On March 8, 2006, a woman called police after a man drove past her as she walked into the Caesar’s Bay shopping center in Brooklyn, New York and attempted to snatch her purse. The victim said she managed to hold onto the purse and the man drove off in a red car with Pennsylvania license plates.
A few minutes later, 38-year-old Charles Bunge was stopped by police as he was driving to visit his mother in his burgundy Honda bearing Pennsylvania license plates. The car stood out because it had an extremely noisy broken muffler.
The victim was brought to the place where Bunge was being questioned. As police drove her past Bunge in a squad car, she identified him as the robber.
Bunge, a heroin addict, was driving on a suspended license and had prior convictions for assault and drug offenses. When he was first stopped, police said he gave a false name before finally admitting his true identity.
Bunge was charged with attempted robbery, reckless endangerment and assault. He rejected a plea bargain of six months in prison and said he was innocent.
While awaiting trial, Bunge was free on bail. He noticed a Crime Stoppers reward poster for Manuel Vieara, who was wanted for several robberies committed in Brooklyn and Staten Island between March 2 and March 5, 2006. The poster said Vieara committed the robberies by driving up to women, grabbing their purses and speeding off in a car.
Bunge went on trial in Kings County Supreme Court in June 2007. His attorney tried to use the reward poster when cross-examining the victim, it was excluded. The victim identified Bunge, although she had told police immediately after the attack that she had not seen the robber’s face. A jury convicted Bunge of attempted robbery on June 21, 2007 and he was sentenced to six years in prison.
In February 2010, the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court ruled that the poster should have been admitted in evidence and reversed Bunge’s conviction. He was freed on bail in March 2010 and went on trial a second time in November 2010. With the reward poster for Manuel Vieara in evidence, the jury acquitted Bunge on November 15, 2010.
Bunge filed a wrongful conviction lawsuit in the New York Court of Claims. At the trial of the lawsuit Burge called Manuel Vieara as a witness. Vieara testified that he was a serial drive-by purse snatcher as far back as 1990 and committed the crimes to feed his crack cocaine addiction. Vieara said that he had committed many of his crimes in the Caesar’s Bay Shopping Center and that after committing several purse snatchings in March 2006, he left New York because he dropped his cell phone during one of the crimes and police had identified him.
Vieara testified that he committed so many robberies he could not remember them all—and had no memory of the robbery for which Bunge had been arrested. But he did remember that in 2006 he was driving a car with Pennsylvania license plates that he had stolen. Vieara was arrested in November 2006 after he returned to New York and resumed snatching purses. He pleaded guilty to attempted robbery and was sentenced to five years in prison.
New York police officers testified that the victim told them her attacker was a white man with blonde hair driving a red, very clean appearing car and that Bunge's car matched the description and the license plate given by the victim.
In May 2013, Court of Claims Judge Faviola Soto found Vieara to be a credible witness. Judge Soto also found the police officers were not credible and noted that the initial radio alert of the crime did not mention a license plate. The judge also noted that Bunge's car had a broken muffler, which created a loud noise, and had primer paint on three sides of the vehicle. The judge ruled that the City of New York was liable for damages for Bunge’s imprisonment. A damages hearing was to be held later in 2013.
– Maurice Possley