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Danny Sarita

Other New York CIU Exonerations
In the early morning hours of November 10, 2007, 25-year-old Danny Sarita left Melodia, a nightclub on 207th Street in far north Manhattan, after working the night as a DJ.

A large crowd of people were milling about as the club closed down. On the way out, Veronica Baltazar, the mother of his son, confronted Sarita. Witnesses told police that Baltazar, who had been drinking, was cursing at Sarita and rushed toward him. Sarita brushed her aside and she fell to the pavement. Wilfredo Hernandez, who had left the club with Baltazar, exchanged words with Sarita and walked away.

At about that time, an unrelated fight among several men erupted on the street nearby. During the brawl, 24-year-old Giovanny Mercado was slashed in the face.

Later that day, Sarita was told that police wanted to speak with him about the brawl. When he went to the precinct station, he was put in a lineup and was identified by Wilfredo Hernandez and his sister, Yessenia Hernandez, as the man who slashed Mercado.

Sarita denied that he was involved in the fight. He was arrested and indicted on a charge of first-degree assault. He testified before the grand jury and denied being in the fight. Sarita was later re-indicted on a second charge of second-degree gang assault based on an allegation that he aided others in the assault on Mercado.

Sarita went on trial in New York County Supreme Court in March 2009. Wilfredo Hernandez testified that he and Mercado and three other friends were at the nightclub to celebrate Yessenia’s birthday. Wilfredo said the fight began when someone punched Mercado and knocked him to the ground. Although Mercado sustained a single slash wound to the face, Wilfredo said he saw Sarita lift him up by the waist and make a number of jabbing motions at Mercado’s face with a shiny object.

Mercado testified that he was punched, knocked down and then someone—he did not know who—slashed his face.

Yessenia testified that Sarita stabbed Mercado and then made a derogatory remark about him as he lay bleeding on the ground. Sarita’s attorney suggested during cross-examination that Yessenia and Wilfredo targeted Sarita because Wilfredo and Sarita had exchanged angry words outside the nightclub just before the brawl erupted. Under cross-examination, Yessenia and Wilfredo both admitted they were highly intoxicated when they left the nightclub because they had smoked marijuana before coming to the club and drank heavily throughout the night.

A police officer testified that Wilfredo Hernandez was drunk, belligerent and uncooperative at the scene, and initially refused to identify anyone who was involved in the fight. A police officer said that one witness at the scene that the person who slashed Mercado had closely cropped hair. Sarita wore his hair in braids.

A security guard testified that he saw Sarita in the crowd outside the club, but did not see him fighting. A video of the street taken from the club during the incident showed people outside the club involved in a brawl, but Sarita was not visible.

Sarita testified and denied any involvement in the fight.

At the close of its case, before the defense evidence was presented, the prosecution requested that the judge instruct the jury that Sarita could be convicted even if he didn’t actually slash Mercado, if he was acting in concert with others in the fight. The trial judge was skeptical at first, but gave that instruction minutes before closing arguments were to begin.

On March 24, 2009, the jury acquitted Sarita of the first-degree assault charges but convicted him of the second-degree gang assault charge. He was sentenced to four years in prison.

Sarita’s appeal was denied in December 2010. In 2011, defense attorney Peter Smith filed a motion for a new trial based on statements from three witnesses who said they were at the scene and that Sarita was not involved in the fight. Two of them said that they told police and a prosecutor that Sarita was not the man who slashed Mercado. The motion claimed that the prosecution had failed to disclose the statements to Sarita prior to his trial.

After the motion was filed, the Conviction Integrity Unit of the New York County District Attorney’s Office re-investigated the case, interviewed the three witnesses and located a fourth witness who also said that Sarita was not involved in the fight.

In April 2012, the prosecution filed a motion requesting that Sarita’s conviction be vacated. On April 16, 2012, the conviction was vacated, the charge was dismissed and Sarita was released.

Sarita filed a claim for compensation with the New York Court of Claims that was still pending in September 2014.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 9/20/2014
State:New York
County:New York
Most Serious Crime:Assault
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2007
Convicted:2009
Exonerated:2012
Sentence:4 years
Race:Hispanic
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:25
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No