In the fall of 1992, Earl Walters, then 17, was brought to a Queens police station and questioned as a witness in a carjacking and murder. Mr. Walters was then interrogated for 16 hours, without a lawyer present, about something else: the robberies, abductions and assaults of two women. Eventually, he confessed to being a “reluctant participant” in those crimes.
Two years later, two other young men sat in interrogation rooms in Queens. The men, Armond McCloud and Reginald Cameron, had been arrested in the fatal shooting of Kei Sunada, a 22-year-old Japanese immigrant, in the stairwell of his apartment building in LeFrak City. After being questioned through the night, Mr. McCloud, then 20, and Mr. Cameron, then 19, confessed.
All three would later recant, saying investigators had coerced them into taking responsibility for the crimes.
Mr. Walters was convicted and served 20 years in prison before he was paroled in 2013. Mr. McCloud served 29 years before his release in January; Mr. Cameron pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and served about nine years before his parole in 2003.
On Thursday, nearly three decades later, a large courtroom in State Supreme Court in Queens was filled with supporters of the three men as each took his turn before the judge, Michelle A. Johnson, who threw out the convictions.
“In 1994, people did not believe that there was such a thing as a false confession,” said Elizabeth Felber, supervising attorney of the Wrongful Conviction Unit at the Legal Aid Society and Mr. Cameron’s lawyer. “But unfortunately, today, we’re learning it was all too common.”
Earlier, prosecutors in Queens and the men’s lawyers had filed joint motions asking the judge to vacate their convictions, saying the men’s confessions were coerced and riddled with inconsistencies, including inaccuracies based on an interrogator’s misunderstanding of a case.
They pointed out that a detective who investigated two of the men, Carlos Gonzalez, was also connected to wrongful convictions in the Central Park Five case and a notorious murder in a Manhattan subway station in the early 1990s.
Mr. McCloud’s case was the first one Justice Johnson addressed. As the prosecutor, Bryce Benjet, spoke, Mr. McCloud, dressed in a gray suit and glasses, with his dreadlocks in a high bun, sat with his elbows on the table, watching a monitor in front of him intently.
When he stood to speak, Mr. McCloud became emotional.
“Ten thousand six hundred and seven days. That equates to 29 years and 15 days exactly,” Mr. McCloud said. “I’ll be the first to tell you that those 29 years were not kind to me.”
Sitting several rows behind him, Mr. Cameron began to cry.
When it was his turn to speak, Mr. Cameron, who had pleaded guilty to first-degree robbery in Mr. Sunada’s death in exchange for the dismissal of murder charges, told the court how the conviction irrevocably changed his life.
Although he is happy that his name has been cleared, “it doesn’t fix things,” he said. “It doesn’t fix this scar on my face,” he said, pointing to a thick line about four inches long across his right cheek — a wound he got in prison. “I suffer from depression because of it,” he told Justice Johnson.
Since 1989, about 400 of 3,361 total exonerations nationwide have involved false confessions, according to data maintained by the National Registry of Exonerations. The group lists at least 230 exonerations for New York City since 1989.
In recent years, prosecutors in the city have sought the dismissal of hundreds of convictions tied to police officers who have themselves been convicted of crimes related to their work. Since the Queens district attorney’s office launched a Conviction Integrity Unit in 2020, 102 convictions — including the three on Thursday — have been vacated, according to a news release. Eighty-six of the convictions were tied to police misconduct.
“Fairness in the criminal justice system means we must re-evaluate cases when credible new evidence of actual innocence or wrongful conviction emerges,” the district attorney, Melinda Katz, said in a statement.
The cases before Justice Johnson on Thursday both involved coerced confessions, prosecutors said.
During his interrogation, Mr. Walters recorded a video statement that included “assertions that were at odds with the accounts of the victims and with the other evidence in the case,” prosecutors said this week. Still, he was arrested, arraigned and indicted. Before his trial, he tried and failed to get his confession suppressed from evidence, saying it had been coerced.
In the weeks after his arrest, there had been three carjackings with similar circumstances to the ones he had been charged with. Three men had eventually been charged in those cases, and two of them were later linked, using fingerprint evidence, to the crimes for which Mr. Walters was imprisoned, according to court filings and prosecutors.
Justice Johnson said the facts of Mr. Walters’s case were “particularly troubling.”
“As I sit here, I’m really, honestly baffled,” she said. Detectives and prosecutors ignored “glaring red flags” in the investigation, she said, and she apologized to Mr. Walters.
“The 1994 district attorney’s office failed to honor its obligation, to honor its search for the truth, no matter where it leads,” she said, adding that the “carelessness and indifference” shown in the case “shocks the consciousness.”
In the killing of Mr. Sunada in 1994, Mr. McCloud and Mr. Cameron were brought in after a 16-year-old who was being questioned in an unrelated robbery told the police that he had heard that someone who fit Mr. McCloud’s description had committed the murder.
After more than eight hours of interrogation, they confessed. But their statements contained glaring inaccuracies about the circumstances of the shooting, prosecutors said in court. They said Mr. Sunada had been shot in a hallway, when he had been found in a stairwell. Mr. Cameron indicated that there had been two gunshots, when evidence showed only one.
Their descriptions echoed reports written by Mr. Gonzalez, a detective in the Sunada case. The same errors also appeared in the initial police paperwork, according to prosecutors, which was “evidence that these facts were supplied” by Detective Gonzalez.
“The crime scene that the confession described is an impossibility,” said Laura Nirider, a false confessions expert who is one of Mr. McCloud’s lawyers. “And now we know why. The confession was, in fact, so wrong, it was scripted by a team of officers.”
Both men later recanted. Mr. McCloud said in 2021 that he had confessed because he was thirsty and exhausted, and because he was convinced his innocence would become clear in court.
After his conviction was voided on Thursday — the day before his fourth wedding anniversary — Mr. Walters stood outside the courtroom with his family, wearing a blue suit he said he had kept pressed and ready for months in hopeful anticipation.
He felt confident, he said. He had known this day was coming for 30 years.
But it is rare for a judge to detail the failures in a case and to apologize the way Justice Johnson did to Mr. Walters, said his lawyers, Glenn Garber and Rebecca Freedman of the Exoneration Initiative, a nonprofit that represents convicted people who say they were wrongfully convicted.
For Mr. Walters, the judge’s apology was renewing.
“Now I can have, like, ground zero to start from,” he said.