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Exclusive: Honor student jailed at Rikers speaks out for the 1st time since Kennedy organization posted his bail

CONCOURSE, the Bronx — His plight has become an international cause that began with coverage on PIX11 News nearly a year ago about the arrest of a high schooler for a crime that overwhelming evidence suggested he did not commit.

Now, an international human rights organization, led by one of the leaders of one of the country's most activist families, has joined the case, and has made it possible for Pedro Hernandez's bail to be significantly reduced. The organization then paid the six-figure bail amount.

The teen, who completed his high school requirements with honors behind bars and got nominated for a full-ride college scholarship while he was incarcerated, is expected to be released from Rikers Island sometime on Thursday.

"I was happy. I started jumping around," Hernandez, 17, told PIX11 News by phone from the adolescent holding facility at Rikers where he's been in custody for nearly 12 months.

"I'm feeling good," he said, adding that his fellow inmates are also happy for him. "I've been here the longest" of them, he said.

The other inmates cheered, said Hernandez, when "PIX11 said [my bail] was on... Everything came out right there."

Outside criminal court at the Bronx Hall of Justice on Wednesday evening, Hernandez's mother, Jessica Perez, was beaming.

"It's beyond happiness," she told PIX11 News, shortly after a judge confirmed that her son's bail payment would be accepted.  "Justice is being served.  We're still not there, but justice is being served."

Perez had set up a crowdsourcing account for her son in an attempt to raise the $250,000 cash bail the court had set.

Social media justice advocate and New York Daily News columnist Shaun King learned about Hernandez's story through reporting by PIX11 and other media outlets and mobilized his over 1.5 million followers on social media to raise over $100,000.

The effort caught the attention of Kerry Kennedy, president of a social justice organization named after her father, the late U.S. senator from New York and former presidential frontrunner, Robert F. Kennedy.

Kerry Kennedy, a human rights lawyer in her own right, called Perez on Tuesday, saying that she wanted to learn more about Hernandez's case.  Kennedy invited Perez and her other teenaged son over to her Manhattan apartment for a Tuesday evening meal.

"I was honored to have dinner with her," Perez said in an interview.  "In her home, and she listened to our story."

The next morning, Wednesday, Kennedy consulted with her organization's legal staff, and by midday, "She sent her lawyers to the court," Perez said.

Specifically, they had arranged to meet with the judge in the case in an early afternoon session.

"We said, 'Pedro has to come home immediately,'" Wade McMullen, managing attorney of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights organization, told PIX11 News.

His team, which has argued cases worldwide, convinced the judge in the Bronx that Pedro Hernandez's situation was an egregious violation of his basic human rights.

"People like Pedro are still on Rikers because they can't purchase their freedom," McMullen said.

The judge agreed strongly enough to reduce Hernandez's bail from $250,000 to $105,000 and to accept a bond in the case, or 10 percent of the bail payment.

By Wednesday afternoon, Hernandez's crowdsourcing account had raised $106,000 -- more than the new bail amount -- from more than 3,000 donors worldwide.

There was, nonetheless, an additional problem.

"In this case," said Hernandez's mother, prosecutors made a new demand.  "We had to show where every donor came from."

It was a demand that the judge accepted, even though proof would have required each donor -- some of whom gave as little as $5.00 -- to provide evidence that the money did not come from any possibly illicit source.

"That would've been impossible," said Perez.

The human rights lawyers, representing an endowed organization, had another idea.  They concluded, "We're going to step in and see if the court will question where our money is coming from," McMullen said.

The tactic worked immediately, as pointed out afterward by the private investigator who's spent a year gathering evidence which he says proves Hernandez's innocence.

"I am so happy and feel so vindicated," Manuel Gomez said.  His nearly year-long investigation into the September 2016 shooting for which Hernandez is accused discovered that the victim of the shooting had identified somebody other than Hernandez as the gunman.

It also showed, according to Gomez, that time-stamped video from Hernandez's mother's apartment building shows that Hernandez was there at the time of the shooting, helping to deliver groceries for her.  Nine eyewitnesses also told Gomez in video and written statements that somebody other than Hernandez was the shooter.

"This is not just a Pedro Hernandez story," Gomez told PIX11 News.  "We're going to get him out. But I'm saddened that it took all these organizations to come forward to finally get this kid some justice.

That kid, as Gomez called him, is grateful.

"I appreciate everything that was done for me," he said by phone from the Rikers facility from which he is expected to be released sometime on Thursday.  "I'm feeling good."

Meanwhile, his new attorney, from the RFK Human Rights organization, said that Hernandez's case may set a precedent.

"It's the kind of case every New Yorker needs to get behind to try and ensure this doesn't happen," said McMullen.  "When I travel to places like Zimbabwe, or South Africa, or Mexico, people ask me about [this kind of] discrimination."

"Pedro's case illuminates the problem perfectly," he added.

The RFK Human Rights organization hopes to shepherd this as a test case to prevent other defendants from having to shoulder what it calls excessive bail amounts that result in young people spending months or years behind bars waiting for trial, whether or not they committed the crime.

McMullen, as Shaun King had done a week earlier, compared Hernandez's case to that of Kalief Browder, the Bronx teen falsely accused of stealing a backpack, who ended up spending three years in a Rikers Island lockup, much of it in solitary confinement.  Browder ultimately committed suicide two years after he was finally released.

"This is a worldwide embarrassment to our country," McMullen said, "and there is no doubt in my mind that if Bobby Kennedy were alive today, that this would be the fight he'd engage in."

It's a fight for which Hernandez's family is as grateful as Hernandez himself.

"This is unbelievable," said Perez, Hernandez's mother.   "I never thought his words would reach so many important people, so many organizations around the world."

"I'm proud," she added, noting that her son chose to stay in jail, rather than accept a plea bargain which would have released him from jail, but forced him to forfeit a trial in which he could prove his innocence.

"I have raised a strong young man," said Perez.  "He believes that every human has rights.  Even as a young adult, he says you've got to stand up."