Photos: NJ Innocence Project (Armond McCloud, left, in 1993 and right, in January, when he was released from prison after more than 28 years of being incarcerated.)
Thursday, a Queens judge vacated the conviction of Armond McCloud, 49, who was forced to falsely confess at age 20 to the 1994 shooting murder of 22-year-old Kei Sunada. Mr. McCloud was incarcerated from August 8, 1994 until his release on parole on January 31, 2023.
“It feels great to have my innocence finally recognized after 29 years,” Mr. McCloud said.
He is represented by Rutgers Law School Professor Laura Cohen, Director of the New Jersey Innocence Project at Rutgers University; Professor Steven Drizin, Director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern-Pritzker Law School; and Laura Nirider, former co-director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions and now a wrongful conviction attorney in private practice.
His conviction was vacated at the joint request of his legal team and the Queens County District Attorney’s Office, whose Conviction Integrity Unit reinvestigated the case and concluded that newly discovered evidence compelled dismissal of the case against him.
Also supporting Mr. McCloud’s claim of innocence is a new crime scene reconstruction report prepared by Professor Kevin Parmalee of the New Jersey Institute of Technology. In addition, dozens of Rutgers Law School students in Professor Cohen’s Criminal and Youth Justice Clinic assisted in this case over the past three years.
Professor Cohen remarked, “As Mr. McCloud’s case painfully illustrates, young people are particularly and acutely vulnerable to standard police interrogation tactics and, therefore, far more likely to confess falsely than adults. In order to prevent similar injustices from occurring, New York must ensure that every youth in police custody consults with an attorney before being asked to waive their Miranda rights and prohibit the use of uncounseled statements in court.”
The conviction was based solely on a false confession Mr. McCloud gave after being questioned for 13 hours by a team of NYPD detectives, which included disgraced former detective Carlos Gonzalez.
During the all-night interrogation, during which he was held incommunicado, Mr. McCloud was falsely told that his mother’s safety would be in jeopardy unless he told police that he killed Mr. Sunada, who had been found with a fatal gunshot wound to the head on August 4 in the fourth-floor stairwell of a building in LeFrak City, a Queens apartment complex.
Police also engaged in other coercive, deceptive and threatening tactics. Eventually, Mr. McCloud signed a short statement falsely admitting his involvement in the crime and, subsequently, was subjected to video questioning by an assistant district attorney.
This “confession” was the sole evidence that led to his conviction for first-degree homicide and sentence of 25 years to life in prison.
Ms. Nirider added, “In this case, a bad police investigation ended up telling on itself. Detective Gonzalez’s mistaken idea about where this crime happened – he thought it happened in a hallway, when it actually happened in a separate stairwell – ended up in Mr. McCloud’s confession. It is crystal clear that Mr. McCloud’s so-called confession was nothing more than him being forced to repeat the police’s theories.”
This is the third false confession cased linked to Detective Gonzalez, the lead investigator in the death of Kei Sunada. Since Mr. McCloud’s conviction, Detective Gonzalez has become notorious for obtaining the false confessions of at least two of the now-exonerated defendants in 1989’s Central Park Five case, Kevin Richardson and Antron McCrae.
Yusef Salaam, candidate for New York City Council and one of the accused men in the Central Park Five case, “I’m both glad and saddened that yet another case has been uncovered in which the NYPD forced multiple innocent young Black men to falsely confess to a crime they didn’t commit. It’s past time to make sure this never happens again.”
Professor Drizin added, “Most homicide detectives go their entire careers without obtaining a false confession. It appears that Detective Gonzalez has participated in obtaining at least five false confessions that we know of in three different cases. If the Brooklyn DA’s audit of disgraced former Brooklyn Detective Scarcella is any indication, then there are likely more false confessions to be uncovered.”
Professor Drizin and Ms. Nirider are well known for their expertise in police interrogations and false confessions, including their representation of Wisconsin man Brendan Dassey, whose wrongful conviction was profiled in the hit Netflix series Making a Murderer.
Professor Cohen, who co-founded the New Jersey Innocence Project and directs the Rutgers Law School Criminal and Youth Justice Clinic, is a national youth justice expert who has been involved in numerous exonerations and other successful post-conviction relief efforts on behalf of wrongfully convicted young people.