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Shuaib O'Neill

Other Queens County, New York exonerations
On November 3, 2006, 22-year-old Shuaib O’Neill and a friend, Shaun Buchanan, were walking to a convenience store in Queens, New York, when an unmarked police car pulled up and an officer ordered them to stop.

Both were pushed against the police car, frisked, and handcuffed. One of the officers, Joseph Cruzado, said he had seen O’Neill toss a bag of marijuana to the ground. And when he frisked O’Neill, Cruzado said he discovered a .380-caliber semi-automatic pistol. O’Neill denied tossing the marijuana or carrying the gun.

At the police station, Cruzado and Sgt. Kevin Matthews asked O’Neill if he knew anything about robberies in the neighborhood or the names of anyone selling guns. O’Neill said he did not. Cruzado, who is white, told O’Neill that he and Buchanan, who are Black, were fortunate they didn’t run. If they had, Cruzado said, he would have shot them.

O’Neill later said that Cruzado promised he would be released if he signed a statement admitting the gun was his and explaining how he got it. O’Neill said Cruzado helped him craft a statement saying O’Neill had found the gun in a bathroom in a park and was planning on turning it over to police when the police stopped him. But instead of being released, O’Neill was charged with possession of a weapon and possession of marijuana. Buchanan was carrying a boxcutter which he used for his job and was charged with possession of a knife.

Buchanan pled guilty and was discharged. O’Neill went to trial in March 2010 in Queens County Supreme Court. He chose to have the case decided by Justice Steven Knopf without a jury.

Cruzado and Matthews both testified. Cruzado testified that he got out of the car and was standing next to O’Neill. He said that while he shined a flashlight on his hands, O’Neill threw what appeared to be a clear plastic bag of marijuana on the ground. Cruzado said that both O’Neill and Buchanan were carrying masks—bandanas—though no masks or bandanas were inventoried in evidence. Cruzado said he handcuffed O’Neill and recovered the gun when he frisked O’Neill. Cruzado read the statement that O’Neill had signed.

Matthews testified that he saw Cruzado holding the gun, but did not see where it came from.

At the close of the prosecution’s case, Justice Knopf indicated that if O’Neill admitted to “temporary and innocent possession” of the gun, there would be no jail sentence.

O’Neill, who had never before been arrested, declined that option. He testified that he had been working as an aide at a nursing home, earning $17 an hour. He said that the gun and the marijuana had been planted. He denied having any bandana or mask. He wept as he recalled the arrest. Buchanan also testified and supported O’Neill’s account. O’Neill’s brother-in-law, a sergeant in the National Guard who had served in Afghanistan, testified that O’Neill’s reputation for telling the truth was “flawless.” An uncle employed in the New York City corrections department testified similarly.

On March 16, 2010, Justice Knopf convicted O’Neill of both charges. A month later, O’Neill was sentenced to three and a half years in prison.

O’Neill was released after serving three years of the sentence. Three years later, in July 2016, the Appellate Division, Second Judicial Department, vacated O’Neill’s convictions and ordered the charges dismissed.

The decision noted that Cruzado “made no mention of the arrest in his memo book, did not call in the arrest, and did not voucher the bandanas or masks allegedly recovered from the defendant and his companion. The arresting officer's partner [Matthews] did not recall if he noted anything about the arrest in his memo book, but acknowledged that he possibly did not. Moreover, [Cruzado’s] case folder, which contained the original of the defendant's written statement, as well as his signed Miranda waiver, was lost.”

Moreover, the appellate court noted that Cruzado had inventoried the marijuana to be tested by the crime lab, as well as the gun. Though Cruzado asked that it be tested to determine that it was a functioning weapon, he did not ask that it be submitted for fingerprint examination or DNA testing to prove that O’Neill had handled it.

The appellate court also took note of a 2014 appellate ruling that vacated the gun possession conviction of Dejuan Battle, who had been accused of throwing away a gun as Cruzado approached.

In the Battle decision, the court said that Cruzado and a partner testified that they saw Battle throw a black object to the ground, which was retrieved by the police from under a car, 12 feet away. The object was a loaded, working handgun.

As occurred in O’Neill’s case, Cruzado’s request for a forensic examination was limited to whether the gun was working. The court noted that Cruzado had admitted at Battle’s trial that he did not send the gun for fingerprint or DNA testing. He said he had personally handled the gun and his hands were sweaty, so "the integrity was lost." And, as in O’Neill’s case, by the time of Battle’s trial, Cruzado had lost the memo book in which he would have made notes concerning the arrest.

At the station house, the police had photographed the gun and placed the photograph on a bulletin board in the anti-crime office. The police placed a caption on the photograph that read "The White Lie," which the officers explained referred to a statement the defendant made at the time of his arrest, to wit, "you didn't get that on me."

The court noted that during cross-examination at the trial, Cruzado acknowledged that when an assistant district attorney asked him if the defendant made any statements upon his arrest, the officer replied "no."

In Battle’s trial, a defense witness testified that she had called the police about a fight involving a man who was carrying a gun. She testified that she saw that individual place a gun under the car—the same car from which Cruzado said he recovered the gun that he claimed Battle had discarded.

The witness said that after police responded to the scene and recovered the gun from under the car, Battle happened to be walking by and was arrested. She testified that she told the police, "that's not the guy, that's the wrong guy," and that other people were saying the same thing, but the police arrested Battle anyway.

In vacating and dismissing O’Neill’s case, the appellate court said that the facts of the Battle case “cast doubt on the arresting officers’ credibility.”

In 2017, O’Neill filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Cruzado and Matthews. The lawsuit spelled out four other instances in which Cruzado had arrested people on false charges of possession of drugs or firearms. The lawsuit was settled in 2020 for $1.7 million.

Cruzado’s misconduct in O’Neill’s case was highlighted in a 2021 article in The New Yorker magazine written by Tom Robbins. The article noted that the city of New York had settled other lawsuits against Cruzado for $900,000 in addition to the settlement with O’Neill, and that Cruzado had never been disciplined.

During an interview for the article, O’Neill said, “I never felt like I was the same person I was before I went to jail.’’ He added, “I want it to be known that just because you are a cop you can’t do everything you like. They’re not perfect. They do bad things, whether they’re in uniform or not.”

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 8/9/2021
Last Updated: 8/9/2021
State:New York
Most Serious Crime:Weapon Possession or Sale
Additional Convictions:Drug Possession or Sale
Reported Crime Date:2006
Sentence:3 years and 6 months
Age at the date of reported crime:22
Contributing Factors:False Confession, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No