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Oneal Watts

Other Bronx County, New York CIU exonerations
At about 11 a.m. on March 29, 2013, 27-year-old Azel Gonzalez answered the door of his apartment at 1380 University Avenue in the Bronx, New York, where he lived with his 51-year-old mother, Migdalia Almanzar. Outside was a 17-year-old woman with whom Gonzalez had been exchanging flirtatious messages. Almost immediately, three men wearing masks and gloves pushed her out of the way and rushed into the apartment.

One man struck Gonzalez with a semi-automatic pistol. The two other men tied him up, duct-taping his mouth and taping his hands behind his back. The men then went into the bedroom, where they tied up and duct-taped Gonzalez’s mother. They dragged her into the bathroom and began ransacking the apartment, demanding money. Eventually, the men took $1,700 in cash, a watch, jewelry, and two cell phones before they fled.

When police arrived, Gonzalez and his mother said that during the robbery, one of the men lifted his mask, revealing his face.

Gonzalez subsequently identified the 17-year-old woman with whom he had been exchanging texts. On April 2, police arrested the woman at her mother’s home. At the same time, police photographed her brother and 20-year-old Oneal Watts, who was visiting the brother that day.

Police later put the photographs of the brother and Watts into photographic lineups. Gonzalez and his mother both identified Watts as the robber who had removed his mask.

On April 4, 2013, police arrested Watts. He was charged with three counts of first-degree burglary, five counts of first-degree robbery, four counts of second-degree burglary, two counts of second-degree robbery, two counts of third-degree robbery, one count of third-degree burglary, one count of third-degree grand larceny, one count of three-degree criminal possession of stolen property, one count of fourth-degree criminal possession of stolen property, two counts of first-degree unlawful imprisonment, two counts of second-degree attempted assault, one count of second-degree criminal trespass, and three counts of second-degree menacing. Watts told his attorney that on the day of the crime, he had been at an apartment in the Bronx more than a mile away from the site of the robbery. He said he left the apartment sometime between noon and 1 p.m. Watts urged his lawyer to seek surveillance video that would show him leaving that apartment, but by the time an investigator went there, the video had been erased.

While awaiting trial in jail at Rikers Island, Watts and about 30 other individuals were indicted on charges of distributing narcotics.

On April 14, 2014, the woman who had exchanged texts with Gonzalez appeared in Bronx County Supreme Court to plead guilty to first-degree burglary for her role in the robbery of Gonzalez and his mother. During the plea hearing, she interrupted at one point to speak to her lawyer. The lawyer then reported that she said that Watts was not involved in the robbery. The judge refused to accept her guilty plea and threatened her for lying to the court, informing her that she would have to face trial. The defense attorney then noted that the woman was scared and had a low IQ, but was willing to go forward. During questioning by the judge, she identified Watts as the person who had used a gun to strike Gonzalez during the attack. Her plea was accepted.

A year later, still confined at Rikers Island, Watts was offered a plea agreement. The Bronx County District Attorney’s Office offered to allow him to plead guilty to one count each of third-degree criminal sale of a controlled substance and fourth-degree conspiracy on the drug indictment, and one count of second-degree attempted robbery on the robbery indictment. In return, Watts would be sentenced to six years in prison and five year's post-release supervision.

By that time, DNA tests had been performed on the duct tape and a duct tape carboard roll that had been left behind by the robbers. Some of the DNA recovered was a mixture of three people, including Gonzalez and his mother, but the third person was not identified. No comparisons to Watts’s DNA were made at the time.

Watts accepted the offer and on September 10, 2015, he pled guilty and was sentenced to six years. Watts felt as though he had no other choice because no one would listen to him about his innocence of the violent burglary-related offenses and he faced the possibility of a significantly higher sentence if he went to trial on those charges.

In August 2017, a federal prosecutor in New York contacted the Bronx County District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) to report that David Hope, who was being prosecuted in a sex trafficking case, admitted that he had planned and coordinated the attack on Gonzalez and his mother. Hope said that he had been in a car outside the apartment when the robbery occurred, and that Watts was not involved.

Prior to the robbery, Hope had been left a paraplegic by a gunshot and was confined to a wheelchair. He admitted that he began coercing young women to have sex for money and to commit robberies for him.

Risa Gerson, chief of the CIU, began re-investigating the robbery. Prosecutors interviewed Gonzalez and his mother. Gerson also notified the Center for Appellate Litigation, so that the Center could represent Watts.

On August 16, 2018, Watts was released on parole. In October 2018, Scott Henney, an attorney from the Center representing Watts, interviewed Hope at Allenwood Federal Correctional Institution where Hope was serving an 18-year sentence for sex trafficking of a minor. Hope said that Watts was not involved in the robbery of Gonzalez and his mother.

In December 2019, Watts and Henney met with prosecutors. Watts agreed to give a buccal swab to obtain his DNA profile. When Watts’s profile was obtained and compared, he was excluded as being the source of the unidentified male DNA.

On June 22, 2020, a motion to vacate Watts's conviction was filed, outlining the new evidence of his innocence.

Subsequently, Gerson filed a recommendation for dismissal of the case, citing Hope's statement, the DNA evidence, and the woman’s statement prior to her plea that Watts was not involved. Gerson also noted that the identifications of Watts by Gonzalez and his mother were questionable since they asserted that they had been tied up and left in either the bathroom or the bedroom when the robbers left the apartment. “The claim that the robber removed his mask and revealed his identity to the victims does not seem credible,” the recommendation said.

“New and compelling evidence of Watts’[s] innocence has come to light,” the recommendation said. “We believe the conviction cannot stand the scrutiny of due process.”

On July 1, 2020, Bronx County Supreme Court Justice Steven Barrett vacated Watts’s conviction and dismissed the charge. In his order, Justice Barrett noted that “DNA testing performed since the entry of [conviction], in conjunction with other exculpatory evidence, demonstrated a substantial probability that the defendant was actually innocent of the offense of which he was convicted.”

After his exoneration, Watts filed a lawsuit against the City of New York, and received a settlement of $100,000.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 2/16/2021
Last Updated: 6/7/2023
State:New York
Most Serious Crime:Attempt, Violent
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2013
Sentence:6 years
Age at the date of reported crime:20
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Perjury or False Accusation
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes*