When he was just 14 years old, John Dwayne Bunn was found guilty of second-degree murder and thrown behind bars. But 27 years following that day, he approached a judge and grabbed her hands. Then, as the people in the courtroom watched, the man began to sob – and it was all for an astonishing reason.
Bunn was brought up by a single mother, and by the sounds of it, his childhood was far from easy. According to The New York Times, his mom had issues with alcohol, and eventually the boy began committing crimes. On one occasion, for instance, Bunn was taken into custody after he was allegedly caught stealing some jewelry.
Jewelry theft wasn’t the only illegal act that Bunn reportedly committed during his youth, however. It’s believed in fact that the teenager was also a carjacker. Apparently, he would break into a parked vehicle using a screwdriver before driving it away. But Bunn had not been convicted of any of these crimes.
When Bunn was only 14 years old, though, his life would change forever. It was in the early hours of August 13, 1991, that correctional officer Rolando Neischer was killed in cold blood. Tragically, it seems that the off-duty guard had been in the wrong place at the wrong time that morning.
Neischer and his friend Robert E. Crosson were sitting inside a Volvo that was parked in the Crown Heights area of Brooklyn, New York. The pair were both employed as corrections officers at Rikers Island prison, but their connection went deeper than work; Neischer and Crosson had reportedly known each other for years.
In fact, Neischer and Crosson – 31 and 30, respectively, at the time – had first became pals when they were teenagers before becoming colleagues at the prison. The two friends were not working on that fateful day, however, while they sat chatting outside Kingsborough Houses, where they both lived. It was 4:00 a.m., so the sun had not yet come up. But the area was lit thanks to streetlights.
The previous evening, Neischer’s child had wound up in an accident at school. And so, the boy had been rushed to the hospital and treated for his injuries, which included a broken arm. Then, once Neischer’s son had been taken home, the friends sat talking in a car – when they suddenly noticed a pair of men coming toward them.
After the duo approached Neischer and Crosson on bikes, they apparently told the correctional officers to get out of the car. It was at this point that Neischer and Crosson realized that the young men were carrying guns. And so, presumably feeling the need to act in the face of danger, Neischer reached for his own firearm.
“My first feeling was, ‘I don’t believe this is happening,’” Crosson later declared during the murder trial. “Rolando looked at me and said, ‘Hold on, my man.’ He opens up the door of the car.” Then, everything apparently happened very quickly, and within moments, shots were fired.
Frightened, Crosson covered his face. And as it turned out, this was a move that may have saved his life, as he was only shot through the hand. But his partner wasn’t so lucky and obtained considerably more injuries. Neischer had nevertheless shot at the perpetrators six times – but it wasn’t enough to stop the culprits.
In fact, the two thieves made off with the Volvo – but not before firing at Neischer. And although when the police turned up, the guard was conscious and even talking, insisting that he was “going to make it,” he had actually been shot a total of five times. Bullets had struck Neischer in the chest, stomach, leg, back and ankle.
The horrific case was investigated by Detective Louis Scarcella and his partner, Stephen W. Chmil, and another cop by the name of John Barba. Crosson, who survived the attack, declared that the culprits were black men with light skin, who he believed were in and around the ages of 20. And before long, cops zeroed in on Rosean S. Hargrave.
You see, Hargrave lived in the apartment building next to where the attack took place. Similarly to Bunn, he was raised by a single mom, who is thought to have had alcohol issues. Hargrave was 17 years old at the time of the crime and had dropped out of school in the tenth grade. Plus, he had been arrested multiple times during his youth and had recently been behind bars on armed robbery charges. The young man had allegedly stolen cars, too.
Apparently, Crosson was asked to look through six mug shots that Detective Scarcella had arbitrarily chosen from a group of 600. The corrections officer subsequently singled Hargrave’s image out, claiming that he was “90 percent sure” that the teenager was the shooter – but also that he couldn’t be certain without identifying him face-to-face. And so, Hargrave was placed in a police lineup.
At this point, however, Hargrave claims that he was immediately disadvantaged. According to The New York Times, he described the other men in the lineup as “a bunch of dudes that looked like they smoked crack.” And so, it was perhaps little surprise that Crosson picked out Hargrave with an apparent degree of certainty. Bunn, meanwhile, doesn’t know exactly why he soon become a suspect himself, but he believes that his name was mentioned during Hargrave’s interrogations.
“[Hargrave] must have been like, ‘I was with Dwayne,’” Bunn mused. And as a result, he too appeared in a police lineup and was selected by Crosson. But Bunn has also suggested that he wasn’t given a fair chance and that the victim wouldn’t have considered anyone else. “[The police] put me in a lineup with grown men,” he added. “It was a joke.”
Tragically, Neischer succumbed to his wounds four days after the attack. This meant that the case ramped up to a homicide – with Crosson as the only witness. And so, while Hargrave and Bunn had already been arrested and charged with theft and attempted murder, the stakes were elevated to murder following Neischer’s death.
At this point, then, it seemed as though the slaying had already been solved. However, there were some details about the case that did not appear to add up. For example, Crosson had stated that one of the attackers had been injured in the firefight. And yet no gunshot wounds had been found on either Hargrave’s or Bunn’s bodies. But this wasn’t all.
In fact, there were several discrepancies in the investigation, according to The New York Times. Although fingerprints were found at the scene of the crime, for instance, they were not compatible with those of the two suspects. Plus, it’s reported that there is no proof that blood evidence in the case was ever tested.
And if these facts weren’t troubling enough, some important pieces of evidence reportedly went missing. And these mysterious disappearances meant that no appeals would be possible for the two accused men. What’s more, the correct lineup pictures never made it into the trial. Apparently, versions from a different case were submitted instead – and inexplicably, the error was never revised.
The murder trial took place in November 1992 in Brooklyn. It took just a single day for both the prosecution and the defense to present their sides of the case. Astonishingly, the prosecution’s argument was based on one piece of evidence: Crosson’s testimony. And he stated that he believed Hargrave and Bunn were responsible for the shooting.
The closing arguments were made the following day. Then, the jury deliberated and delivered their verdict just after 11:00 p.m. Hargrave and Bunn were found guilty of Neischer’s murder and were handed sentences of 30 years to life and 20 years to life in prison, respectively. However, Bunn’s punishment was altered to nine years to life because he was a minor.
Adamant of their innocence and incensed by the seeming prejudice in the case, both men attempted to appeal their convictions – but they were unsuccessful in doing so. And ultimately, Bunn was imprisoned for a total of 17 years for the alleged slaying of Neischer and the theft of the vehicle. He was just 14 years old when he was first incarcerated, and he was even illiterate.
Remarkably, however, Bunn learned to read and write while he was behind bars and even earned his GED. Books became something of a salvation for the young inmate, in fact, his favorite read being The Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah. “I related to that book on so many levels,” Bunn told CNN in September 2018, speaking of the novel that follows a woman working to better her community.
In 2006 Bunn was finally released, having being denied on three previous occasions. After a couple of years, however, he spent another 12 months in prison for breaching the terms of his parole. And while Bunn was granted freedom again in 2009, it would be several years before he would finally get the justice that he hoped for.
Back in the ’80s and ’90s, Scarcella had become notorious as a successful homicide detective on challenging cases such as Bunn’s. However, an inquiry into the officer’s work uncovered shocking evidence that he had used “false and misleading practices” while employed by the New York Police Department. And this discovery led to a series of convictions with which he had helped getting reexamined and even overturned. So, what did this mean for Bunn?
Well, a retrial of Bunn’s case was initially requested. Remarkably, however, the charges against him were dropped entirely due to insufficient evidence. So, in May 2018 Bunn appeared in court once again – but this time, for a very different reason. Yes, Brooklyn Supreme Court judge Shawn’Dya Simpson exonerated the man 27 years after his conviction – and it was an extremely emotional moment.
After Bunn’s name was officially cleared, he walked up to Judge Simpson’s bench and took her hands in his own. Then, he put his head down and began to cry as the people in the courtroom clapped. “I want to say thank you, Your Honor, because it’s been 27 years I’ve been fighting for my life,” the then 41-year-old said.
Understandably, Bunn felt an enormous sense of relief. But he had also never given up on proving his innocence. “I want y’all to know that y’all convicted and had the wrong man in prison,” he said to prosecutors. And after exiting the court, the free man added to reporters, “I just feel overly blessed, and I am just thanking God that we reached this point.”
However, Bunn also admitted that the conviction had ruined his life. “Y’all had the wrong man this whole time, and you have someone out there running free, and y’all had no right to do what you did,” he said. “I don’t know how I made it this far, but I believe I am here for a purpose.”
Plus, despite the inconceivable hardship that Bunn has gone through, he has managed to remain positive. “I just want to be proven innocent,” he explained. “I didn’t want to be in the dark side of the shadows [the prosecutors] tried to put me [in].” And thankfully, justice prevailed – albeit 27 years too late.
Clearly, the exoneration was also a moving moment for Judge Simpson. “I am more than emotional about this day,” she told Bunn. “You were 14 at the time. This shouldn’t have ever happened.” What’s more, she pointed out that it was evident that Bunn had not been given the fair trial that he had deserved.
“This case was tried… a jury was picked, testimony was given, and it concluded all in one day,” Simpson said, according to The Independent. “I don’t consider that justice at all.” Meanwhile, Bunn’s lawyer, Glenn Garber, agreed that “there was no probable cause to make an arrest,” adding that the flaws in the case “were very obvious.”
After years of campaigning for his innocence, Bunn’s terrible ordeal is now over. And evidently, he is extremely grateful. “I’m an innocent man, Your Honor, and I have always been an innocent man,” he told Justice Simpson. “I thank you so much for what you have done for me in saving my life and my family’s life.”
Meanwhile, Hargrave also had his conviction dropped in 2015, after spending 24 years behind bars. And one day before Bunn’s name was cleared, he too was exonerated. The freed man wept as he revealed that he had feared he wouldn’t survive his time in prison. “There were times I saw death,” Hargrave told reporters outside the court. “That is how badly corrections officers beat me for a crime I did not commit.”
Following his exoneration, Bunn explained just how grateful he is – and said that he won’t forget what Justice Simpson did for him. “I’ve been fighting for my life, and I’ve been fighting for my innocence,” he shared during his court appearance. “It takes a courageous judge to make that happen.”
Meanwhile, around 70 cases on which Scarcella worked in the 1980s and 1990s have been marked to be reexamined owing to suspected misconduct. On top of that, a staggering 14 murder convictions to which he was linked have been overturned because of his practices. And yet Scarcella – now retired – has not been charged with any crimes. He even told the New York Daily News that he has done “absolutely nothing wrong.”
Since Bunn’s traumatic ordeal, though, he has devoted his life to helping others who may be facing similar struggles. At first, he urged people to donate books for the Rikers Island prison libraries. Now, however, Bunn has his own charitable organization called A Voice 4 The Unheard. And with it, he has helped to provide 20,000 books to individuals who are incarcerated.
Through his charity, Bunn also encourages teenagers to read by hosting a book club and group gatherings at the prison two times per week. And he makes sure the inmates know that incarceration doesn’t have to stop them from getting to where they want to be. “Reading changed my life,” he told CNN. “I want to share that experience with other people.”
After 27 years, Bunn has finally proven his innocence – and now he can look to the future. He added to CNN, “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. Through my nightmare… I found my dream.”