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Robert Majors

Other Queens County, New York exonerations
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On the morning of May 9, 1997, gunmen wearing masks ambushed a payroll delivery truck outside Positive Promotions, a company at 40-01 168th Street in Queens, New York. Two guards, 38-year-old Arthur Pettus, an off-duty New York police detective, and 45-year-old Joseph Bellone, a retired New York police officer, were shot and critically wounded during a fusillade of gunfire.

Nearly 50 shots were fired. Bellone, a 22-year police veteran, was shot 12 times, suffering wounds in the abdomen, spleen, small intestine, arms and legs. Pettus, a 15-year-veteran, was shot six times in the abdomen and legs. Both miraculously survived.

After grabbing $80,000 in cash, the robbers fled the scene in a green van. Bellone managed to return fire and one of his shots apparently hit a tire of the van. Near 162nd Street and 45th avenue, the van got a flat tire. New York city bus driver Kerwin Charles was driving his bus east on 45th Avenue and was about to turn right onto 162nd Street when a man about five feet away flagged him down. He stopped to allow the man to board. He was quickly followed by two other men.

Charles said the first man was 20 to 25 years old, about 160 to 170 pounds, 5 feet 9 to 5 feet 11 inches tall, and was wearing a bright yellow jacket. After this man boarded, he turned to the third man and said, “Pay up.” Charles said the second man was 25 to 27 years old, 5 feet 8 inches tall, and “husky.” He said the third man was 20 to 25 years old, 5 feet 8 inches tall, with a scar on the right side of his face and a short Afro hairdo.

Reuben Cherena was driving and stopped at a light at the southeast corner of 162nd Street and 45th Avenue. He saw a green van pull up next to him. He said two men got out of the passenger side of the van and ran to the bus. The driver’s van door opened, striking Cherena’s vehicle, and the driver ran to the bus. Cherena said two passengers also got out of the van. He said one was 22 to 25 years old, 5 feet 5 to 5 feet 8 inches tall, heavyset, and with a medium build. The other was about 20 years old, 5 feet 6 inches tall and was wearing a black jacket.

The men later disembarked and escaped.

Police managed to lift 21 fingerprints from a newspaper in the abandoned van. By the next morning, May 10, police determined that eight of the prints belonged to 26-year-old Aaron Boone. Officers staked out his residence on Junction Boulevard in Jamaica, Queens.

At about noon, a white van parked in front of the house. Not long after, a man wearing a blue jogging suit and glasses came out of Boone’s house carrying a duffel bag and got behind the wheel of the van. When police began following the van, the driver, 31-year-old Robert Majors, pulled over and fled, leaving his daughter inside. He threw away the duffel bag as he ran. Police caught him and reported that he said, “Why are you bothering me? My daughter was in the car. My car was carjacked. My daughter was in it. I just ran all the way here from Junction Boulevard to get back to my car.”

Police recovered the duffel bag and inside were five guns, including two assault weapons. Firearms analysts later said the assault weapons and a handgun had fired some of the bullets in the robbery.

Not long after Majors left the house, Boone emerged, carrying a black bag. When he saw police, he ran. He was arrested after a short chase. Inside the bag was $31,000 in cash. He had $950 more in his pocket.

Majors told police that Boone was his brother-in-law (Majors was married to Boone’s sister). He said Boone called him and asked him to come over. Majors said that when he arrived, Boone asked him to take the duffel bag and put it in the van. Majors said that when he saw a police car following him, he panicked because he had a prior conviction for possessing a handgun and served time in prison.

Meanwhile, Boone was questioned separately. He implicated himself and said that Majors “hadn’t done anything” other than take the guns someplace for him. When police asked Boone if Majors was involved in the robbery, Boone said, “No.”

Police put Majors and Boone in lineups. Charles, the bus driver, identified Majors as the first person to board the bus and said he was wearing a yellow jacket. Cherena, who was in his car, identified Majors as the second man to board the bus and said he was carrying a black jacket under his arm. According to Cherena, the third man who got out of the van—the driver—was wearing a yellow jacket.

Cherena’s wife, who was in the car with her husband, viewed the same lineup and did not identify anyone. Another motorist who said she saw two men in the green van failed to identify Majors, but in a separate lineup she identified Boone as the driver of the van.

A pedestrian standing on 45th Avenue near 162nd Street told police he saw three men run to the bus. He said he suspected “foul play,” and ran to a pizza parlor and called 911. However, he was unable to identify Majors or Boone.

Another witness, Desiree Stone, told police she was getting off the bus when four men came running to get on the bus. She said the second person to board was wearing a yellow jacket, was 5 feet 9 to 5 feet 10 inches tall, wore glasses, and had hair in waist braid cornrows. While police had that information in their notes, the description of the cornrows was not included in the police report and was thus not disclosed to defense attorneys. None of the suspects in the crime, including Majors, had cornrows.

Boone and Majors were arrested and charged with attempted murder, armed robbery, possession of stolen property, and illegal possession of weapons.

Boone was the head of a gang called “Speedstick,” which was known for robbing check-cashing facilities and armored cars. He was known by the nickname “Twin” because he had a twin brother, Ammon Boone, who was suspected of being a member of the Speedstick gang.

On May 17—a week later—detectives interviewed Thomas Emanuel, a confidential informant. Emanuel identified members of the gang—including one with dreadlocks, which may resemble waist braid cornrows—and described some of the gang’s robberies. Emanuel also named Kevin McKinney as a gang member. Police interviewed McKinney on May 21, 1997. McKinney told detectives that four days earlier, 23-year-old Bernard Johnson had admitted to him that he committed the robbery with Boone and a third man he identified only as “Rasheed,” who drove a tan Maxima automobile.

According to McKinney, Johnson told him that Boone had an AK-47 assault rifle and “started shooting soon as they got out of the van.” Johnson said he then began shooting as well. Boone ran up to one of the victims and “let him have it,” according to McKinney’s account. Johnson said he and Boone left in the van and Rasheed was in a backup vehicle. According to McKinney, Johnson said the van “caught a flat tire” and so Boone and Johnson got on a bus. Johnson said they got off the bus near a terminal at Persons Boulevard and Archer Avenue in Jamaica, Queens. Johnson said he and Boone each got $40,000 and that Ammon Boone and Rasheed also got some money.

Based on the statement, police arrested Johnson. Detectives said that he implicated Majors in the crime. Johnson was charged with attempted murder, armed robbery, assault, and criminal possession of a weapon.

Although McKinney’s statement implicated Rasheed, the detectives never followed up the lead even though a co-leader of the Speedstick gang was known to drive a tan Maxima—the car that McKinney said Rasheed drove.

The investigation was closed with the arrests of Boone, Johnson, and Majors. Police determined that a fingerprint belonging to Ammon Boone also was found on the newspaper recovered from the abandoned van, but that information was not disclosed to the defense as well.

Detective Paul Heider, who was one of three detectives who interviewed McKinney, testified at a pre-trial hearing for Majors. He testified to his conversation with McKinney, but never mentioned the part of McKinney’s statement that Rasheed, not Majors, had been named as the third perpetrator. Detective Michael Sapraicone, who also was involved in the McKinney interview, testified and also did not mention that McKinney had implicated Rasheed.

In September 1999, Johnson went to trial by himself in Queens County Supreme Court. The prosecution’s case relied primarily on his alleged confession, which Johnson denied making. On September 22, 1999, the jury—not having the McKinney statement in which Johnson confessed to participating in the attempted murder—acquitted Johnson of attempted murder and convicted him of armed robbery and criminal possession of a weapon.

Boone and Majors went to trial together in February 2000 in Queens County Supreme Court. Kerwin Charles, the bus driver, was asked to make an in-court identification. He identified Majors’s attorney as the second man to get on the bus. Cherena, who was in his vehicle and had identified Majors in a lineup, was unable to identify Majors at the trial. Detective Heider, who had failed to reveal the McKinney statement, testified that Charles and Cherena had identified Majors in a lineup.

Police officers testified to the circumstances that led to the arrest of Majors and the recovery of the duffel bag of weapons, three of which firearms analysis determined had fired bullets that wounded Bellone and Pettus.

Dr. Carole Schuster, a chiropractor, testified that Majors came for an appointment at 10 a.m. on May 9—the day of the crime—for treatment of a back injury suffered in a car accident. She said that Majors signed a patient log between 9:30 a.m. and 10 a.m. She said she saw Majors between 9:45 a.m. and 10 a.m. Majors was in the office for about 45 minutes, Schuster said. The crime took place at 10:22 a.m. The original log had been destroyed by the time of trial, however. She scheduled Majors’s next appointment for May 12.

At the time that police arrested Majors, they recovered an appointment card showing he had an appointment with Schuster at 10 a.m. on May 9. However, the date had been crossed out and May 12 was written on the card. The police never interviewed the chiropractor and the prosecution argued that Majors’s May 9 appointment had been rescheduled to May 12.

Kathy Rosa, the receptionist for Dr. Schuster, testified that instead of giving Majors a new card, she crossed out the date of May 9th and wrote in the date of May 12—his next appointment.

The prosecution also introduced telephone records showing that calls were made from Majors’s home to Boone’s home in the days leading up to and on the day of the crime.

Georgielle Majors, Majors’s wife, testified that Aaron Boone was her brother and lived with their mother. She said that she often called her mother and that the calls were between her and her mother. She said that she had gone to the home to get merchandise to sell at a flea market and that Majors drove it back to the home because Boone wanted a ride to the train station. She also testified that Majors wore a back brace because of a car accident in 1996 and could not run as police claimed he did to get from the van to the bus.

On March 20, 2000, the jury convicted Boone and Majors of two counts of second-degree attempted murder, first-degree robbery, criminal possession of a weapon, and criminal possession of stolen property. Boone was sentenced to 85½ years in prison. Majors was sentenced to 90½ years in prison.

In June 2000, Majors was granted a new trial based on evidence that the jury improperly referred to a public transportation map during deliberations in an attempt to evaluate Majors’s alibi. Majors’s convictions for attempted murder, armed robbery, and possession of stolen property were vacated. His conviction for criminal possession of a weapon and the 12 year prison term imposed on that count remained intact.

In October 2001, Majors went to trial a second time and chose to have the case decided by a judge without a jury. The prosecution’s evidence was similar to the evidence in his first trial, with some differences. Charles, the bus driver, testified that Majors was the second man to board the bus and that he said, “Pay up.”

Majors’s defense attorney failed to point out that on the day of the crime, Charles said that the first of the three men to board the bus said, “Pay up.” The defense attorney did not elicit that Charles originally said the second man was “husky.”

Cherena, the man in the vehicle stopped next to the van, described the second man out of the van—who the prosecution contended was Majors—as “heavy, chubby,” weighing as much as 245 pounds. Majors, however, weighed 160 pounds. Cherena was unable to make an in-court identification of Majors. Instead, he picked Majors’s defense attorney.

Unlike the first trial, Majors’s defense attorney did not call the chiropractor or any other witnesses to testify to Majors’s whereabouts on the day of the crime or to explain the telephone records.

The defense also did not present evidence that Majors had worn glasses since he was 16 due to a diabetic condition, even though no witness said any of the men seen leaving the van or boarding the bus was wearing glasses.

The defense also failed to present a surveillance video that showed the shooting began at 10:22 a.m., when Majors was still said to be at his chiropractor.

On November 8, 2001, Supreme Court Justice John Latella convicted Majors of second-degree attempted murder, first-degree robbery, and possession of stolen property. His sentence, when combined with the sentence imposed previously on the criminal possession of a weapon conviction, was 62 years to life in prison.

In May 2005, the New York Appellate Division, Second Department, upheld the convictions and sentence.

Majors subsequently filed a petition for a new trial claiming his trial defense attorney provided an inadequate legal defense by failing to call the chiropractor at the second trial. That petition was denied and in 2009 the ruling was upheld on appeal.

Two separate federal petitions for a writ of habeas corpus also were unsuccessful.

In 2018, after filing his 10th request under the Freedom of Information Law, Majors was provided with a copy of the statement made by McKinney that implicated Rasheed and not Majors as the third participant in the crime.

In March 2019, Majors’s attorneys, Thomas Hoffman and Jonathan Hiles, moved to vacate Majors’s convictions. The motion cited the McKinney statement as well as the information that had been covered up about the witness saying that one of the men had cornrows. The motion also noted how Majors’s trial defense attorney at the second trial had failed to present evidence of Majors’s alibi.

The motion noted that because the prosecution failed to disclose the McKinney statement, the prosecutor was able to rebut the defense claims that Majors was being framed and the prosecutor “was able to argue unchallenged” to the jury that Detective Heider’s investigation and testimony were trustworthy.

The prosecutor told the jury that the defense “suggests to you that Detective Heider has some big motive to frame Robert Majors…I submit to you there is absolutely nothing that supports that view. As a matter of fact, Detective Heider’s motive is to get the real shooter. Why frame Robert Majors? Why not catch the guy who really did that?”

On May 18, 2020, Justice John Latella, the same judge who convicted Majors at the second trial, vacated the convictions and ordered a new trial. The judge rejected the prosecution’s assertion that the McKinney statement and the statement of the witness about the cornrows had been turned over to the defense prior to Majors’s first trial.

Justice Latella, noting that the prosecution had withheld the McKinney statement for 20 years and that the defense at both of Majors’s trials had not made use of that information, said the prosecution’s claim “strains credulity.”

“The exculpatory nature of the information contained in the McKinney affidavit is to this defendant readily apparent,” Justice Latella said. He added that the affidavit “would have provided his attorneys with clear avenues for investigation and opportunities to highlight weaknesses in the people's case.”

Justice Latella did not, however, vacate Majors’s conviction for criminal possession of a weapon. At the same time, Justice Latella noted that the evidence of Majors’s possession of weapons was “wholly distinct from his alleged participation in the armed robbery of May the 9th.”

On October 7, 2020, Majors was released pending a new trial, more than 20 years after he was first convicted. On October 20, 2020, the charges were dismissed.

Assistant District Attorney Michael Whitney said the prosecution still believed Majors participated in the crime, but said that another trial would be “unduly burdensome” for the witnesses, victims, and their families.

Hoffman, Majors’s attorney, called upon Queens County District Attorney Melinda Katz to investigate why prosecutors withheld the documents.

“The pain of a wrongful conviction can never be lifted but perhaps some sense can be given to the suffering,” Hoffman said. “I hope DA Katz will conduct an investigation to find out how [the documents] could be suppressed for 20 years.”

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 11/5/2020
Last Updated: 11/5/2020
State:New York
County:Queens
Most Serious Crime:Attempted Murder
Additional Convictions:Robbery, Possession of Stolen Property, Illegal Use of a Weapon
Reported Crime Date:1997
Convicted:2000
Exonerated:2020
Sentence:90 1/2 to life
Race/Ethnicity:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:31
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No