Inside a wrongfully convicted man's 24-year quest to clear his name

Sundhe Moses' felony criminal record remained after a judge's exoneration.

September 7, 2019, 8:11 AM

As Sundhe Moses sat in a Brooklyn courtroom more than 20 years ago, he insisted that he had been forced into confessing to a crime he didn't commit.

Nevertheless, he was convicted and hit with a sentence of 15 years to life for a drive-by shooting in Brooklyn that left a little girl dead.

Moses went from a 19-year-old community college student and father of an 8-month-old boy to an inmate at Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York.

He had been trying to clear his name ever since.

Despite being exonerated for the killing last year, he was still facing an additional sentence for an 18-year-old charge of attempted promoting prison contraband, a case prosecutors refused to drop until Friday, despite his argument that he wouldn't have pleaded guilty in the drug case had he not been in prison.

"This is so vital for a black man in America to not have a criminal record," Moses told ABC News.

Moses, 43, was convicted for participating in an August 1995 drive-by shooting in Brownsville, Brooklyn, where dozens of children were outside playing. Four-year-old Shamone Johnson was killed, and four other young people, including an 8-year-old boy, were injured.

During his 1997 trial in Brooklyn Supreme Court, Moses testified that now-retired Detective Louis Scarcella beat him into confessing to the crime.

Four years into his jail stint, Moses was busted for allegedly having a marijuana cigarette that contained traces of heroin. In 2002, he was indicted by Clinton County prosecutors for promoting prison contraband, a felony.

"I was going back and forth to court fighting a case, again. Riding back and forth from prison to court, shackled, I can't describe it," said Moses, adding, "I just copped out ... it's not like I knew when I was going home."

PHOTO: Sundhe Moses arrives to the court room for the testimony of former NYPD detective Louis Scarcella in New York, May 8, 2017.
Sundhe Moses arrives to the court room for the testimony of former NYPD detective Louis Scarcella in New York, May 8, 2017.
Seth Wenig/AP, FILE

After entering a guilty plea in the drug case, the judge sentenced Moses to a consecutive sentence because he was a two-time felon, increasing his stint to 16 1/2 years. He had been facing up to seven years if convicted at trial. He had to plead guilty to a felony because he was predicate felon.

In 2013, Detective Scarcella's questionable police tactics made headlines when the late Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes exonerated the first person whose criminal case was connected to the detective. Scarcella, through his attorneys, has repeatedly denied involvement with any of the cases.

To date, 12 men and one woman had their convictions Scarcella allegedly was involved in overturned.

That same year, Moses faced the parole board a second time. This time, Moses and his attorneys, Ron Kuby and Leah Busby, were armed with evidence of Scarcella's pattern of wrongdoing, as well as two witnesses who recanted their testimony.

Days before Moses' birthday in December 2013, he was released on parole without having to admit his guilt.

Kuby and Busby first filed a motion with the Brooklyn District Attorney's revamped Conviction Review Unit as they were investigating more than 70 Scarcella-related convictions. In 2015, Moses' legal team decided to file a motion with a judge requesting an evidentiary hearing in the hope of getting the conviction tossed in favor of a new trial.

After years of delays, Moses' hearing commenced. Scarcella downplayed his role in the investigation, claiming repeatedly, "I don't know" or "I don't recall." In January 2018, Justice Dineen Riviezzo overturned Moses' conviction and ordered a new trial in a written decision that she read in court. The following month, prosecutors decided not to retry the case.

But Clinton County prosecutors were still pursuing the prison contraband case.

"The system encountered someone who has been exonerated for a charge, but while in prison for a case they were wrongfully in prison for, they picked up another conviction," said Moses. "There wasn't any case law similar to give a judge direction on how the case should be litigated."

Earlier this year, Moses' lawyers Kuby and Rhiya Trivedi filed a motion to withdraw the guilty plea in the drug case because he was no longer a two-time felon.

PHOTO: Sundhe Moses, 37, reunited with h is mother Elaine at his mother's home in Brooklyn, Dec. 3, 2013.
Sundhe Moses, 37, reunited with h is mother Elaine at his mother's home in Brooklyn, Dec. 3, 2013, after being released from prison after serving 18 years for the shooting death of a 4-year-old-girl, a crime that he did not commit.
Pearl Gabel/NY Daily News via Getty Images, FILE

"This situation presents the extremely rare case in which the Court cannot say the defendant would have entered a guilty plea to the crime of attempted promoting prison contraband in the first degree had it not been for the conviction on the murder charge," wrote Clinton County Court Judge Keith M. Bruno in his written decision granting the motion to toss his guilty plea. Bruno did note that Moses did not dispute that he used marijuana in prison.

Still, prosecutors refused to drop the charges, Kuby told ABC News on Friday.

"The stigma of a felony or felonies on your record is a bullseye to normal society," Moses said.

In June, Moses was offered the chance to plead guilty to a misdemeanor instead of a felony, but he would still have a criminal record.

"I wasn't comfortable with that. What if I had a dream to get into politics tomorrow? A misdemeanor or not, I don't need that on my record," said Moses.

On Friday, Clinton County prosecutors dismissed the drug case "in the interest of justice," according to Kuby. The Clinton County DA's office declined comment.

"As a black person they think it's OK to have that on your record. They don't see it as you shouldn't have it at all," Moses said. "They looked at it as 'Just take it, you're out, you're free,' but I looked at it from a whole other perspective."