When many people think of the legal system, they envision justice. But the justice system isn’t as straightforward as it ideally should be. Since 1973, at least 340 innocent people have been executed. A 2014 study estimates that 4% of inmates on death row might be wrongfully convicted.
Wrongful convictions ruin peoples’ lives. John Bunn lost almost three decades of his life when he was arrested for homicide at age 14. His story chronicles the tragic results of an irresponsible trial and inefficient justice system. Learn the story of John Bunn, how he struggled, and how he recovered.
Twenty-Seven Years Of His Life, Lost
John Bunn couldn’t hold back tears at his 2014 trial. Since he was 14, he had spent 17 years behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit. Afterward, he spent an additional ten years on parole. As a young teenager, he faced a violent prison experience and he could barely read or write.
It took over 20 years to finally convince the court to re-evaluate his sentence. All of his teenage and young adult years had already been taken.
Where It All Started
On August 14th, 1991, Bunn was sitting in the kitchen with his family in their Brooklyn, New York home. The morning was hot–90 degrees in the shade–and their AC didn’t work. Hip-hop music leaked in from the neighborhood. John Bunn’s mother, Maureen, made pancakes for him and his two-year-old sister, India.
Bunn, who was on summer break, looked forward to a day of playing basketball with his friends. Suddenly, there was a knock on the door. It was the police.
Interrogating A 14-Year-Old
The 14-year-old boy entered a police car and went to Brooklyn’s 77th precinct. He was handcuffed to a pole and interrogated by Detective Louis Scarcella. “And he was threatening me,” Bunn recalled 30 years later, “telling me that I was never coming back 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.”
Bunn’s supposed “co-defendant” was 17-year-old Rosean Hargrave. Bunn knew Hargrave “from the block,” but the two barely interacted. They weren’t even friends. But Detective Scarcella had worked with Brooklyn North homicide for years and supposedly knew what he was doing.
At this point, Bunn finally learned what he was being accused of. He was a suspect in the murder of an off-duty corrections officer named Rolando Neischer. “I kept telling them, ‘No, I don’t have any knowledge of it,'” Bunn recounted.
The Night Of The Murder
The night before Bunn’s arrest, two Rikers Island correction officers, Rolando Neischer and Robert Crosson, were chatting in a car at 4 a.m. Suddenly, two men on bikes sped toward the car with their guns out. Crosson managed to escape, while Neischer stayed and fought back.
Neischer was shot five times. The next day, the police arrested Bunn and Hargrave. Neischer died three days later, after the two boys were identified in a lineup for homicide.
Where John Was
John Bunn had slept through the night of Neischer’s murder. But his mother, Maureen, awoke around 4:30 a.m. to the sound of gunshots. They sounded like they came from the back of her housing complex, near Kingsborough.
Instinctively, Maureen tip-toed to her kids’ room to check on them. Relieved, she noted that her kids were safe. Bunn remained sound asleep in his bunk.
In A Line-Up With Grown Men
Bunn recalled that he was shoved into a lineup with “grown men.” In his 40s, Bunn stood at five feet and six inches, with a friendly disposition and gentle smile. At 14, he believed that he stood no taller than five-foot-two-inches.
Crosson, who had survived the attack, described the perpetrators as tall, light-skinned men in their 20s. Nonetheless, Detective Scarcella eventually came into the room to handcuff Bunn. “It’s your lucky day,” he told the teenager.
Waiting For The Trial
On August 17th, Bunn was officially charged for robbery and murder. He was sent to the Spofford Detention Center in the Bronx as he waited 16 months for his trial. The center was closed in 2011 due to allegations of abuse.
Bunn later described the place as “one of the most violent places I ever experienced.” He recalled that fights broke out three to four times a day. As his 15th birthday came and went, Bunn waited for a trial that he believed would set him free.
The Single-Day Trial
On Thanksgiving Eve in 1992, Bunn and Hargrave had their trial. Scarcella had already testified in pre-trial hearings. On the day of the trial, only four people took the stand: Crosson, the first officer at the scene, a medical examiner, and a precinct detective. Neither Bunn nor Hargrave got to testify.
Although homicide trials typically last three to four days, Bunn and Hargrave were found guilty in just one day. Bunn received 11 years to life, a shorter sentence since he was a minor.
After Being Found Guilty
Initially, the judge handed Bunn 20 years to life and Hargrave 30 years to life. When Maureen Bunn heard “to life,” she collapsed. She had suffered a mild heart attack and had to be rushed to the hospital. Both John Bunn and Hargrave filed appeals, but both were denied.
Bunn was sent to a youth facility in upstate New York. Maureen visited as often as she could, although her bus fees drained the family’s limited funds, and she started receiving eviction notices.
Learning To Read While In Prison
While in prison, Bunn kept a secret: he never learned how to read or write. He wanted to write letters to his mom instead of having her spend money on visits, so he hit the books. He began with children’s books and dictionaries. Later, he worked with teachers on writing and sounding words out.
Although he felt humbled at first, Bunn learned fast. By age 17, he had received his GED and could read and write fluently.
John’s Adult Imprisonment, And His Anger
That same year, Bunn was transferred to an adult prison. He labeled the bus ride there as “one of the scariest feelings I ever experienced.” Gradually, his emotions transformed from fear to anger. “I felt like I had to be aggressive in order for [the inmates] not to take advantage of me,” he later recounted.
Unfortunately, Bunn’s anger escalated throughout his sentence and became harder to control. He began to throw himself into violent situations.
Reading: John’s Main Savior
Throughout his sentence, one action spared Bunn from his life as inmate number 7129748Q: reading. The first novel he ever fell in love with was The Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah. In the book, a woman works to improve her black community in Brooklyn as her loved ones suffer from poverty, violence, and incarceration.
“I related to that book on so many levels,” Bunn said. “I wrote to my mother one day…and I said, ‘They can lock my body, but they can’t trap my mind.'”
Over time, Bunn took anger management classes. He did so well in them that he eventually became a qualified counselor himself, and he helped his fellow inmates who struggled with anger.
In 2006, Bunn saved a prison counselor from being assaulted by another inmate. To honor his efforts, the parole board released him that year. He walked out of Elmira Correctional Facility with $40 in his pocket, and when he saw his brother and cousin at the door, he felt safe for the first time in 17 years.
But John Struggled On Parole…
For Bunn, parole wasn’t as freeing as he had hoped. With his homicide conviction, he couldn’t land a job. He was diagnosed with PTSD and lived off social security and disability. For several years, Bunn grappled with his depression.
In 2008, Bunn failed to report for a parole meeting. He was sent back to jail for another year and was released in 2009. It was like his suffering would never end.
Finally, A Ray Of Hope
In 2010, Bunn finally received some good news. The Exoneration Initiative, a nonprofit organization that provides the wrongfully convicted with free legal services in New York, looked into Bunn and Hargrave’s case. At this point, Hargrave had served over 20 years behind bars, never entering parole.
The Exoneration Initiative had already gotten Hargrave on retrial before they contacted Bunn. How? Because Detective Scarcella’s cases from the ’80s and ’90s were crumbling under wrongful convictions.
Detective Louis Scarcella
As of 2018, 70 of Detective Louis Scarcella’s cases have been flagged for review. His convictions are being analyzed for misleading testimony, forced confessions, and tainted evidence. Fourteen of his homicide convictions have already been overturned.
Scarcella, now retired, will likely never face consequences. Prosecutors have not found any laws that he can be charged for today, and his statute of limitations has expired. In 2018, Scarcella told Daily News that he had done “absolutely nothing wrong.”
Decades Later: John Bunn’s Retrial
In 2018, John Bunn finally received his retrial after 27 years of imprisonment. Judge ShawnDya Simpson heard his case while Bunn and his mother audibly gulped back sobs. They nervously underwent hours of deliberation as Simpson held Bunn’s life in her hands.
Judge Simpson labeled Scarcella’s evidence as “paltry” and slammed him for his “disregard of rules, law, and truth.” She called the convicted murderer up to her stand for his final sentence.
His Final Conviction
Judge Simpson quietly told Bunn that he was now a free man. He tearfully clasped her hands in gratitude. “I am an innocent man, Your Honor,” he told the courtroom, “and I have always been an innocent man.”
In May, the District Attorney’s office announced that they would not retry Hargrave and Bunn. They became the 12th and 13th men released on Detective Scarcella’s wrongful convictions. For the first time since childhood, Bunn had a life to look forward to.
Now, It’s His Turn To Help Others
Today, John Bunn operates a self-made nonprofit named A Voice 4 The Unheard. His organization runs book drives to refurbish prison libraries, including his old housing, Rikers Island. He also provides under-resourced communities with educational literature.
As of 2018, Bunn’s nonprofit had donated over 20,000 books to those who most need them. “Reading changed my life,” Bunn asserted. “I want to share that experience with other people.”
Devoting His Life To Teaching
Using his previous counseling skills, Bunn works at juvenile prisons twice a week. He runs group sessions with incarcerated teenagers and started a book club for them as well. He also attends public schools to teach students about his cause.
More than anything, Bunn encourages his students never to lose hope. “There’s no greater feeling than me feeling like I’m existing for a purpose,” he said, “and this is what gives my life purpose right now. Through my nightmare…I found my dream.”