Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content

Jean Cantave

Other Queens County , New York exonerations
On November 25, 2006, 42-year-old Jean Cantave was arrested on charges of raping a tenant who was living in his home in Queens, New York.

The woman had come to New York from Haiti and Cantave, who had emigrated from Haiti, agreed to allow her to stay in a room in the home. The woman claimed that Cantave came to her room to talk about non-payment of rent and for heating bills and that he sexually assaulted her.

The woman’s initial report came on the morning of November 24 after her father called her and wanted to know why she had failed to come to see him and her mother on Thanksgiving—which also was her mother’s birthday that year. She said she had been assaulted by Cantave. Her father drove down from Westchester, New York, and took her to a police station to file a report. The woman, who was in her 20’s, was then taken to a hospital for an examination.

At the hospital, the woman gave varying accounts of what happened. At one point, she said Cantave shoved her down a flight of cement stairs leading from the kitchen to the basement and stabbed her in the abdomen with a barbeque fork, although she had no apparent bruises or scrapes or stab wounds. Her account of the sexual assault began with her saying that he penetrated her with his fist. But then she said he didn’t penetrate her and finally said he penetrated her “a little bit” with his penis through a hole in her pajamas.

In June 2008, Cantave went to trial in Queens County Supreme Court. At the prosecution’s request, his defense lawyer stipulated that no semen was found on the pajamas.

The woman testified that during an ordeal that lasted from one to two hours, she was stabbed with the fork (although there was no evidence of any wounds), pushed down the stairs and that he had inserted his penis in her vagina through the hole in her pajamas. She said he also groped her breasts as she struggled.

Cantave testified and denied the allegations. He said he had spent Thanksgiving with his sister, a few miles away from his home.

On June 23, 2008, Cantave was convicted of rape and sexual abuse. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

In April 2011, the Second Department Appellate Division reversed the conviction and ordered a new trial. The court ruled that Cantave’s defense lawyer had provided an inadequate legal defense by failing to use the medical reports of the woman’s various accounts to impeach her testimony.

“Here, the People's case against the defendant turned largely upon the credibility of the complainant, and the hospital records containing her prior inconsistent statements were received into evidence and readily available to trial counsel,” the appellate court said. “However, [defense] counsel made no attempt to impeach the complainant at trial with her inconsistent statements regarding whether penile penetration occurred, despite the fact that such penetration is an essential element of rape in the first degree.

“Furthermore, although the credibility of the complainant's testimony that she had been raped was the primary focus of [defense] counsel's brief and perfunctory summation, he failed to call to the jury's attention the inconsistent statements contained in the hospital records,” the court said. “We can perceive no strategic or legitimate tactical explanation for defense counsel's failure to highlight, particularly in his summation, prior inconsistent statements which, if properly utilized, may have cast doubt on the complainant's testimony that the defendant penetrated her with his penis, and on her entire account of the incident.”

Cantave was assigned a new defense attorney for his retrial—Lori Zeno from Queens Defenders. Zeno asked to view the pajamas. The prosecution said—as it had during the appeals process—that the pajamas could not be located. However, when Zeno said she would request a jury instruction that the evidence was missing through the fault of the prosecution, the pajamas were suddenly located in an evidence locker. Zeno discovered that there was no hole in the pajamas.

She further learned that when the complainant testified before the grand jury, she reported that nothing had been taken as evidence by police from Cantave’s home where she said the assault occurred. At the prosecutor’s direction, she had retrieved the pajamas that were turned over to the lab, Zeno learned.

Zeno then requested the forensic records which had been stipulated to at the first trial. She discovered that when the pajamas were sent to the lab, a technician reached out to the detective on the case to inquire which tests should be performed. The technician wrote in the notes that the detective said no tests should be done because “this was no rape.”

Zeno also discovered that the prosecution had turned over phone records for Cantave’s phone prior to the first trial which the defense had failed to utilize, apparently because they did not support Cantave’s account that he was at his sister’s home for Thanksgiving. Zeno investigated and determined that the records were for the wrong phone—there was one digit incorrectly recorded. The phone number belonged to a woman in Manhattan. Zeno obtained the correct phone numbers and cell phone tower analysis showed that in fact Cantave was not near his own home and was near his sister’s home as he had always claimed.

Armed with this evidence, Cantave went to trial a second time in February 2012. At the conclusion of the trial, the jury acquitted Cantave and he was released.

In 2009, Cantave had been convicted of misdemeanor assault arising from an incident involving an acquaintance at Cantave’s used car lot in Queens. Cantave claimed Andre Elbresius attacked him while Elbresius said Cantave instigated the fight. Among the injuries, Elbresius lost a part of his ear that was bitten off and Cantave suffered a broken nose. That conviction was overturned in 2013 and, represented by Zeno, the assault charge was dismissed in 2014.

– Maurice Possley

Report an error or add more information about this case.

Posting Date: 12/19/2021
Last Updated: 12/19/2021
State:New York
Most Serious Crime:Sexual Assault
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2006
Sentence:20 years
Age at the date of reported crime:42
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No