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Norberto Peets

Other Exonerations from Bronx County, New York
At around 2:30 a.m. on September 29, 1996, two officers with the New York Police Department patrolling the area around 183rd Street and Jerome Avenue in the Bronx, New York, heard gunshots from near the elevated subway platform. They saw a gunman, wearing a dark baseball cap, on the platform shoot at a man carrying a baseball bat.

The officers got out of their cruiser and ran after the gunman. As one of the officers, Claude Staten, yelled “police,” the gunman fired and ran east. He then turned around because the second officer, William Fullam, was in his path. The gunman went west on 183rd Street, exchanging gunfire with Staten from behind a parked car. At one point, the gunman got up, and Staten fired his gun and appeared to hit the man, who fell backward on the ground. He then got up and ran away.

Witnesses told the police that just prior to the shooting, there had been a fight outside a nearby bar tied to the theft of $20. As these men fought, the gunman walked down the steps from the train platform and began shooting. Ernesto Arroyo was shot in the hip, and Miguel Ramos was shot in the ankle.

The police found a dark blue baseball cap near where the gunman had run from Staten and a copper bullet jacket with what appeared to be blood where Staten believed he shot the gunman. Both these items were placed into evidence.

A week later, on October 6, 1996, police arrested 26-year-old Norberto Peets and charged him and two other men with an attempted robbery at a chicken restaurant. (These charges against Peets were later dismissed.) While Peets was detained, Fullam said he recognized him from the shooting on September 29, and Peets was charged with two counts of attempted murder, two counts of assault, and two weapons charges.

Peets went to trial on April 26, 1999, in Bronx County Supreme Court. Fullam testified that Peets was the gunman he saw near the train platform, even though he said he saw the man’s face for only a few seconds. Staten also testified that Peets was the gunman. He also said he saw the gunman only briefly. Both officers said that the gunman had been shot. Ramos testified and identified Peets as the gunman. Arroyo was unable to make an identification. A police officer testified as an expert witness that the bullet jacket came from Staten’s gun.

Peets testified that he was at home asleep, that he had returned home from a party before midnight, and that his mother made him tea because he was not feeling well. His mother and the two siblings with whom he shared a bedroom testified that Peets was at home, although their testimony differed slightly on the time of his arrival.

During closing arguments, the prosecutor reminded the jury that the gunman had been shot. Peets’s attorney used this fact in his closing argument to try to show that this was a case of mistaken identification, telling jurors there was no evidence that Peets had been shot.

The jury convicted Peets on May 6, 1999, of one count of first-degree attempted murder, two counts of second-degree attempted murder, and criminal possession of a weapon. He received a sentence of 30 years to life in prison.

The Supreme Court’s Appellate Division affirmed the conviction on September 20, 2001.

In 2010, the Innocence Project began representing Peets. One of its first challenges was to see whether the bullet fragment that may have included the gunman's blood was available for biological testing. Despite an extensive search, the evidence was not found. In 2017, the Innocence Project approached the newly created conviction integrity unit (CIU) for the Bronx County District Attorney’s Office and asked it to also reinvestigate.

In a motion for a new trial filed on September 16, 2022, Jane Pucher, an attorney for the Innocence Project, said that the district attorney’s office agreed that new evidence showed Peets had been wrongly convicted based on mistaken witness identification and the failure of his attorney to present a thorough defense.

First, DNA testing excluded Peets as a contributor to genetic material found on the baseball cap recovered at the crime scene. In addition, a doctor examined Peets in 2021 and found no evidence of a bullet wound, supporting the theory that Peets was not the gunman, whom Staten said he shot.

Although Peets’s attorney had brought up the lack of a bullet wound in closing arguments, he introduced no evidence or testimony from Peets or his family members to support that claim.

In addition, the motion said, the attorney had failed to present evidence of other suspects. The police had interviewed several other witnesses who saw part of the shooting or the events preceding it. One of these witnesses said he was identified as a shooter by a victim of the shooting. Another told the CIU that a man, who was known to carry a gun, was with them and ran toward the fight just before shots rang out.

Peets’s attorney had the names of many of these witnesses, but he did not interview them or ask them to testify, the motion said.

In addition, Staten told the CIU in 2020 that the gunman yelled in English that he had been shot. In 1996, Peets, a native of the Dominican Republic, spoke almost no English, requiring a translator at his court proceedings.

On September 30, 2022, Justice Ralph Fabrizio granted Peets’s motion and ordered a new trial. Peets was released from prison, while the state considered whether to retry the case. In January, according to reporting in the online news site, The City, Justice Fabrizio reversed himself and reinstated the conviction, claiming the state failed to give him a trial transcript and misled him on the bullet evidence.

Peets’s attorneys appealed the decision. Prior to any hearing, Justice Fabrizio reversed himself again, vacating the conviction and dismissing the charges against Peets on May 9, 2023.

“Today is bittersweet,” Pucher said. “Mr. Peets has lost decades of his life for a crime he did not commit. His jury never heard powerful, readily available evidence showing that he was misidentified.”

Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark said Peets’s lawyer “overlooked key evidence that could have led to his acquittal” and that the CIU, along with the Innocence Project had helped bring Peets some “semblance of justice.”

In August 2023, Peets filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of New York and numerous police officers seeking compensation for his wrongful conviction.

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 5/22/2023
Last Updated: 8/16/2023
State:New York
Most Serious Crime:Attempted Murder
Additional Convictions:Weapon Possession or Sale
Reported Crime Date:1996
Sentence:30 to Life
Age at the date of reported crime:26
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes