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Armond McCloud, Jr.

Other Queens County, New York exonerations
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Shortly before midnight on August 4, 1994, 22-year-old Kei Sunada entered the LeFrak City housing complex in Queens, New York, where he lived in a 17th floor apartment. Minutes later, a tenant called building security to report hearing shots fired in a stairwell of the Columbia building, one of several buildings in the 4,600-unit complex.

A security officer found Sunada on the landing of the fourth-floor stairwell. He had been shot in the head. Though still alive, Sunada was unable to speak. Three days later, he died without regaining consciousness.

Police found his knapsack, with a black shirt hanging out, less than a foot from where Sunada was found. A discharged shell casing was found on the landing. A deformed bullet was recovered from the fifth floor landing. A bullet impression was noted on the wall near the stairs leading up to the fifth floor.

At the time, Sunada was working at a Japanese restaurant, saving money to enroll in a Formula-one race car driving school in California. He was known to use the stairs instead of the elevator to reach his apartment because it was good exercise to go along with his kick-boxing workouts.

Four days after Sunada was shot, on August 8, 1994, 20-year-old Armond McCloud Jr. and 19-year-old Reginald Cameron became suspects based on a statement from a 16-year-old boy identified as L.T., who was arrested for an unrelated robbery. Police said L.T. signed a statement saying he was at a candy store the day after the shooting when he overheard people saying that the gunman was known as “Headcrack.” L.T. knew Headcrack, who he said drove an older model Lincoln with the word “Headcrack” across the top of the windshield, and was also known as Junior. The term “headcrack” referred to a winning throw in the dice game called Cee-Lo.

L.T. said the gunman hung around with someone he knew as Reggie. Police showed him a photograph of McCloud and L.T. identified him as Headcrack. L.T. identified a photograph of Cameron as Reggie. He also identified a photograph of Kendo McDonald as someone who associated with Cameron and McCloud. In November 1993, nearly a year earlier, McDonald and Cameron had been arrested for robbing a man at gunpoint in the development. The charge against Cameron had been dismissed; McDonald was convicted and was on probation.

At about 7 p.m. on August 8, 1994, police found McCloud, Cameron, and McDonald and brought them in for questioning. Placed in separate rooms, none of them made any admissions during the first four hours with six to eight different detectives going in and out of the interrogation rooms.

At about 1:45 a.m., McDonald signed a statement saying that he was in the lobby with McCloud and Cameron when they saw Sunada at the elevator. He said McCloud and Cameron “told me to chill.” He said that Sunada got into the elevator and they “got on the elevator with him. I waited downstairs at the back entrance smoking a cigarette.”

McDonald said that Cameron and McCloud ran down the stairs. He said he saw McCloud put a gun in his waistband. McDonald said he ran with them away from the building. Cameron threw away a wallet as they ran, he said. The following day, according to McDonald, Cameron said that Sunada was fighting McCloud as McCloud was trying to search him. McDonald was subsequently released.

Detective Carlos Gonzalez and Detective Marianne Herbert were the last detectives to interrogate Cameron. Herbert later testified that Cameron eventually gave a statement saying that he and McCloud had gotten into the elevator with Sunada. As the elevator rose, Sunada sensed he was about to be robbed, panicked, and pushed the button for the fourth floor. When the door opened, Sunada got out, followed by McCloud and Cameron. A struggle occurred and Sunada was shot.

Detective Gonzalez would later testify that he then went over the statement with Cameron twice and then, at 3:33 a.m., Cameron signed a written statement. The statement said that Cameron was talking to a girlfriend when McCloud called him into the elevator. Sunada was there. When the elevator stopped on the fourth floor, “Junior [McCloud] then approached the man for his money. The man started moving away and Junior went for his pockets. That’s when the man got louder and louder. Then, all of a sudden, I saw two flashes,” the statement said.

“I heard no noise, but the man fell down,” the statement said. “I then tried to close the elevator door because I knew nothing about [McCloud] having a gun or his intentions of robbing the man.” The statement said McCloud got back in the elevator and they fled. “I’m sorry that the events went the way they did, but I had no knowledge [that] any of this was going to happen.”

Shortly after 5 a.m., McCloud signed a statement saying that he and Cameron and McDonald all got into the elevator. The statement said that when Sunada got off, he “started to fight back and the gun went off by mistake.”

At 8:10 a.m., McCloud gave a videotaped statement to a prosecutor. In this interview, McCloud said that Cameron gave him a gun as McCloud got out of the elevator. He said he was pointing it toward the floor when Sunada had made a defensive karate kick, which “nicked” McCloud’s hand, causing the gun to accidentally discharge. He said at first that Sunada was not carrying anything, but then said—incorrectly—that Sunada was carrying a grocery bag. The interview ended at 8:41 a.m., about 13 hours after McCloud was first arrested.

Cameron also agreed to videotape the statement with an assistant district attorney, which took place shortly after 9 a.m. Cameron gave an uninterrupted narrative that tracked the written statement, including seeing two muzzle flashes. However, when questioned by the prosecutor, Cameron’s answers were vague, inaccurate or unverifiable. He could not, for example, say what time the crime occurred, saying “just starting to get late.” He could not provide a description of the victim, except to say—incorrectly—that “I think I remember him having a plastic bag with him.”

McCloud and Cameron were charged with second-degree murder, robbery, and criminal possession of a firearm.

Defense attorneys for McCloud and Cameron filed motions to suppress the confessions. Testimony was taken over a series of dates beginning in December 1994. Cameron testified that he asked for a lawyer when he was first brought to the station, but detectives ignored him. He said that detectives showed him a wallet in a plastic bag, and said his fingerprints were on it. Cameron also testified, “They said to me that I should implicate Armond McCloud because a third-party, Kendo McDonald, was implicating me and if I had any smarts that I would implicate Armond…they told me all I had to say I was present and I witnessed Armond shoot the deceased.”

He said that eventually he told the detectives what they wanted to hear. His first attempt was insufficient “because I wasn’t able to tell them how many shots were fired and if the deceased had a bag or not.” He said he signed his Miranda warning card just before giving the videotaped statement and not before he gave his oral and written statements.

Several detectives, including Herbert and Gonzalez, denied that Cameron asked for a lawyer and denied that he was not given his Miranda warnings until just before the videotaped statement.

In March 1996, the motions to suppress the confessions were denied. The men were tried separately. On March 11, after a jury was selected, McCloud’s trial opened in Queens County Supreme Court. Witnesses included Detective Gonzalez, who testified about McCloud’s confession. A medical examiner testified that Sunada was shot once in the face and the bullet exited the back of his head.

The defense called Evelyn English, the mother of McCloud’s girlfriend. She testified that her daughter gave birth on August 1, 1994, and came home with the baby on August 3. The boy was her first grandchild, English said. She told the jury that McCloud came over on August 4. English told the jury that McCloud and her daughter went out during the evening and that they returned about 11:15 p.m., accompanied by McCloud’s friend whom she only knew as “Reggie.” She said McCloud left about 11:20 p.m. from their home in the Bronx—13 miles from Lefrak City where Sunada was shot at about the same time.

McCloud’s defense attorney Reginald Towe argued during closing argument that the confession was false. He noted that Sunada’s body was found in the stairwell where the spent bullet and expended shell casing was found. He also said that a lack of blood in the hallway showed the shooting was not there as McCloud’s confession stated.

“That’s the problem with this case from the very beginning,” Towe declared. “They want to make the facts they know fit the statement that they finally extracted from my client.”

Towe urged the jury to “send a message” to Detective Gonzalez. “Let him know that on the next case, make sure that the statement has something to do with the facts in the case,” Towe said.

The prosecution conceded that the shooting occurred in the stairwell, but contended that was not evidence that the confession was false—that McCloud’s statement was his attempt to minimize what happened; claiming the gun discharged accidentally when Sunada karate-kicked his hand.

On March 19, 1996, the jury convicted McCloud of second-degree murder and criminal possession of a firearm. He was acquitted of robbery. On April 15, 1996, at sentencing, McCloud maintained he was innocent and that his confession was false. He said he confessed falsely after the detectives told him that Sunada’s father was a powerful and wealthy man in Japan who would have arranged for McCloud’s murder if he were to be released without being charged. McCloud was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.

On May 13, 1996, a jury was selected in Cameron’s trial in Queens County Supreme Court. The following day, realizing the severity of McCloud’s sentence, Cameron agreed to plead guilty to first-degree robbery. The murder charge was dismissed, and he was sentenced to three years and nine months to 11 years in prison.

In February 1998, the Appellate Division, Second Department, upheld McCloud’s conviction and sentence.

In 2001, McCloud wrote to Queens County District Attorney Richard Brown, saying that he had confessed falsely because of the police threats that Sunada’s family would kill him. “I sat there dumbfounded,” McCloud wrote. “But I thought. And thought. And thought. If I say I did it, I’ll go to Rikers Island but eventually the truth will surface about my innocence in a court of law. Most importantly, I will be safe from whoever this powerful person is [who] is already convinced that I killed his son.”

Nothing came of the letter.

On September 3, 2003, Cameron was released from prison on parole.

McCloud made several attempts to overturn his convictions, filing post-conviction petitions in the state court as well as a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus. All were denied.

A request to conduct DNA testing on scrapings from Sunada’s fingernails produced no evidence. The samples had been collected at autopsy after Sunada had been at the hospital where his hands undoubtedly had been washed.

In 2019, at a parole hearing, McCloud, in a bid to obtain release, disavowed his claim of innocence at his sentencing, apologized to the Sunada family and said, “I accept full responsibility for the crime.” But his admissions, like his confession, did not match the crime—McCloud told the parole hearing that he accidentally shot Sunada believing he was the “pizza guy.” Parole was denied.

In 2021, McCloud appeared again at a parole hearing. He was represented by Rutgers University Law School Professor Laura Cohen, as well as Laura Nirider and Steven Drizin from Northwestern University’s Pritzker Law School’s Center on Wrongful Convictions. The parole board was presented evidence that the confession was false and was based on erroneous police reports that Gonzalez had relied upon when he got involved in the case four days after the shooting.

McCloud retracted his earlier admission, saying, “I was desperate and it was out of fear of dying in prison for something that I did not do.” He noted that for 27 years, “I screamed at the highest mountain top, fought to the highest court that I did not commit this crime and one of the most frustrating things in my life is screaming that I did not commit this crime and people are hearing me but they were not listening.”

McCloud was finally released on parole on January 31, 2023.

By that time, the Queens County District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) was more than two years into a re-investigation of the case at the urging of the lawyers for McCloud. Lawyers for The Legal Aid Society’s Wrongful Conviction Unit came into the reinvestigation subsequently and joined in the request to vacate these convictions.

On August 24, 2023, Bryce Benjet, CIU head, filed a report of its review of the case and concluded that McCloud’s and Cameron’s convictions should be vacated.

In the motion to vacate the convictions, Benjet noted that the initial police investigation made significant errors that ultimately resulted in detectives—specifically Gonzalez—obtaining false confessions from Cameron and McCloud.

The motion noted that in 1989, five years before Sunada was killed, Gonzalez had obtained false confessions from Antron McCray and Kevin Richardson, two of the six youths who were wrongly convicted in sexual assault and savage beating of a woman in what became known as the Central Park Jogger case. McCray and Richardson, as well as Yusef Salaam, Korey Wise and Raymond Santana were exonerated in 2002. The sixth, Steven Lopez, was exonerated in 2022.

In the motion, Benjet said the decision to agree to vacate the convictions was the result of “the confluence of three factors seriously undermining the reliability” of the confessions.

These factors included the discovery that Detective Gonzalez had “elicited multiple false statements” in the cases of McCray and Richardson; the presences of the false facts in the confessions of McCloud and Cameron that were “traceable to [Detective] Gonzalez’s misunderstanding of the facts of the crime as represented in erroneous police reports;” and the use of techniques to obtain the confessions that Detective Gonzalez used in other false confession cases.

The CIU reported that a crime expert, Kevin Parmelee of the New Jersey Institute of Technology, reviewed the evidence. He created a three-dimensional representation of the scene and trajectory of the bullet. Parmelee confirmed that the description of the crime in the confessions was “impossible.”

During an interview with the CIU, McCloud said that Detective Gonzalez had instructed him to just say it was an accident. He said he was thirsty, exhausted, scared and believed his innocence would be revealed in court.

The CIU interviewed English’s daughter, Daidralyn, who was not called as a witness at the trial. She corroborated her mother’s account of seeing McCloud and Cameron at their townhouse in the Bronx at about the same time as Sunada was killed miles away.

The CIU also reported that in a September 2021 interview, L.T. said that the statement attributed to him by police was not true. He said police had told him what to say, had described the victim as “the Chinese guy,” and that he had signed the statement without reading it. L.T. said he was under pressure from police and wanted to go home. He also said the detectives appeared to know who they were looking for, and that he had been promised he could go home if he signed the statement. After he signed it, L.T. said he had been released on a bond secured by his signature. The robbery charge had been dismissed in 1995 when he pled guilty to an unrelated marijuana charge.

The CIU noted that in addition to the false confessions of McCray and Richardson in the Central Park Jogger case, Detective Gonzalez also obtained a false confession from Johnny Hincapie in 1990 in the stabbing of a tourist in the subway. Hincapie was exonerated in 2017.

Evidence that Detective Gonzalez had elicited multiple false confessions in the past “would have dramatically tipped the balance of the evidence” in McCloud’s trial, Benjet declared in the motion. “It is probable that a jury confronted with [Detective] Gonzalez’s history of obtaining multiple false confessions…would have disbelieved McCloud’s confession, credited his alibi, and voted to acquit.”

On August 24, 2023, Queens Supreme Court Justice Michelle Johnson granted the motions. The charges for both men were then dismissed.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 9/12/2023
Last Updated: 9/12/2023
State:New York
County:Queens
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Illegal Use of a Weapon
Reported Crime Date:1994
Convicted:1996
Exonerated:2023
Sentence:25 to life
Race/Ethnicity:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:20
Contributing Factors:False Confession, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No