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David Carlson

Other Orange County, New York exonerations
On October 11, 2013, police arrested 42-year-old David Carlson hours after he fatally shot 35-year-old Norris Acosta-Sanchez with a shotgun outside of Carlson’s home in Sparrowbush, New York.

Carlson admitted he shot Acosta-Sanchez, but said he was acting in self-defense. Carlson said Acosta-Sanchez lunged at him when Carlson said he was going to turn in Acosta-Sanchez, who was a fugitive on a rape charge, to police.

In September 2016, Carlson went to trial in Orange County Supreme Court before Judge Robert Freehill and a jury on a charge of second-degree murder.

Much of the background leading up the shooting was not in dispute. Carlson and his family lived in a wooded area where they kept horses, chickens, and other livestock. In August 2013, Acosta-Sanchez showed up at the farm and identified himself as “Daniel.” He claimed to be the caretaker of a nearby camp and sought work to help support himself. Carlson agreed to provide “Daniel” with eggs and other food in exchange for working on Carlson’s farm.

On October 5, 2013, Acosta-Sanchez joined Carlson and his wife, Sarah, at a campfire on the farm. After having a few drinks, Acosta-Sanchez revealed his real name was Norris, although he did not reveal his last name. He said he was wanted by police in Rockland County for having sex with an underage girl. Carlson and his wife were alarmed and concerned about the safety of their three young sons and neighbors.

On October 8, 2013, Sarah met with an officer at the Deerpark Town police station. Because they did not have a surname, the officer told Sarah to arrange for Carlson to drive “Norris” on Route 42, a two-lane state highway, and police would make a stop so they could take him into custody and confirm his identity. That afternoon, Carlson and Acosta-Sanchez headed to a Walmart on Route 42. However, no stop was made because a shift change left no officers available on the street.

Police requested another attempt at a stop the following day. Sarah called police and said her husband and “Norris” were going to a junk yard via Route 42. Two Deerpark police cars, one driven by Sgt. Elizabeth Sullivan, the other by Officer Thomas Kalin, stopped Carlson. Norris identified himself as Daniel Costa and gave a date of birth of January 10, 1978. Although Sullivan knew that was not his true name, she ran a background check anyway. When she told Acosta-Sanchez there was no match to his name, Acosta-Sanchez said he was in the U.S. on a work visa from Spain and offered to produce his identification at his cabin.

Officer Kalin put Acosta-Sanchez, who was not handcuffed, in the back seat of his patrol car and drove to the cabin, followed by Sullivan in her patrol car. When Sullivan opened the back door of Kalin’s vehicle, Acosta-Sanchez escaped. He ran through the woods and down a rocky dry mountain stream bed toward the Rio reservoir. Kalin chased, losing his radio in the process, but gave up because the terrain was too rugged and because Sullivan told him to stop.

Sullivan later called Carlson and with his help, police found an insurance card bearing Acosta-Sanchez’s full name. Sullivan got his date of birth from the insurance company and ran a record check that showed there was an outstanding arrest warrant in Rockland County. Further investigation showed that Acosta-Sanchez had been charged with two counts of second-degree rape of a 14-year-old girl in Ramapo Town, New York.

At 6:30 p.m. that day, Carlson called Sullivan and reported that Acosta-Sanchez had come to his home and bragged about his escape. Carlson suggested places where police might look for him, and said his wife and their children were leaving the home for their personal safety. They stayed locally at the home of a friend that night and later went to stay with relatives in New Jersey.

The following day, October 10, at Sullivan’s request, Carlson went to the police department to provide a sworn affidavit so that police could obtain a warrant to arrest Acosta-Sanchez. Carlson met with the commander of the SWAT team and provided a description of the cabin where Acosta-Sanchez had been staying as well as area surrounding it. The unit consisted of a precision rifle team armed with Remington and M-4 rifles, and was supported by a K-9 unit and police from three other police departments.

The cabin was surrounded and members of the rifle team briefly sighted Acosta-Sanchez in the vicinity of the cabin. As the team approached the cabin, Acosta-Sanchez jumped from a hunting blind that was outside of the perimeter established by the surrounding officers and headed for the same rocky stream bed from which he made his escape before.

He scuttled down the stream bed to the bottom of the hill, jumped into the Rio Reservoir, and began swimming away. Police brought a boat to the reservoir and called in a helicopter, but Acosta-Sanchez eluded them once again.

Shortly before 8 p.m., the search was called off and the team withdrew. Two deputies were assigned to remain, but were also withdrawn later that evening.

Carlson arose early the next morning to feed his livestock. Shortly after he finished and went back into his home, Acosta-Sanchez began banging on his front door, angrily accusing him of helping the police. Carlson told him to come to the back door. When Acosta-Sanchez came around, Carlson pointed a shotgun at him and declared, “This ends today. I’m bringing you in.”

Carlson testified that Acosta-Sanchez fell to the ground and refused to move. Carlson fired the shotgun into the ground near Acosta-Sanchez and told him to move toward the home of a neighbor, Alan Li. Upon reaching Li’s house, Acosta-Sanchez again fell to the ground and refused to move. Carlson’s efforts to enlist Li’s help were fruitless—no one was home.

Carlson again fired his gun into the ground to get Acosta-Sanchez up and moving toward the home of Carmine Ferrara, who lived further down Old Plank Road. Upon arrival at Ferrara’s home, Carlson ordered Acosta-Sanchez to lie on his belly with his hands behind his head.

Carlson said that as he was yelling for someone to call 911, Acosta-Sanchez moved to a squatting position, then to one knee with his hand on his thigh. Then he lunged toward Carlson, who reacted by firing the shotgun, wounding Acosta-Sanchez in the left arm and shoulder. Carlson testified that Acosta-Sanchez fell to the ground and then rose up and again lunged at Carlson. Carlson fired once more, fatally wounding Acosta-Sanchez in the side of the head.

Ferrara, who was awakened by the activity in his driveway, testified that he saw Carlson appear to fall backward away from Acosta-Sanchez when the second shot was fired. Ferrara said Acosta-Sanchez’s arm was stretched toward the shotgun. He said it was the initial stage of a lunge that was terminated by the shotgun blast.

The prosecution presented evidence that tests revealed DNA—which was found on tissue on the barrel of the shotgun—belonged to Acosta-Sanchez. When police arrived, Carlson told police not to handcuff Ferrara and then said, “I did it.” Acosta-Sanchez was pronounced dead on the scene.

Carlson’s defense attorneys, Benjamin Ostrer and Michael Mazzariello, sought to play a recording of a telephone call between Acosta-Sanchez and the 14-year-old girl’s grandmother that the Ramapo Town police arranged after Acosta-Sanchez was charged and became a fugitive. During the call, Acosta-Sanchez said, “I am not going to jail for one day.” He also said he realized what happens in jail to people who are convicted of having sex with an underage girl.

The trial judge sustained the prosecution’s objection, and barred admission of the recording.

The jury began deliberating late in the day on October 31. The jurors continued to deliberate on November 1, 2, and 3. On November 3, juror #11 was visibly upset when she returned from lunch. After an inquiry from Judge Freehill, who had been alerted by the jury foreman, the judge told the defense and prosecution that “she went home for lunch and found her husband with another woman.”

The judge sent the jury home for the rest of the day. The following morning, Friday, November 4, juror #11 was interviewed in the Judge Freehill’s chambers. She began crying. She said it was her fiancé, not her husband, and when she confronted him that day, he had called the police—although she left without knowing whether police actually arrived.

Defense motions to disqualify the juror and for a mistrial were denied. Later that day, the jury reported being deadlocked. Judge Freehill sent the jury home for the weekend and on Monday, November 7, the judge read a jury instruction relating to deadlock. Although the jury reported it was “confident” it could not reach a unanimous verdict, the judge declined to declare a mistrial and told them to continue to deliberate.

Two days later, on Wednesday, November 9, the jury requested a readback of testimony from police officers regarding Carlson’s statements about what had happened. The readback was postponed for the morning of Thursday, November 10. The testimony was read to the jury after they asked if they could “infer intent” from Carlson’s plea of self-defense. Judge Freehill said they could not.

After the lunch recess, juror #12 asked to speak to the judge. In chambers, the juror said she was experiencing stress from her husband and financial pressures from being in court. Judge Freehill said he was “hopeful that negotiations—deliberations will bring this matter to an early conclusion.” At the end of the day, no verdict had been reached and the judge sent the jury home for the three-day weekend (Veteran’s Day) to return on Monday, November 14.

At 10:55 a.m. on November 14, the jury reached a verdict. Carlson was acquitted of second-degree murder and convicted of a lesser-included offense of first-degree manslaughter. Carlson, who had been free on bond, was taken into custody. On December 19, 2016, he was released on an appeal bond. On March 21, 2017, Judge Freehill sentenced Carlson to the minimum term of five years in prison.

In August 2018, the New York Second Division Appellate Department vacated Carlson’s conviction and ordered a new trial. The reversal turned on a defense motion for mistrial that had been made during jury selection.

During the first round of jury selection, the defense had objected to the prosecutor’s description of the charge against Acosta-Sanchez as “statutory rape,” instead of second-degree rape—a charge the defense said was more serious. The objection was discussed outside the presence of prospective jurors, but nothing was done. Five jurors were selected during this round.

During the second round, the prosecutor again used the term “statutory rape.” After another objection, the judge ordered the prosecutor to not use that term, but denied the defense motion for mistrial. One juror was selected during this round, bringing the total to six jurors selected.

During the third round, the judge spontaneously instructed prospective jurors that Acosta-Sanchez was charged with second-degree rape, not statutory rape. The defense again asked for a mistrial, saying that the six jurors already seated did not get that instruction. The motion was denied, the remaining jurors were selected and the trial commenced.

The appellate court said that Judge Freehill had correctly determined that the use of the term “statutory rape” was not proper as “such a colloquial term may have been misinterpreted by some jurors to mean that the sexual contact between [Acosta-Sanchez] and his alleged victim was consensual, but illegal solely because of the age difference between them.”

The appellate court noted that the prosecution initially contended the crime that Acosta-Sanchez faced was not a “violent” crime. Because the first six jurors did not get the instruction, they may have implied that Acosta-Sanchez was not a violent person in reaching their decision to convict Carlson, the court said. As a result, the court held, Carlson’s trial was unfair.

In late 2019, the retrial was commenced before Judge Freehill without a jury. During this trial, the defense was allowed to play the recording of Acosta-Sanchez’s conversation with the 14-year-old girl’s grandmother. On January 16, 2020, Judge Freehill acquitted Carlson.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 2/13/2020
State:New York
County:Orange
Most Serious Crime:Manslaughter
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2013
Convicted:2016
Exonerated:2020
Sentence:5 years
Race:White
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:42
Contributing Factors:
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No