While we like to think we’re in control of everything in our lives, that’s far from the case. We have very little control over the things that happen to us. But what we can control is how we react to those things.
As a teenager, one Brooklyn native was robbed of his freedom after he was found guilty of a crime he didn’t commit. Rather than succumbing to the nightmare that was his reality, the teenager used it as an opportunity to grow. Now, he’s using his experience to help others.
Summer Morning in Brooklyn
On the morning of August 14, 1991, John Bunn was sitting at the kitchen table in his mother’s apartment in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. He and his 2-year-old baby sister had been waiting for their pancakes to finish cooking. According to Bunn, he remembers every excruciating detail of that day.
A Memorable Morning
While waiting for his mother, Maureen, to finish making breakfast, Bunn remembers it was already 90 degrees outside. However, it felt hotter inside since the air conditioner was broken. Bunn also remembers being able to hear music coming from outside and the sound of people bouncing basketballs on their way to the local courts.
According to Bunn, it was a day he would never forget as it was the day his life changed forever. Bunn, who was just 14 years old at the time, had planned on going outside and spending his day playing basketball with friends. However, he never got the chance to do that.
The Police Arrive
Everything got interrupted that morning when police showed up at the apartment and started banging on the front door. “They wanted to take me down to the police station for questioning,” Bunn told CNN decades later. Once Bunn arrived at the 77th precinct in Brooklyn, he was put into an interrogation room and handcuffed to a pole.
The Interrogation Begins
“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,” Bunn told CNN.
The Main Suspects
Bunn was terrified and completely confused. He learned from the police that the co-defendant they were talking about was a 17-year-old named Rosean Hargrave. Bunn knew Hargrave, but they weren’t friends since he was a few years older. According to Bunn, police told him that he and Hargrave were the main suspects in the killing of Rolando Neischer, a Rikers Island corrections officer.
The day before, Neischer had been sitting in a car at about four in the morning talking to Robert Crosson, a friend and a fellow Rikers Island correction officer. As they were talking, two men on bikes came up to the car, pulled out guns, and ordered the pair to get out of the car. Within seconds, the situation escalated when Crosson was shot in the hand. He managed to get out of the car and run away.
Denying the Accusations
Neischer, however, wasn’t so lucky. He tried to fight the two men off with his own gun but ended up being shot five times. The two men drove off with the car and left Neischer, who was still alive at the time, slumped against a fence. “I kept telling them, ‘No, I didn’t have any knowledge of it,’” Bunn told CNN.
The Ignored Alibi
Bunn insisted that he was innocent and had no knowledge of the shooting. Maureen even tried to offer an alibi for her son. According to Maureen, she had heard the gunshots from her apartment at approximately 4:30 in the morning. Just to be sure, Maureen got up and checked on all of her children. She remembered feeling relieved that all of her children, including Bunn, were all safe and asleep in their beds.
But the police refused to listen to them and sent Bunn and Hargrave in for a police lineup. The detectives were so unsure Bunn was guilty that they made everyone sit on stools during the lineup to keep him from being ruled out as a suspect since the teen was so much shorter than everyone else. They were both identified by Crosson as Neischer, who would later die from his wounds in the hospital.
A few days later, on August 17, Bunn and Hargrave were formally charged with robbery and the murder of the officer. For the next 16 months, Bunn was placed in the Spofford Juvenile Detention Center, which was infamous for violence and abuse, while he waited for his trial. “One of the most violent places I ever experienced,” Bunn told CNN about the now-closed juvenile detention center. “The staff members were very abusive. It was like gladiator school. You had to fight maybe three or four times a day.”
Trusting the Legal System
However, Bunn kept his spirits up during that time trusting that justice would prevail and that his innocence would be proven during the trial especially since he didn’t even match the original description Crosson gave of the shooters. And in November 1992, Bunn finally saw his day in court. But a single day was all he would get.
The trial, which lasted only a day, consisted of testimonies from the medical examiner, a detective, Crosson, and the police officer who arrived at the scene first. By the end of the day. Both Bunn and Hargrave were found guilty. “The truth didn’t prevail, it didn’t come out … My side of the story never came out, either. I never got a chance to have a voice. I never got a chance to say anything,” Bunn told CNN. He was sentenced to 20 years to life for a crime he didn’t commit. Later, that sentence was reduced to nine years to life since he had been illegally charged as an adult.
An Opportunity to Learn
After his sentencing, Bunn was taken to a youth facility in upstate New York. Bunn had never learned to read or write, and during that time, he became determined to learn so that he could write letters to his mother. “I was further away from my family. I wanted to communicate with my mother because I felt like me and her didn’t have the best relationship. And I was out there, and I just wanted to tell her how I felt, and that motivated me,” Bunn explained.
Graduating to Prison
Learning to read and write in prison was difficult, but the more he learned, the more Bunn’s self-esteem and self-worth grew. After mastering both skills, Bunn went on to get his GED when he was 17 years old. After that, however, he was considered an adult and sent to a state prison, where he became bitter and aggressive in order to survive in his new surroundings. “I became institutionalized to the point where I start letting that experience make me angry. I started being bitter in there and started getting into violent situations,” Bunn told CNN.
The Power of Reading
However, Bunn refused to let himself become a product of his situation. Instead, he started taking anger management courses and found a new sense of freedom thanks to the books in the prison library. “I wrote my mother one day … and I said, ‘They can lock my body, but they can’t trap my mind,’” Bunn explained. “The power of reading made me feel that way. I felt trapped without a voice for so long, but the power of reading could take my imagination, and take me to anywhere in this universe.”
Justice is Finally Served
In 2006, however, Bunn was released from prison after saving a prison counselor from being assaulted and raped by an inmate. But Bunn, who was struggling with PTSD and depression, ended up back in prison for another year after missing a parole meeting. However, the challenging chapter of his life was finally put to an end after the Exoneration Initiative, a nonprofit organization, helped bring Bunn and Hargrave’s case before a judge as many of Detective Scarcella’s convictions were falling apart. In May of 2018, after 27 years of being wrongfully convicted, Justice ShawnDya Simpson officially exonerated both Bunn and Hargrave.
An Innocent Man
“I am an innocent man, your honor, and I have always been an innocent man,” Bunn told the courtroom after Judge Simpson announced he was a free man and slammed Detective Scarcella’s ‘disregard for rules, law, and truth.’ Bunn and Hargrave were the 12th and 13th men to be exonerated from cases investigated by Scarcella. Since Scarcella’s retirement in 1999, more than a dozen of his convictions have been overturned because of tainted evidence and forced confessions. Currently, there are about 70 of Scarcella’s cases that are flagged for review. However, Scarcella claimed he did nothing wrong and has never faced any consequences for his corruption. He currently lives in Staten Island and receives a full NYPD pension.
‘A Voice 4 the Unheard’
Bunn, on the other hand, has moved on with his life and used his experience to find his purpose in life. He now spends his days mentoring at-risk youth and running his non-profit organization called ‘A Voice 4 The Unheard’, which donates books to prison libraries and under-resourced communities. “Reading changed my life,” Bunn told CNN. “I want to share that experience with other people.” So far, he has donated 20,000 books.
From Nightmare to Dream
In addition to his non-profit, Bunn works at Rikers Island twice a week and also leads a book club for teens. “I explain to them, ‘Anything is possible. Feel like you’re too good to be in here!’” Bunn said. “There’s no greater feeling than me feeling like I’m existing for a purpose, and this is what gives my life purpose right now,” he says. Through my nightmare … I found my dream.”