Tag: Elmira Correctional Facility

John Bunn, Wrongfully Incarcerated for 17 Years, Says Learning to Read Saved Him – Now He Builds Libraries in Prisons

John Bunn leads a class at Ember Charter School in Brooklyn.
John Bunn leads a class at Ember Charter School in Brooklyn. (photo via cnn.com)

by Alexandra King via cnn.com

The first book John Bunn fell in love with, curled up in his cell at a maximum-security prison in upstate New York, was Sister Souljah‘s novel “The Coldest Winter Ever.”

In the book, a maternal woman advocates for the improvement of her black community in Brooklyn as she watches the people she loves suffer from the consequences of incarceration, violence and a seemingly endless cycle of poverty. “I related to that book on so many levels,” Bunn says.

Bunn knows more than most what it’s like to face injustice. Arrested and imprisoned as an adolescent in New York City, he spent 17 years in jail for a crime he didn’t commit and a further decade on parole, fighting for his exoneration. In that time, he battled, among others, the courts, police investigators, PTSD and the challenges of illiteracy. He was 16 before he could read and write.

Today Bunn is 41 and a free man at last, mentoring at-risk young people and advocating for the power of reading through his own program that brings books to prisons.

In many ways, his own story sounds straight out of a Sister Souljah book. Except that Bunn, who survived years of wrongful incarceration with his humanity intact, is determined to write the next chapter himself.

The arrest

Bunn’s ordeal began on August 14, 1991, when he was sitting in the kitchen of his mother’s apartment in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. It was 90 degrees in the shade and the AC was broken. Outside he could hear hip-hop music playing from passing cars and the thwack of basketballs on pavement as kids made their way to the courts. Bunn’s mother, Maureen, was making pancakes, his two-year-old sister, India, cooing in her high chair.

Bunn, 14 years old and out of school for the summer, was ready for a typical day of playing ball and demonstrating his famous back flips in and around the four-block radius between the apartment on Ralph Street (his mom) and the house on St Marks (his grandma). Those four blocks, snug between the love of the two women who raised him, were his whole world.

John Bunn, 14, at home in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
John Bunn, 14, at home in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

But then, a bang on the door. It was the police. “They wanted to take me down to the police station for questioning,” Bunn recalls now, sitting in that same small apartment festooned with family photos, nearly three decades later. He was taken to Brooklyn’s 77th precinct, put in a room and handcuffed to a pole.

“The interrogation was led by a detective by the name of Louis Scarcella. And he was threatening me, telling me that I was never coming home if I wouldn’t tell him what he wanted to know. He also told me that they already had beat up my co-defendant, that they had slammed his head into a wall and they already had him,” he recalls.

The co-defendant? A 17-year-old Brooklyn boy named Rosean Hargrave. Bunn knew Hargrave “from the block,” although he and the older boy were never more than acquaintances. But, as he soon found out, they were both now suspected of the same crime:

The killing of an off-duty Rikers Island corrections officer named Rolando Neischer. “I kept telling them, “No, I didn’t have any knowledge of it,” Bunn recalls. But Detective Scarcella, who worked in the Brooklyn North homicide unit for years before retiring in 1999, told the young John he did not believe him.

Bunn’s eyes fill with tears as he describes the moment he was placed in a police lineup with “grown men.” As an adult, Bunn, a slight man with a gentle disposition and a shy smile, stands only 5 feet 6 inches. At 14, he estimates he was no taller than 5-foot-2. He was so much smaller than the adults he was lined up with that the detectives had to improvise. They brought in stools so the lineup could be done sitting down. Bunn did what he was told. He sat down and held up a number.

A couple of minutes later, Scarcella came back into the room. “He told me, ‘It was my lucky day,’ that I got picked,” Bunn says, grimacing. “Ever since then, I’ve been fighting to prove my innocence,” he says, wiping his face and adjusting his hat.

On the front of his baseball cap, in bold white letters, are the words, “WRONGFULLY CONVICTED. On the side, “VICTIMS OF DETECTIVE LOUIS SCARCELLA.”

The hat, he adds, “speaks for itself.” Continue reading “John Bunn, Wrongfully Incarcerated for 17 Years, Says Learning to Read Saved Him – Now He Builds Libraries in Prisons”

Rosean S. Hargrave, 40, Convicted 23 Years Ago for Murder Based on Evidence from Unscrupulous Brooklyn Detective Louis Scarcella, Is Ordered Freed from Prison

Rosean S. Hargrave leaving court in Brooklyn on Tuesday after a hearing at which his conviction for the murder of an off-duty correction officer was vacated. (Credit: Sam Hodgson for The New York Times)

More than two decades after Rosean S. Hargrave was convicted of murdering an off-duty correction officer in Brooklyn, a judge on Tuesday ordered him released from prison, saying Mr. Hargrave’s prosecution was based on deeply flawed detective work that “undermines our judicial system.”

Mr. Hargrave, surrounded by his family and friends as he left State Supreme Court in Brooklyn, was asked whether he had thought he would ever be free.

“I dreamt,” he said.

The prosecution of Mr. Hargrave was built on the work of the former detective Louis Scarcella and his partner, Stephen W. Chmil. It is one of dozens of cases that have come under review since accusations emerged that Mr. Scarcella once framed an innocent man. Six people have had their convictions overturned, one posthumously, since the Brooklyn district attorney’s office began its review in 2013.

But this is the first time that Mr. Scarcella’s investigative methods have come under direct judicial scrutiny, and Justice ShawnDya L. Simpson delivered a scathing review of his record.

Many of the cases under review date to an era when many neighborhoods were plagued by crime, with the city regularly registering well over 1,000 murders a year. It was in this environment that Mr. Scarcella made his name, gaining wide acclaim for solving murder cases.

Justice Simpson noted that Mr. Scarcella was something of “a legend” for getting so many convictions. “There’s a saying, when it’s too good to be true, it usually is,” she said.

Mr. Hargrave’s conviction, she said, was “based solely on identification of evidence by Detective Scarcella and Detective Chmil” and therefore “brings into question the due process and reliability in this trial.”

Justice Simpson said that if the case were tried today, there would most likely be a different outcome.  She also noted that since the time of the trial, no new evidence had emerged to support the prosecution, citing the lack of ballistics or serology testing, or a fingerprint match to identify Mr. Hargrave. “The scant evidence that convicted the defendant makes the newfound wrongdoing of Detective Scarcella significant,” Justice Simpson said.

Since the trial, she also said, “potentially exculpatory evidence” had been destroyed, further undermining the chances that Mr. Hargrave could find justice.  After the judge read her decision, Mr. Hargrave’s mother broke down in tears as others around her burst out with shouts of joy.

“Thank you, your honor!” his sister Monique Hargrave shouted. “Thank you, God.” Outside the courthouse, Mr. Hargrave’s mother, Shirley, was still trying to process the fact that her son would finally be set free.

“I have never been so happy in 23 years,” she said. “I’m just so glad it’s over, and I hope it never happens to anyone else.” During the proceeding, Mr. Hargrave sat stoically, despite the celebrations behind him. His lawyer, Pierre Sussman, embraced him in a long hug.

“This is the strongest condemnation from the court of Detective Scarcella and Detective Chmil,” Mr. Sussman said. “Mr. Hargrave went in at age 17, and he’s being released at age 40.”

Justice Simpson said that the district attorney’s office had 30 days to appeal the ruling but that if prosecutors did not present new evidence in that time, any new trial would have to rely on the flawed evidence gathered by the detectives. Mark Hale, the chief of the conviction review unit for the district attorney’s office, said prosecutors were reviewing the decision before deciding how to proceed.

The decision caps a long battle to win Mr. Hargrave’s freedom. The New York Times investigated Mr. Hargrave’s case as part of a series of articles examining Mr. Scarcella’s record.

In a September hearing on the motion to vacate the conviction, Mr. Hargrave’s lawyers argued that the case had problems that began with flawed work by Mr. Scarcella and continued through the trial.

Supporters of Mr. Hargrave at the hearing, the end of a long battle for his freedom. Now 40, he was sentenced to 30 years to life in prison at age 17. (Credit: Sam Hodgson for The New York Times) 

For instance, blood evidence was lost, making DNA testing impossible. And the case hinged on one witness: another correction officer who was in the car with the officer who was killed, in a 1991 shootout in Crown Heights.

Continue reading “Rosean S. Hargrave, 40, Convicted 23 Years Ago for Murder Based on Evidence from Unscrupulous Brooklyn Detective Louis Scarcella, Is Ordered Freed from Prison”