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Jeremiah Spruill

Other New York County Exonerations
On March 12, 2014, officers with the New York Police Department were conducting a buy-and-bust operation on the western edge of Harlem, just north of Central Park in Manhattan.

At about 3 p.m., the officers arrested 36-year-old Jeremiah Spruill after an undercover officer known as UC39 told his colleagues that Spruill had sold him drugs during a controlled buy. Spruill would later say in a lawsuit that he was searched immediately after his arrest, and the officers did not find any drugs nor any of the marked money used in the buy. All Spruill had in his possession, he said, was $3 and some personal items, including a phone charger and his cellphone.

Based on the information provided by the officers, a prosecutor drafted a complaint against Spruill, charging him with two felony counts of sale of a controlled substance and a misdemeanor count of possession of a controlled substance.

A grand jury met on March 28, 2014. UC39 testified about the controlled buy, and the grand jury indicted Spruill on the two felony counts.

Prior to trial, Spruill’s attorney moved to suppress some of the state’s evidence. At a hearing, UC39 testified that officers arrested Spruill after he broadcast a description of a suspect wearing a “green shirt under a black jacket.”

A judge suppressed UC39’s testimony about the description as too vague to establish probable cause.

At a later hearing, UC39 revised his testimony. Now, he said that he had seen Spruill twice after the alleged drug sale and had told another undercover officer to follow Spruill.

Spruill’s trial in New York County Supreme Court began on November 20, 2014. Around the time of the trial, Spruill’s attorney learned of a lawsuit filed by Kwame Garnett in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York against UC39 and other officers. Garnett alleged that the undercover officer had testified falsely against him at a trial in 2012, although Garnett was acquitted. (Spruill’s attorney brought this information to prosecutors. (On November 21, 2014, a federal jury found that UC39 had fabricated evidence and awarded Garnett $20,001 in damages.)

At Spruill’s trial, UC39 testified about buying drugs from Spruill. The other officers involved in the buy-and-bust operation testified that they didn’t see Spruill sell UC39 drugs.

The assistant district attorney told jurors in her closing argument that UC39 was a solid witness. “We know that Undercover 39 is not going to just say he saw a subject for the sake of apprehending someone to complete his narrative.”

The jury convicted Spruill on both counts on December 2, 2014. He later received a sentence of six years in prison.

Spruill was released from prison on June 29, 2017, pending a filing of a motion to vacate his conviction based on new evidence that undermined the credibility of UC39’s testimony. That motion, filed on November 20, 2017, said that UC39 had a long history of improper drug arrests involving the identification of innocent persons and false testimony at hearings and trials to justify those arrests.

As far back as 2009, UC39 had been named as a defendant in state and federal lawsuits filed by men and women arrested on drug charges. These defendants either had their charges dismissed or were acquitted at trial. The City of New York settled many of these claims without admitting fault. At least 10 lawsuits had been filed against UC39 at the time of Spruill’s trial.

While Spruill’s attorney had learned of the Garnett case, the motion said prosecutors didn’t disclose other cases that could have been used to impeach the officer’s testimony.

In its response, the New York County District Attorney’s Office said that its research indicated that UC39 was a defendant in 17 federal civil-rights lawsuits, including the Garrett case, where the jury found he fabricated evidence. The response said that, “under the circumstances of this case, and given the pivotal role of UC39 at trial, the fair course of action is to consent to a vacatur of defendant’s conviction … [T]he interests of justice would not be served by a retrial.”

Justice Gilbert Hong of New York County Supreme Court granted Spruill’s motion on January 8, 2018, vacating his conviction and dismissing his indictment.

Justice Hong noted in his ruling that the district attorney’s office had adopted a policy of disclosing the existence of civil lawsuits against testifying police officers, but the policy hadn’t been in place at the time of Spruill’s trial.

Spruill later filed state and federal lawsuits against UC39 and other officers involved in his arrest. These lawsuits are still pending as of September 2022.

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 10/3/2022
Last Updated: 10/3/2022
State:New York
County:New York
Most Serious Crime:Drug Possession or Sale
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2014
Sentence:6 years
Age at the date of reported crime:36
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No