Lawyer Casts Doubt on Boy’s Statements About Murder of Barnard Student – The New York Times

Lawyer Casts Doubt on Boy’s Statements About Murder of Barnard Student – The New York Times

A defense lawyer for a 13-year-old boy accused in the killing of a Barnard College student last week contended on Tuesday that detectives had badgered and yelled at the boy during an interrogation after he was arrested.

The boy told investigators that he and two of his classmates had gone into Morningside Park on Wednesday night specifically to rob people and that one of his friends had stabbed the woman, Tessa Majors, 18, as they mugged her.

But during a hearing in Family Court, a public defender, Hannah Kaplan, sought to cast doubt on the reliability of the boy’s statements, suggesting a detective had yelled at the boy and asked leading questions after the boy repeatedly denied knowing his friends intended to rob Ms. Majors. The boy’s uncle was present but no lawyer was.

Later, the Legal Aid Society, which is representing the boy, said in a statement: “We are absolutely troubled by the fact that our client was questioned and interrogated by police without an attorney present. We must ensure that our client’s constitutional rights are not violated.”

The killing of Ms. Majors came as the city’s murder rate has reached a record low, and it has jarred the city and evoked an earlier era of high crime.


The killing was highly unusual because the suspects are so young. The boys who the police believe were involved are eighth-grade students at P.S. 180, a public middle school on 120th Street near Morningside Avenue located across the street from the park, according to four public officials who have been briefed on the case, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an open investigation.

When people that young are accused, an entirely different judicial process commences, one that barely resembles the familiar procedures in criminal court for adults.

The case rests, primarily, on a confession the police obtained from the 13-year-old boy, whom The Times is not naming because he is not charged as an adult, and videos of the three teenagers entering and leaving the park.

Investigators also have a grainy video that shows a scuffle at the bottom of the steps where Ms. Majors was attacked and a person “making poking motions toward the victim,” Detective Wilfredo Acevedo testified at the probable cause hearing on Tuesday.

The video came from a camera on top of a security booth on Morningside Drive, he said. It provides a view of the robbery from a southeast angle and does not show the 13-year-old touching Ms. Majors or taking anything from her.

Detective Acevedo said that the 13-year-old had told him that he and two 14-year-old friends had gone to Morningside Park after dark to mug people when they spotted Ms. Majors walking alone along the steps shortly before 7 p.m. The park, he said, was “extremely dark.”

One of the two 14-year-olds grabbed Ms. Majors from behind, the detective said. Then they rifled through her pockets and took a small plastic bag away from her. Ms. Majors fought back and yelled for help. One of the boys, who had a knife, stabbed her in the torso and slashed her on the face, Detective Acevedo said. She bit one boy’s finger, another officer said last week.

The 13-year-old described to the police how the feathers from her coat fluttered to the ground. The boys fled. She staggered up a flight of stairs and out of the park, where a police officer found her, bleeding and gasping on the sidewalk.

Questioning Detective Acevedo, Ms. Kaplan, the public defender, brought out that the 13-year-old had repeatedly said during the interview that he did not know his friends were going to rob Ms. Majors. “He told you it about 10 times, is that correct?” she asked.

“That is correct,” the detective said.

Video taken from cameras at 116th and 118th Streets and Morningside Avenue shows the boys trailing a man shortly before they encountered Ms. Majors. The 13-year-old told detectives that the group had decided against robbing the man, the police have said.

Officer Ena Lewis testified on Tuesday that she found Ms. Majors facedown in the crosswalk near 116th Street and Morningside Drive. She said the young woman was bloodied and was “breathing as if trying to catch her breath.”

The police used video to track the boys to their residences, where they recovered knives, though it remained unclear if any of those blades is the murder weapon, the public officials briefed on the case said. In addition, a folding knife with a four-inch blade was found in the park and was being tested for DNA and fingerprints.

A police union official had said that Ms. Majors went into the park to buy marijuana, but her family disputed that account, calling it a “deeply inappropriate” statement that amounted to “irresponsible public speculation.”

Investigators tried to interview one of the 14-year-olds with his lawyer and mother present, but he invoked his right to remain silent and was released, three of the officials said.

Under New York State law, prosecutors cannot win a conviction against someone solely on testimony of someone else who also participated in the crime. They must present additional corroborating evidence.

A second 14-year-old suspect, believed by the police to be the one who stabbed Ms. Majors, has yet to be located, the officials said. He jumped out of a car on Monday while on his way to meet with detectives, The New York Post reported, setting off an extensive manhunt in Harlem.

The hearing on Tuesday was to determine if there was enough evidence to allow the case to go forward, a step in Family Court procedure for juveniles akin to a grand jury hearing.

Ms. Kaplan argued that the case should be dismissed. “My client was not involved in the stabbing or in possession of any weapon,” Ms. Kaplan told the Family Court judge, Carol Goldstein, adding that her client does not have a criminal record. She said the boy was simply present at the time of the attack and was too far away to see anything clearly.

But a lawyer representing the city, Rachel Glantz, noted that the boy told investigators that the group intended to rob people. The boy had picked up a knife his friend dropped, Ms. Glantz said, and returned it to him “with the understanding the knife would be used in the course of a robbery.”

Though minors charged with intentional murder may be tried as adults in New York, the 13-year-old boy must be prosecuted as a “juvenile delinquent” in Family Court because he is facing a charge of felony murder: He is not accused of intentionally stabbing Ms. Majors but of taking part in the robbery during which she was killed.

A fact-finding hearing — which takes the place of a trial in criminal court — must start within two weeks of the boy’s first court appearance, though there are exceptions. The city Law Department serves as the prosecution and a Family Court judge, not a jury, will decide the case.

In Family Court, a youth found guilty of committing a crime receives a juvenile adjudication and a disposition — the equivalent of a “sentence” in criminal court. Depending on the charge, the penalty for the teenager can be up to 18 months in a juvenile facility or up to five years in a restricted placement facility.

Judge Goldstein ruled that there was enough evidence to proceed and ordered the 13-year-old to be held in custody until the next hearing. She said the boy’s statements to the police showed that “he intended to commit a robbery” and noted that the boy had picked up “the knife that was ultimately used to stab the victim.”

Ashley Southall contributed reporting.

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