On September 4, 2005, 46-year-old George Peseo picked up two prostitutes in Harlem, New York City, and brought them to his Bronx apartment where they spent the night partying and then left the following day. The women returned later on September 5 to collect some belongings and at one point, they asked for money.
An argument erupted and Peseo called a friend to come over after one of the women used Peseo’s cell phone and told him she had called some friends to come over and beat up Peseo. The women eventually left the apartment, but promised they would return.
In the early morning hours of September 6, the two women, accompanied by four men, returned and forced their way into Peseo’s apartment. Peseo was bound with duct tape, shot twice in the abdomen and pushed into a closet. The men and women ransacked the apartment and fled with Peseo’s car and other valuables, including his cell phone. Peseo survived, but was in a coma for two weeks and ultimately required 15 surgeries.
On October 1, Bronx detectives obtained telephone records from Peseo’s cell phone. When they discovered that calls had been made while Peseo was in the hospital, they concluded that the criminals still had the phone. Peseo reviewed the phone records and said he did not recognize one of the numbers that was called prior to the attack and police suspected it was the number that one of the women called when she threatened to get friends to come and beat up Peseo.
Police traced the number to Tyrone Johnson in the Bronx, who had an 18-year-old daughter named Latisha. Latisha Johnson
had run away from home and had taken one of the family’s cars. Police obtained a photograph of her and put it a photographic lineup. After Peseo selected Johnson as one of the two prostitutes, police issued an alert that she was wanted.
On October 11, 2005, Johnson and her 22-year-old friend, Malisha Blyden, were arrested on a subway train for playing music too loudly. Police questioned Johnson and she said Blyden was a close friend and they often stayed together in Harlem. Detectives then put a photograph of Blyden into a photographic lineup and Peseo selected her as the other prostitute.
During nearly 24 hours of questioning, Johnson confessed to police that she, Blyden and several men had decided to rob Peseo. Johnson and Blyden were charged with attempted murder, robbery, burglary, assault and criminal possession of a weapon.
Johnson and Blyden went to trial in May 2007 in Bronx County Supreme Court. The media dubbed them the “Flour Girls” because there were bags in Peseo’s cupboard that the women believed contained cocaine, but actually contained cassava flour. The prosecution did not offer Johnson’s confession at trial because it was riddled with inaccuracies. Two of the men Johnson named as taking part in the attack had alibis and had been ruled out by police. Notably, Peseo had also incorrectly identified these same two individuals during a police photographic lineup.
Prior to trial, the police tracked down Mario Nogueira, who told police that he and four other men had participated in the shooting and robbery of Peseo. Nogueira agreed to plead guilty to grand larceny and in return testified that Johnson and Blyden were “party girls” who used the names Jackie and Lace and who had sex with men for money. Nogueira identified Johnson and Blyden as the women who had brought the men to Peseo’s apartment. A witness who was originally subpoenaed to testify for the prosecution to identify Johnson and Blyden ended up testifying for the defense after she observed the two defendants in the courtroom and informed the defense that the women on trial were not Jackie and Lace.
After the prosecution finished presenting its evidence and two defense witnesses had testified, the prosecution disclosed for the first time a full copy of Peseo’s cell phone records. The defense noticed that Peseo had made eight calls the weekend of the attack to a number in the Bronx that ended with the digits 3041. The number was just one digit different from Tyrone Johnson’s phone number which ended with the digits 3042. The 3042 number had led police to Tyrone Johnson, whose daughter was Latisha Johnson. Although the defense suspected that the call to the 3042 number was merely a misdial by Peseo, the case was too far along to effectively develop that evidence for the jury. On June 11, 2007, Johnson and Blyden were convicted of all the charges. They were each sentenced to 40 years in prison.
A motion to set aside the verdict was filed prior to sentencing and at a subsequent hearing, another witness testified that she knew Jackie and Lace and that Johnson and Blyden were not them. That motion was denied. At the hearing, a photograph of a woman who was later determined to be Latreese Shufford was introduced into evidence and identified as being one of the two prostitutes.
Kerry Jamieson, a Senior Staff Attorney in the Office of the Appellate Defender in New York, was assigned to handle Johnson’s appeal. Claudia Trupp of the Center for Appellate Litigation represented Blyden. The Office of the Appellate Defender’s Reinvestigation Project interviewed all of the five male co-defendants, including Nogueira, and they all said that Johnson and Blyden were not Jackie and Lace.
The lawyers also tracked down Nathaniel Potts, whose phone number had been called from Peseo’s phone three times after the robbery and shooting had occurred. During her statement to police after she was first arrested, Johnson had identified two men as being among the robbers. Potts was one of them and he was also charged in the crime. After spending more than a year in jail, Potts was eliminated as a suspect and the charges against him were dismissed. When defense investigators interviewed Potts, he said that he got a call from an ex-girlfriend who said that she, another girl and some men had robbed a man’s house. He said that the ex-girlfriend was Latreese Shufford.
The defense interviewed a woman who was Peseo’s girlfriend at the time of the attack. She told the defense attorneys that prior to the trial, she told police that she was in Peseo's apartment when both women were there. She said she told the police that Johnson and Blyden were not the women. This information was never disclosed to the defense by the prosecution.
The new evidence was presented to the Bronx County District Attorney’s office, which conducted its own investigation and reinterviewed witnesses. On January 26, 2014, the prosecution and the defense jointly presented a motion to vacate the convictions. The motion was granted and Johnson and Blyden were released. On March 11, 2014, the prosecution dismissed the charges.
– Maurice Possley