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Chad Breland

Other Queens County, New York CIU Exonerations
Two armed home invasions occurred in November 1995 in the Far Rockaway section of Queens, New York.

The first took place on November 13. Several men claiming to be agents with the Drug Enforcement Administration entered a boarding house on 1041 Gipson Street. They handcuffed Silverneata Hill, then bound and gagged her with duct tape. Hill said none of the men wore masks.

Two other residents heard the noise. Roberto Pena opened his door. The men beat and stabbed Pena in the leg, tore off his clothes, and handcuffed him. They also handcuffed and bound Pena’s wife, Blanca Pagan.

The assailants searched Pena’s room and stole about $300, then moved to the building’s third floor, where police later found equipment used to prepare drugs. After the men left, the residents called 911. Hill later went to the police station and looked at mug shots but made no identifications.

Because the assailants had claimed to be law-enforcement agents, the case was handled by Detective Constance Nigro, with the New York Police Department’s officer-impersonation unit. On November 14, Nigro received a tip from Detective Kevin Cashen with the Auto Crimes Unit that one of Cashen’s confidential informants said that 26-year-old Chad Breland and three other men were involved in the robbery.

Two weeks later, on November 27, two masked men robbed Freddie Bolston at gunpoint at the apartment on Beach 29th Street that he shared with a man named Jason Brown. Bolston told police that just before the home invasion, a “Hispanic to white” woman rang his doorbell and asked to use his phone because her car had stalled. Bolston said he went outside to talk to the woman and then introduced her to his neighbor because his phone wasn’t working.

The assailants showed up just after the woman left. They forced Bolston to the floor, then searched Brown’s room, and came out with a bag that Bolston said sounded like it contained video cartridges.

Bolston looked outside after the men left. He said he could see the men walking down nearby Deerfield Road. He could also see the woman’s car still parked on the street.

Because the men wore masks, Bolston could not provide much of a description. He said one robber wore a colorful striped jacket and a red, white, and black hockey mask.

Around that time, Officer Edward Mannone and Sergeant Christopher Borbee were on patrol in an unmarked car in the neighborhood. They noticed a Chevy Spectrum with its flashers on, and spent a few minutes watching the car. Just as they were driving away, the officers saw two Black men walking down Beach 29th Street. One of the men, the officers said, wore a shirt with black, white, and red stripes. The other wore a puffy jacket.

At some point, the men split up, and the officers said they saw the man with the striped shirt put a bag in a garbage can and then drop a knapsack over a fence. The officers drove up to the man and asked him what was going on. The man said the bag had Nintendo tapes. He denied discarding a knapsack. The officers got an address from the man – 1039 Gipson – and then they drove off.

A few minutes later, the officers got a dispatch about the armed robbery on Beach 29th Street. They went back to the garbage can and found the bag of video tapes and an assault rifle. They also found the knapsack, which contained a .357 Magnum and a .22 target pistol.

As the police processed the crime scene, Cashen received another call from his informant, stating that Breland was also responsible for this robbery and that he would be returning to the apartment with another man.

At around 11 p.m., Breland drove up with Jason Brown. (Breland was dating Brown’s sister.) He saw the police and drove off. After a brief chase, the men surrendered. Mannone, one of the officers who gave chase, said that Breland was dressed differently but was the man with the bags that he had seen a few hours earlier. Police arrested Breland and released Brown.

The next day, Nigro interviewed Breland about the November 13 robbery. Breland said he had been to the Gipson Street address earlier on November 13, but stayed outside while his friend named Milton bought drugs.

According to Nigro’s notes: “Later on that night or that day Milton had asked him to take his friends, these Jamaicans to this house on Gipson, because he was there earlier in the day. And he did it as a favor for Milton. He drove them there, he went up to the house, rang the bell and came back to the car and sat there.”

After this first round of questions, Pena and Hill each looked at a lineup that included Breland. Pena could not make an identification. Hill said Breland was the man who put a gun to her head.

The interrogation then resumed. Nigro told Breland about the identification, and her report said that Breland gave another statement about the robbery on November 13. This time, according to the statement, Breland said he had rung the bell but also served as a lookout while the other men searched the boarding house. He did not give any statement about the home invasion on November 27.

Breland’s consolidated trial on charges from the two home invasions took place in Queens County Supreme Court in September and October 1997.

In the case of the first robbery, the state presented the testimony of Hill, who identified Breland as one of the assailants, and Breland’s two statements to the police.

In the case of the second robbery, the state presented the testimony of Mannone and Borbee, who each identified Breland as the man they had stopped on November 27. While Mannone had made an identification at the time of Breland’s arrest, Borbee’s only identification was at trial.

Melissa Ortiz, the owner of the abandoned Chevy found near the robbery, testified that she loaned the car to Breland that afternoon in the presence of her boyfriend.

Prosecutors also noted that the man stopped by police had given Breland’s address and that Breland’s appearance at the robbery scene was proof of guilt.

Breland testified in his own defense. He said that he was at the Gipson address earlier on the day of the home invasion, which was consistent with his first statement. But he denied the facts in his second statement, and he said that he had told Nigro it was inaccurate.

He did not have an alibi for November 13, but he said that on November 27, he was with Brown and his sister. He testified that he knew Ortiz but had never asked to borrow her car.

Breland’s attorney presented an alternate theory of the second robbery, stating that Ortiz and her boyfriend were involved. He noted that Ortiz resembled Bolston’s description of the woman who rang his doorbell. He also said it was illogical for Breland to return to the scene of the robbery with the man whose room was targeted in the robbery. “He’s hanging out with him at eleven o’clock that night, driving around, bringing him back to his house. Why in the world would he rob, steal what Jason has in his house. Doesn’t make any sense.”

The jury convicted Breland on October 20, 1997. For the first home invasion, Breland was convicted of four counts of first-degree burglary, two counts of first-degree robbery, three counts of second-degree burglary, two counts of second-degree robbery, criminal possession of a weapon, and first-degree criminal impersonation. For the second home invasion, he was convicted of two counts of first-degree burglary, two counts of first-degree robbery, second-degree burglary, criminal possession of a weapon, and possession of stolen property. He was sentenced to two 15-year sentences, to run consecutively.

Breland appealed his conviction, arguing that there was insufficient evidence to support the conviction for the second home invasion. The Second Department of New York Supreme Court’s Appellate Division affirmed his conviction on March 15, 2004. Breland filed a pro se petition for a writ of habeas corpus in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York. It was denied on March 27, 2006.

During the 1997 trial, one of the officers had testified that evidence technicians might have processed Bolston’s apartment for fingerprints. That surprised Breland’s attorney, as he had not received any reports. The prosecutor said that the police department’s latent-print unit had not run any tests and no reports existed.

That was wrong. The police had run elimination comparisons in 1995, and still had several unidentified prints, but had not sent any of these reports to the district attorney’s office.

In 2012, Breland filed a public-records request for documents related to his case. The records he received showed the 1995 elimination findings as well as a 2000 report based on running the fingerprints through the databases of the Automated Fingerprint Identification System and the NYPD.

The 2000 report said that the confidential informant was the source of two fingerprints found at Bolston’s apartment. It’s not clear from the available records why the report was prepared in 2000 or why the police or prosecutors didn’t take action after learning of this information. The 2000 report also found Breland’s palm print on a dresser at the apartment, but Bolston had testified that he had seen Breland there a few times, because of Breland’s relationship with Brown and Brown’s sister.

In 2016, Breland began working with attorney Justin Bonus. After additional investigation, Bonus brought his findings to the Conviction Integrity Unit of the Queens County District Attorney’s Office.

On October 15, 2021, Bonus and Bryce Benjet, the director of the Queens CIU, filed a joint motion to vacate Breland’s conviction for the second home invasion.

In court records supporting the motion, the CIU said that investigators had interviewed the confidential informant. He first said he had never been in Bolston’s apartment and didn’t know either Bolston or Brown. When told his fingerprints were there, the man said the prints weren’t his.

Police records confirmed that this man had tipped Cashen off about Breland’s alleged involvement in both home invasions. The records also show Cashen had intervened on his behalf several times in criminal cases. Neither prosecutors nor the defense was aware of this assistance.

At the time of Breland’s arrest, the informant was under indictment for a serious felony and under pressure to produce results, the CIU report said. That indictment was dismissed in 1996 after Breland’s arrest.

The informant, who was Ortiz’s boyfriend, also said that Ortiz testified falsely about loaning Breland her car. He said he loaned the car to Breland, but Ortiz testified that she did it to prevent the informant from having to testify.

In addition, the CIU motion noted that Brown was later arrested and convicted on federal drug and weapons charges. The CIU motion noted that Brown’s involvement in weapons supports the questions raised by Breland’s attorney, because it would be unlikely for Brown and Breland to return to a crime scene where the items stolen were Brown’s illegal weapons.

Justice Michelle Johnson of Queens County Supreme Court vacated Breland’s conviction and dismissed the indictment for the second home invasion on October 15, 2021. Although the convictions related to the first home invasion weren’t vacated, Breland was released from prison on October 15, because he had already served more than the 15 years for those convictions.

District Attorney Melinda Katz said in a statement: “In light of the new evidence, justice requires vacating Breland’s conviction. Our office has also taken steps to ensure that, in the future, similar fingerprint evidence developed by the NYPD Latent Print Section after a case is closed is forwarded to our office in a timely manner.”

Bonus told the website that “There was no oversight with regard to the NYPD’s use of a confidential informant, who framed Chad Breland. Once the police had Mr. Breland’s name, which was supplied by the informant, they immediately arrested and continued on with the case even after the fingerprints found at the scene eliminated Chad. Ultimately, those fingerprints were found to be a match to the informant.”

In March 2022, Breland filed a lawsuit in state court seeking compensation. In April 2022, he filed a federal lawsuit as well.

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 10/25/2021
Last Updated: 9/23/2022
State:New York
Most Serious Crime:Robbery
Additional Convictions:Burglary/Unlawful Entry, Possession of Stolen Property
Reported Crime Date:1995
Sentence:15 years
Age at the date of reported crime:26
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No