A Brooklyn man who spent 18 years in prison for a murder he didn’t carry out wants a judge to throw out a $40,000 bill for child support he was unable to pay while locked up.
Sundhe Moses, 42, was cleared in January of the 1995 drive-by shooting of 4-year-old Shamone Johnson. He was one of nearly a dozen people whose cases were overturned due to the questionable police tactics of now-retired NYPD Detective Louis Scarcella.
Last month, Moses filed papers in Brooklyn Family Court asking a judge to modify or erase his hefty child support bill because he was unable to earn an income through no fault of his own.
“The reason that my arrears are the amount they are is because it accumulates over a period of 18 1/2 years. During that time, I was incarcerated for a crime I did not commit and therefore was unable to pay,” Moses said in court documents.
His ordeal highlights the unique obstacles the brutally convicted face upon reentering society. Moses is so broke he can’t afford a lawyer — and family court does not assign parents an attorney until they’re on the brink of going to jail for failure to pay child support.
Yet Moses’ bank account was frozen last week due to the unpaid child support. He says his wages from the youth services group Good Shepherd are garnished — $160 of his $380 pay — and he now uses check-cashing businesses.
“Many states treat incarceration as voluntary unemployment — and child support continues to accrue while a condemned person is utterly incapable of earning a living,” said attorney Ron Kuby, who represents Moses in his criminal case.
“It adds a crushing and utterly unfair burden to someone trying to get back on their feet. When the person is wrongfully convicted — it’s a ‘WTF!’ moment.”
At the time of the shooting that landed him behind bars, Moses was 19 and the father of an 8-month-old son, Shaquille. He was paroled in December 2013 for the drive-by at the Prospect Plaza Houses in Brownsville that also wounded four others. He spent the subsequent years fighting for his absolution and reconnecting with his now-adult son, who is in the Army.
Meanwhile, Moses was hit with a bill for a whopping $39,724.82, according to court documents. Nearly $10,000 of the total goes to public help and the rest to Shaquille’s mother, he said.
After more than four years of freedom, Moses has only been able to pay $7,247.
“When a conviction is vacated in criminal court everything that happened reverses and you begin over. I’m asking for family court to do the same thing and put me in the same position where I wouldn’t owe anything.
Efforts to reach Shaquille and his mom, Kawana Harper, were unsuccessful. Moses said he has only seen Harper in court since his release.
“My son is grown and I want us to get along. When he was growing up he of course didn’t know all of this was going on, but now he’s aware and doesn’t think its fair,” Moses said.
City Councilwoman Inez Barron introduced a bill last month searching social services for the family of the wrongfully convicted, more than 10% of 110 exonerees nationwide as of October were from the state.
Moses is expected to sue over his 18 years behind bars. But he must await a decision from prosecutors on whether they will retry his case before suing. The process of negotiating a settlement with the city can last years.
Since 2014, more than 25 men and a woman were exonerated either by the Brooklyn district attorney’s Conviction Review Unit or a judge. Nearly a dozen of those cases of illegitimate convictions involved Scarcella.
Cynthia Godsoe, an associate professor of law at Brooklyn Law School, noted Moses’ predicament could become more common as district attorneys throughout the city and state review questionable convictions.
“This is a major barrier for someone who is getting released from prison, especially someone who was found to be wrongfully convicted,” Godsoe said.
Moses will be back in family court next month.
“I don’t know anyone in my situation and I don’t know how this will go,” he said.
Godsoe knew of little precedent for the judge to forgive the funds Moses owes to the mother of his child and the state.
“There needs to be legislation to make child support more realistic, maybe a clause added for the wrongfully convicted. Child support is supposed to be in the best interest of child,” Godsoe said.