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New York Prisoner Is Released After Conviction Is Vacated, Reinstated and Vacated Once More

by Chuck Sharman

After a wild legal ride, Norberto Peets was exonerated of attempted murder on May 9, 2023, and he was released from a New York prison after 26 years.

Early on September 29, 1996, two New York City policemen patrolling in Fordham Heights heard gunfire. They traced the shots to a nearby elevated train platform, where a man wearing a dark baseball cap shot another man carrying a baseball bat. The cops gave chase, exchanging gunfire with the assailant. The victim survived, but the gunman got away.

A week later, Peets and two other men were arrested and detained for attempted robbery of a chicken stand. The charges against Peets were later dismissed, but not before one of the cops saw Peets in a detention cell and claimed to recognize him from the earlier shooting.

Peets was tried for attempted murder in Bronx County Supreme Court on April 26, 1999. Both cops identified him as the gunman, though they admitted seeing his face only briefly. So did one of two men shot as the gunman fled the subway platform. The other could not make an identification of Peets.

Peets claimed he was home that evening recovering from a night of partying. His mother and two siblings largely corroborated that alibi. Despite that, Peets was convicted and sentenced to 30 years to life in prison.

Over a decade later, in 2010, attorneys with the Innocence Project got involved, eventually joined by attorneys from Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP. They moved for a new trial, arguing that Peets was wrongfully convicted based on mistaken witness identification, as well as his trial attorney’s failure to point out that he’d never been shot, although the cops said they’d shot the gunman. Even the district attorney’s new Conviction Integrity Unit agreed that was a discrepancy warranting a new trial, along with new evidence: DNA found on a ballcap recovered at the scene did not match Peets’ DNA.

Judge Ralph Fabrizio ordered a new trial on September 30, 2022. Peets was released from prison to await his return to court. But in January 2023, Fabrizio reversed himself and reinstated the conviction, claiming that he’d been misled about the bullet evidence. Peets’ attorneys fired off a new motion to the appellate division, disputing the judge’s objections. Before that could be heard, though, Fabrizio abruptly reversed himself once more, vacated the conviction again and dismissed the indictment.

“I was waiting for this since I got arrested,” said Peets, now 52. As for spending half his life behind bars for something he didn’t do, Peets said: “It’s over. Thank God.” 

Sources: Bronx Times, The City