Tag: John Bunn

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”