A man convicted of raping a Manhattan woman nearly 30 years ago was recently cleared of all charges, and now, he says that someone has to pay for his years of being labeled a violent sex offender. NY1's Dean Meminger filed the following report.
Although Johnnie O'Neal has been out of prison for nine years, it's still painful for him to think about his time being locked up.
"Some nights, I would just cry every day," he said.
In 1984, O'Neal was living in the Douglass Houses on Columbus Avenue. There had been a series of rapes in the area, and after a woman was raped at knifepoint on the roof of his building, she identified O'Neal as her attacker.
He said he told everyone he was not guilty, and when then-Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau offered him a plea deal of two years, he refused. O'Neal said he wouldn't admit to a crime he didn't commit.
"My lawyer took me out in the corridor and told me, 'This is the deal,' and I said, 'Listen, man, I don't want to hear it. I want my day in court,'" O'Neal said. "And that was the beginning of this nightmare."
He was convicted and spent almost 14 years in prison before being paroled as a convicted sex offender, but his lawyer said he was sent back to do more time after some minor parole violations. All that time, he continued to fight the rape conviction.
When current Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.'s office got involved, it found major problems with the case.
"One of the victims of one of the other rapes identified Mr. O'Neal, said 'I know Johnnie O'Neal. I grew up with Johnnie O'Neal. He was not the man who raped me,'" said Derek Sells, O'Neal's attorney. "And that was never divulged to Mr. O'Neal or his lawyers."
His lawyers said the woman O'Neal was accused of raping gave conflicting statements when re-interviewed.
In June, after a nearly 30-year legal battle, he was exonerated.
Q: How difficult is it sitting in prison and knowing you're innocent and no one's listening?
O'Neal: It's very difficult, very difficult emotionally. It's very difficult. You just have to be strong.
Now, O'Neal and his attorneys are planning a lawsuit once they determine who's to blame for all the years he lost behind bars.