Dixon’s case gained national attention when he was profiled six years ago by Golf Digest for his meticulous attention to detail in the colored-pencil drawings he made of courses such as Augusta National — despite never having picked up a club in his life.
“They always say I don’t need to be drawing this golf stuff,” he has said. “I know it makes no sense, but for some reason my spirit is attuned to this game.”
From there, the publication and several other groups — including the Georgetown University Prison Reform Project — began looking into the questionable circumstances surrounding his conviction.
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.
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.
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.”
More than 20 years after he was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death, Corey Williams walked free from Louisiana’s Angola Prison last week.
Corey Williams was an intellectually disabled child just three weeks past his 16th birthday when he was arrested for the murder and robbery of a pizza delivery man in Shreveport in 1998. Impaired by severe lead poisoning, Corey was known in his community as a “chump” who would take the blame for things he had not done.
Police knew about Corey’s disability, but they interrogated him all night until he accepted blame for the murder and then told them, “I’m tired. I’m ready to go home and lay down.”
Caddo Parish District Attorney Hugo Holland aggressively sought the death penalty for Corey Williams. Along with his successor, Dale Cox, Mr. Holland is responsible for 75 percent of all death sentences imposed in Louisiana between 2010 and 2015.
No physical evidence linked Corey Williams to the crime. Instead, the evidence pointed to three men who were seen robbing the victim after he was shot. The victim’s money and pizzas were found in a dumpster near their house; one man’s fingerprints were found on the murder weapon; and the victim’s blood was found on another man’s clothing. Those three pinned the crime on Corey Williams.
The prosecution suppressed evidence that supported Corey’s innocence, including evidence that the police believed the other suspects conspired to set him up and admissions from multiple witnesses that they had falsely accused Mr. Williams after being threatened by men at the scene.
Mr. Williams was convicted and sentenced to death.
In 2002, the Supreme Court barred the death penalty for people with intellectual disability, in part because a person with intellectual disability is at heightened risk of “unwittingly confess[ing] to a crime that he did not commit.” As a result, Corey Williams was removed from death row. But Louisiana courts upheld his conviction after refusing to consider his age and intellectual disability in evaluating whether his confession was reliable.
In March 2018, attorneys for Mr. Williams filed a petition asking the Supreme Court to reverse Mr. Williams’s conviction because of prosecutorial misconduct, which included faking “summaries” of witness statements to incriminate Mr. Williams. A group of 44 former prosecutors and Justice Department officials, including former U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey, signed a brief in support of the petition. Caddo Parish District Attorney James Stewart responded by agreeing to immediately release Mr. Williams in exchange for a guilty plea to lesser offenses.
“Imagine your child leaving to hang out with friends, and then losing him or her for twenty years,” Mr. Williams’s attorney Amir Ali said in a statement. “No one can give Corey back the time that he wrongfully spent behind bars, away from his family and friends. Today, we ensure this tragedy ends here—Corey can finally go home.”
Four Englewood teenagers coerced into confessing to a rape and murder they did not commit before being exonerated by DNA evidence will divide a $31 million settlement from Chicago taxpayers, one of the largest in the city’s history.
Michael Saunders, Vincent Thames, Harold Richardson and Terrill Swift were between 15 and 18 when they were arrested for the November 1994 murder of Nina Glover. An autopsy concluded that the 30-year-old prostitute had been strangled. Her naked body was discovered behind a liquor store at 1400 W. Garfield wrapped in a bloody sheet and stuffed in a dumpster.
In 2011, a judge overturned the conviction of the “Englewood Four,” freeing Richardson and Saunders after they spent 17 years behind bars. Swift and Thames, who served more than a dozen years, had already been released.
“These were four young men who no way possible they could have committed the crime they were manipulated and coerced into confessing to. They all spent . . . over a decade in prison for something they didn’t do. The number is very large and the magnitude of the injury is very large,” said attorney Locke Bowman, who represented Swift.
Bowman said the $31 million settlement would not have been possible if former assistant state’s attorney Terence Johnson hadn’t “broken ranks from the other law enforcement personnel” and provided a statement to the FBI that confirmed what the Englewood Four had long maintained.
“This was psychological coercion primarily in all four of the cases. They were tricked and coerced into confessing . . . They were fed the information. And they were the victims of police overreaching,” Bowman said Friday.
A Boston man who has maintained his innocence through nearly four decades behind bars was granted his freedom after Suffolk, MA prosecutors admitted his 1981 murder conviction was tainted by discredited witness identification and police tactics. “To quote Sam Cooke, ‘it’s been a long time coming,’ ” Frederick Clay said after walking out of the Suffolk Superior courtroom yesterday. “It’s been 38 years for something I didn’t do. I’m overwhelmed and sort of nervous.”
Clay, 53, emerged from the Boston courthouse with his arms raised and a wide smile on this face, having last experienced freedom when Jimmy Carter was in the White House and “Bad Girls” by Donna Summer was at the top of the charts. He was convicted of the 1979 execution-style murder of 28-year-old cab driver Jeffrey Boyajian, who was shot five times in the head at a Roslindale housing project.
“From day one, they told me I was facing natural life in prison,” Clay told reporters, “and that scared me. But I was not going to voluntarily put myself in prison for something I didn’t do.” Professing his innocence cost Clay at his first parole hearing in 2015, when the three board members who denied his release wrote that he had “yet to accept responsibility for his actions.”
One of the witnesses to the crime said he was sure about Clay’s guilt after being hypnotized by police, then a widely-accepted practice thought to enhance recollection. A second witness ID’d Clay after being promised he and his family could be relocated from their housing project if he helped investigators. Another man convicted in the slaying, James Watson, is still behind bars and prosecutors remain confident of his involvement.
Boyajian’s brother Jerry spoke in support of releasing Clay.“All my family has ever wanted was justice for my brother,” Boyajian said, recalling his older brother as a “jock” with a great sense of humor. “I really feel that justice failed Mr. Clay and, in that respect, it also failed my brother.”
A Brooklyn man who spent more than 24 years in prison for a murder conviction that was later thrown out by an appeals court has accepted the city’s offer of $6 million to settle his federal lawsuit, the Daily News has learned.
Derrick Deacon was re-tried for the murder in 2013 by the office of then-Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes, and the jury acquitted him after deliberating merely nine minutes. “Based upon newly discovered evidence which implicated another man as the actual killer, the court vacated Mr. Deacon’s conviction and granted him a new trial,” Nicholas Paolucci, a spokesman for the city Law Department said in a statement.
“We have determined that a settlement of this civil suit is fair and in the best interests of the City.” Deacon, 61, was convicted of robbing and killing Anthony Wynn in April 1989 inside an East Flatbush building. A key eyewitness who pocketed a $1,000 Crimestoppers reward from the NYPD fingered him as the murderer.
But the case began to unravel in 2001 when a federal informant who had been a member of a violent gang called the Patio Crew gave the feds the name of the real killer. The Appellate Division for the Second Department reversed Deacon’s conviction in 2013, but the D.A.’s office refused to drop the case against him.
“The case should have never been retried and the acquittal after nine minutes was a slap in the face of the D.A.’s office,” his lawyer Glenn Garber said Monday. “This settlement is some level of redemption and compensation for Derrick’s suffering.”
A Brooklyn man who served almost nine years in prison for a double homicide had his case dismissed on Wednesday by the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Conviction Review Unit. Wayne Martin was released on his own recognizance last month as prosecutors investigated whether they should retry him for the 2005 murders of Donald Turner Sr. and Ricardo Davids inside Gary’s Tire Emporium in East Flatbush.
“Following a thorough re-examination of this case, I have concluded that a lack of reliable evidence, compounded by the utter failure to disclose exculpatory evidence at the original trial, would make it impossible to retry this case,” said Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson. “Therefore, we moved today to dismiss the indictment against Mr. Martin in the interest of justice,” he added.
The main evidence against Martin was a wool hat found at the crime scene. It was not photographed by crime scene detectives. As Martin’s attorney requested documents from the case’s file in preparation to make an appeal, prosecutors noticed that a paragraph on court documents that named another suspect was removed. The Conviction Review Unit was alerted and questioned the trial’s prosecutor Marc Fliedner, who left the office in June.
In a gray suit, her short hair neatly curled, Vanessa Gathers sat in State Supreme Court in Brooklyn last Tuesday, beaming as the judge spoke words she had waited nearly two decades to hear: The manslaughter conviction for which she had spent 10 years in prison was vacated, the judge said, after an investigation revealed that her confession to the crime was false.
In an instant, Ms. Gathers was no longer a convicted criminal. The judge, Justice Matthew J. D’Emic, smiled back. “Good luck!” he said.
Ms. Gathers, 58, is the first woman to have been exonerated by the Conviction Review Unit, a special unit created by the Brooklyn district attorney to look into scores of cases linked to Louis Scarcella, a retired detective whose tactics led to the wrongful convictions of more than a dozen people, according to the district attorney’s office. The unit is examining 100 cases, many of them involving Mr. Scarcella.
Mark Hale, an assistant district attorney, told the judge that an investigation into Ms. Gathers’s case had determined that she had been wrongfully convicted and that her confession had been coaxed, fed to her by Mr. Scarcella.
“We have grave doubts and, in fact, do not believe that it was true,” Mr. Hale said.
After the hearing, the Brooklyn district attorney, Ken Thompson, spoke outside the courtroom. “These wrongful convictions represent a systemic failure, a failure by prosecutors, defense attorneys, by judges, by the system,” he said. “These wrongful convictions destroy lives, and no matter what happens, Ms. Gathers will not get back those 10 years.”
Ms. Gathers was convicted of manslaughter in the death of Michael Shaw, 71, who was attacked and robbed inside his apartment in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in 1991. He died of complications from the assault six months later, in 1992. Ms. Gathers was convicted in 1998, and has been free since she was paroled on March 2, 2007, after serving 10 years in prison.
Ms. Gathers was approached by Mr. Scarcella on the street a month after Mr. Shaw’s death “because she fit the description of one of the assailants,” according to a statement released by the district attorney’s office. She denied being connected to the attack, and pointed to a woman who she believed had done it, but years later, as the investigation continued, she was again interrogated by Mr. Scarcella. In 1997, she confessed — the only evidence presented at trial.
But an examination by Mr. Thompson’s office determined that Ms. Gathers had “made a false confession based, in part, on the defendant’s inability to articulate her role in the assault; perceived inaccuracies in the statement itself; and the lack of details in the statement,” the district attorney’s statement said. Investigators determined that the “complete lack of a coherent narrative in the defendant’s confession, combined with apparent factual errors, amount to reasonable doubt in the validity of the confession itself.”
Among those inconsistencies, Mr. Hale said in court on Tuesday, were statements that the victim had been in a wheelchair. In fact, he had never used one.
While imprisoned, Ms. Gathers had an impeccable record and consistently maintained her innocence, even at three parole hearings, where it may have been more expedient to admit to the crime in hopes of being released, said Lisa Cahill, a lawyer with Hughes Hubbard & Reed, which represented Ms. Gathers, along with the Legal Aid Society. “And it wasn’t because of calculations or because of some Machiavellian foresight,” Ms. Cahill said. “It is because she is fundamentally a decent woman.”
The Los Angeles City Council agreed Tuesday to pay more than $24 million to settle lawsuits from two men who alleged that investigations by dishonest Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) detectives led to their wrongful murder convictions and caused them to spend decades behind bars.
Kash Delano Register, who won his freedom in 2013 after lawyers and students from Loyola Law School cast doubt on the testimony of a key prosecution witness, will receive $16.7 million — the largest settlement in an individual civil rights case in the city’s history, his attorneys said. Bruce Lisker, who was released from prison in 2009 after a Times investigation into his conviction, will get $7.6 million.
Though the cases were unrelated, both men contended that detectives ignored evidence of their innocence and fabricated evidence of their guilt.
City lawyers concerned about the police misconduct allegations recommended the settlements, saying in confidential memos to the City Council obtained by The Times that taking the cases to trial could be even more financially devastating.
“This is an extremely dangerous case,” city attorneys wrote of the Lisker case. And Register’s case was even “more problematic,” they said.
“Today’s action helps make amends for the many years these men will never get back, and for lives that will never be the same,” said Rob Wilcox, a spokesman for City Atty. Mike Feuer.
City Councilman Paul Krekorian, who heads the budget committee that weighs settlement payments, said the two cases were the “very unfortunate” result of police misconduct in the past, but did not reflect how the department operates today. “It’s just regrettable that these two individuals spent the better part of their lives in prison as a result of the inadequacy of the investigations that happened back then,” Krekorian said.
Register, who has always maintained his innocence, spent 34 years in custody after being convicted of the 1979 armed robbery and murder of Jack Sasson, 78. The case against Register was based on eyewitness testimony. No murder weapon was recovered and none of the fingerprints lifted at the West Los Angeles crime scene matched Register’s. Police seized a pair of his pants that had a speck of blood on them, but the blood type matched both Sasson’s and Register’s. Register’s girlfriend testified that he was with her at the time of the shooting.
A key prosecution witness in the case was Brenda Anderson, who told police she heard gunshots and saw Register sprinting away from the scene. She picked him out of a photo lineup, police said. But Anderson’s sisters said they told police that her account wasn’t true.
The University of Colorado’s Innocence Project got a boost and a new name with a $190,000 donation from Korey Wise, a man exonerated in New York City’s high-profile Central Park jogger case.
The program, operated out of CU’s law school, is now named the Korey Wise Innocence Project at Colorado Law. Wise’s donation allowed the student-led volunteer program to hire a full-time director this fall and provides financial support for its investigative work.
The Innocence Project is a national nonprofit with chapters across the country that investigate claims of wrongful convictions. Colorado’s chapter was founded in 2001 under the Colorado Lawyers Committee and moved to the CU law school in 2010.
Wise was 16 when he was tried and convicted as an adult in connection with the 1989 attack and rape of a female jogger in Central Park.
He spent more than a decade in prison and was exonerated in 2002 after another man admitted to the attack and DNA testing confirmed his involvement. The convictions of the four other men accused in the attack were also overturned.