What to Know
- After spending more than two decades in prison, a Queens felon says he has obtained a document that could help exonerate him
- A man behind bars for more than 20 years says prosecutors cheated during his two trials — by hiding an informant's hand-written statement
- The disputed discovery process sets up a high-stakes court battle to be decided by the same judge who sent the man away all those years ago
After spending more than two decades in prison, a Queens felon says he has obtained a document that could help exonerate him. Robert Majors, one of three men found guilty in a violent 1997 armored car robbery, says prosecutors cheated during his two trials — by hiding a hand-written statement from a police informant who named an alternate suspect.
The Queens District Attorney's Office insists prosecutors freely turned the document over. Now, the disputed discovery process sets up a high-stakes court battle to be decided by Judge John Latella, the man who originally found Majors guilty in a bench trial and sentenced him to prison for what amounted to a life sentence.
“He should be heated,” Majors said of Judge Latella. “He didn’t have the opportunity to review the statement and investigate it.”
In the days after the armored car heist, investigators followed fingerprint evidence from the crime scene in Flushing to the Jamaica home of Aaron Boone, Majors’ brother-in-law. Outside the house, they arrested Boone with a brick of $31,000 in stolen cash. They also arrested Majors with a duffel bag of guns, some of which were used to shoot Arthur Pettus and Joseph Bellone, two former cops who were guarding the armored car. The former cops were left bleeding on the sidewalk and barely survived.
Majors has always claimed he was at a chiropractor appointment the morning of the robbery and that he unknowingly accepted the bag of guns, thinking it was luggage as he prepared to give his brother-in-law a ride to the train station.
“I didn’t know he would give me a bag of guns,” Majors said in an interview behind the walls of Green Haven Correctional Facility. “I didn’t knowingly possess those guns.”
Ten days after the heist, police arrested a third suspect, Bernard Johnson, based on a police informant’s statement. That statement is now the centerpiece of Majors’ claim of innocence.
“Egregious Brady violations….”
In his 21 years behind bars, Majors filed ten Freedom of Information requests and several other appeals seeking access to the police informant’s statement which led police to Bernard Johnson. Because the document was never entered as evidence at trial, the Queens DA denied those requests. But last year, a change in the law required the DA to hand the statement over.
When Majors finally read it, he noticed the statement included Aaron Boone’s name, Bernard Johnson’s name, and the name of a third man the informant referred to only as “Rasheed.” The statement did not name Majors as a suspect.
“My name wasn’t on it,” Majors said. “It’s hard to believe that I would even be in here for this amount of time for something I didn’t do.”
Majors said suppressing the statement naming “Rasheed” amounts to prosecutorial misconduct, because the DA’s Office trusted the statement insofar as it led them to Bernard Johnson.
“They relied on it. It was credible to them to arrest Bernard Johnson. Why wouldn’t it be credible to release me?”
Two months ago, Majors filed a motion to have his attempted murder and weapons convictions overturned, claiming the Queens District Attorney’s Office committed “egregious” violations of the Brady rule, which requires prosecutors to share evidence that is favorable to the defense. In the motion, Majors alleges the Queens DA failed to give his lawyers the informant statement naming "Rasheed" and another eyewitness report identifying one of the perpetrators as wearing “braid waist cornrows.” Neither Majors, nor Boone, nor Johnson wore cornrows.
“This information was available…”
The Queens District Attorney’s Office responded to the misconduct claim, arguing both the “Rasheed” statement and the “cornrows” identification were, in fact, turned over to defense lawyers prior to Majors’ trial.
“This information was available to the court during the suppression hearings that were jointly had with the three defendants,” said Robert Masters, Executive Assistant District Attorney for the Queens District Attorney’s Office. “It seems to me inconceivable that that would have escaped the attention of three very experienced lawyers.”
But Majors’ original lawyer, William Martin, flatly disputed the notion that prosecutors shared the statement naming Rasheed with him. He also said he was never informed about a witness who claimed to have seen someone with cornrows running from the crime scene.
“I did not leave an ‘I’ un-dotted or a ‘t’ uncrossed,” Martin said. “If I had a piece of paper that said ‘Joe Blow’ is the perpetrator number-3 and it’s not Robert Majors, I would have been the first one to really point that out [to the jury].”
This week, the Queens District Attorney’s Office filed papers opposing the motion to have Majors’ conviction tossed. The filing says the evidence against Majors was overwhelming, including two eyewitnesses near the crime scene who picked Majors out of police lineups. Neither of those two eyewitnesses were able to correctly identify Majors in his trial courtroom. But Masters said other circumstantial evidence strongly suggests guilt. Like the fact that Majors tried to flee when police caught him with the duffle bag – leaving his child behind in his van and concocting a phony story about a carjacking to explain it away.
“I would have suggested to the jury, his flight, his abandonment of a 4-year-old child, and his false statement that he had just been carjacked is better than any signed confession,” Masters said.
Majors told the I-Team he unzipped his brother-in-law’s bag and realized there were guns inside only after he noticed undercover police following his van as he drove with his daughter in the backseat. That’s when he says he got out and tried to ditch the bag.
“It’s not enough to just turn over the document…”
Former prosecutors told the I-Team, generally speaking, a statement like the one naming “Rasheed” should be turned over to defense attorneys.
“In looking at the statement, I would have turned that over,” said Professor Cheryl Bader, a former Assistant US Attorney who now teaches a criminal defense clinic at Fordham Law School. Bader said the dispute over whether the evidence was – or was not – shared in the Majors case may be a good argument for what’s known as “open file” discovery, a type of information exchange where prosecutors give defense lawyers access to entire investigative files, rather than providing evidence in a piecemeal fashion.
“Open file discovery would definitely put defense attorneys on a more level playing field with the prosecutor,” Bader said.
After State Senator Jamaal Bailey (D-Bronx) introduced a bill this year to require open file discovery in New York, Governor Cuomo approved a similar provision in his budget.
“Open file is the right way to do things. It’s fairer. It’s more streamlined and it’s more just,” said Bailey.
But some argue prosecutorial ethics demand more than just turning exculpatory evidence over – especially if it is buried in large batches of documents.
“It’s not enough to just turn over a document. You have to highlight it for the defense,” said Berit Berger, a former Assistant US Attorney who now teaches at Columbia Law School. “You can’t just bury a piece of exculpatory information in a stack of 500 documents and say ‘but I turned it over, I’m totally fine.’”
Lucy Lang, a former Manhattan Assistant DA who now teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, applauded a recent change in New York state law that removes much of the discretion prosecutors used to have when deciding what evidence to share in the discovery process.
“We are in the midst of a civil rights crisis of mass incarceration and prosecutors, as the sort of front lines, are in positions where they can start to take on these big picture questions of racial disparity and the unconscionable numbers of people in prison,” Lang said. “Discovery is an important component of that.”
At his jury trial, Majors’ chiropractor, Dr. Carole Schuster, provided his main alibi, testifying that she treated his back pain sometime between 9:45am and 10:00am on the morning of the crime. She estimated Majors left her office as late as 10:20am or 10:30am. Surveillance video shows three masked robbers opening fire on the armored car guards sometime around 10:21am.
In deliberations, jurors appeared to struggle with the feasibility of Majors making it in time to participate in the armored car heist, but they ultimately voted to convict. Their verdict, however, was thrown out on appeal when it was discovered jurors improperly used a map not entered into evidence in order to test how long it would have taken Majors to travel the six mile distance between his chiropractor and the crime scene.
In a re-trial, Majors opted for a bench trial in which Dr. Schuster was never called to the stand.
In a quirk of the law, Judge John Latella must evaluate the motion to vacate Majors’ conviction – essentially considering whether he, himself, would have made a different decision in the bench trial - had he known a police informant’s statement pointed to an alternate suspect named “Rasheed.”
Latella did not respond to the I-Team’s request for comment.
“he felt bad for his brother in law…”
From the beginning, Aaron Boone insisted to police his brother-in-law had nothing to do with the robbery, According to a statement he made to detectives at the NYPD 109th Precinct, “he felt bad for his brother in law Robert – because he hadn’t done anything other than to do him a favor by taking the bag with the guns someplace for him and he hadn’t told Robert were [sic] yet, because he wasn’t sure himself.”
Hours after his arrest, Bernard Johnson gave investigators a statement implicating himself along with Boone and Majors, but he recanted in his Grand Jury testimony, claiming his original admission of guilt was coerced by detectives.
Last year, investigators working on Robert Majors’ behalf obtained new statements from both Johnson and Boone. Both co-defendants admitted to being part of a criminal group called “the Speed Stick gang” which conducted armed robberies in Queens in the late 1990s. Both Boone and Johnson said Majors was not involved with the armored car heist and a man named “Rasheed” was. But neither Boone nor Johnson was able to provide Rasheed’s last name or whereabouts.
“I’m going to continue to investigate...”
Queens prosecutors say the new statements from Boone and Johnson are not trustworthy because both men have lied about their own involvement in the armored car heist before. In his Grand Jury recantation, Johnson said he didn’t participate in the crime, even though his latest affidavit says he took part in the crime. Just last week, Masters says he personally visited Johnson in upstate New York, and obtained yet another account of the 1997 crime in which Robert Majors didn’t participate in the hold-up, but was an accomplice after the fact, accepting money to go try and retrieve a vehicle from near the scene.
“He admits that he committed perjury in 1997 when he testified in the Grand Jury,” Masters said. “I think anybody sitting in my chair would not be able to embrace what Mr. Johnson tells them.”
Via text message, Bernard Johnson sent the I-Team a statement saying he “vehemently denied telling Masters anything about Robert being an accomplice in any way and maintains that Robert wasn’t a part of this crime.”
Despite his opposition to reversing Majors’ conviction, Robert Masters said the fact that both of Majors’ co-defendants have insisted someone else helped commit the crime, does gives him pause.
Masters said he initially opposed a motion from Majors to conduct new DNA testing on evidence preserved from the robbery getaway van. But after his latest conversation with Johnson, he has changed his mind, now supporting the additional testing to see if any forensic evidence can corroborate claims of an alternate suspect named Rasheed.
“I can’t dismiss it and that’s why I’m going to continue to investigate,” Masters said.
Judge Latella ordered the new DNA testing last month.