velez, 59, said the family is planning for their happiest Christmas in years, though it remained unclear when her son would be released from the federal facility in California where he has been locked since his transfer from Illinois state prison in 2014.

Authorities never officially gave a reason for the move, but Velez’s lawyer, Jennifer Blagg, said that before Velez’s transfer he had participated in a hunger strike to protest conditions at Menard Correctional Center in southern Illinois.

Velez was convicted of first-degree murder about 1 1/2 years after the 2001 shooting of Anthony Huenaca, 26. Prosecutors characterized the shooting as an “anniversary killing” by Velez, a reputed Satan Disciples gang member, to avenge the homicide of his uncle a year earlier during an ongoing war with the Latin Kings, records show.

At trial, prosecutors used a damning statement from Velez’s pregnant then-girlfriend, Christina Izquierdo, to investigators just after her release from the hospital following her own shooting.

The signed statement by Izquierdo said that while visiting her in the hospital, Velez blamed himself for her shooting, saying it was in retaliation for his shooting a Latin King days earlier, according to court records.

In court filings, Blagg said that to the jury the statement essentially functioned as a confession from Velez himself.

But during Velez’s trial, Izquierdo recanted the statement, saying that police had threatened to take away her daughter if she did not sign it, according to court records.

Blagg argued that prosecutors should never have been allowed to introduce her statement as substantive evidence in the first place because Izquierdo had no first-hand knowledge of the events surrounding the shooting.

“The error in this case had to be so severe it infected the whole trial,” Blagg told the Tribune after Monday’s hearing. “The layperson could call it a technicality … (but) the Constitution doesn’t have technicalities.”

Blagg credited State’s Attorney Kim Foxx‘s office for what she called a prudent and relatively speedy decision.

After the hearing, Velez’s relatives embraced while standing in the hallway of the Leighton Criminal Court Building. One overjoyed woman kissed Blagg’s hand, leaving a bright pink lipstick mark.

mcrepeau@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @crepeau

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