Seventy-five people rallied in front of the Queens Criminal Courthouse on Monday, May 3 to demand that Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz drop all charges against Prakash Churaman, whose overturned 2018 murder conviction has spurred growing questions about the extent of police, prosecutorial and judicial misconduct across the borough.
Churaman was sent to Rikers Island prison at the age of 15 on the charge of taking part in a home invasion that resulted in the murder of his friend Taquane Clark. The primary evidence? A witness’s claim that she recognized his voice and a confession that Prakash says was coerced by police detective Barry Brown.
The initial conviction was overturned by an Appeals Court which found that Judge Kenneth Holder had improperly barred Churaman’s lawyers from calling before the jury an expert on the unreliability of juvenile confessions. It wasn’t until more than a year later that Judge Holder, who was prodded by a growing grassroots movement that Churaman had built for himself, granted Churaman bail so that he could go home for the first time in six years as he awaits his retrial.
There have now been three rallies for Churaman, each one larger than the last. At this most recent rally, activists made connections between Churaman’s case and that of Chanel Lewis, convicted in 2019 for the murder and sexual assault of Karina Ventrano, a highly publicized case that many critics say was marked by egregious misconduct.
“I commend Prakash for having the courage to refuse to have his name slandered to comfort racial injustice,” said Mo Glover, an organizer with the campaign to overturn Lewis’ conviction. “He refused to take anything less than his freedom and his name back. “Chanel Lewis’s case is very similar to Prakash.”
Both Lewis and Churaman were convicted in part on the basis of confessions that they say were coerced by detective Barry Brown. And both were prosecuted by former head of homicide in Queens DA office Brad Leventhal, who was recently forced to resign after an investigation found that in 1996 he had hidden police reports and other evidence pointing to the innocence of three men who were found guilty of murdering a store owner and an off-duty police officer. The men served 24 years in prison before their convictions were vacated in April due to prosecutorial misconduct. (In 2019, Theodore Hamm reported for The Indypendent that Leventhal withheld evidence from the defense during Chanel Lewis’s retrial.)
When Melinda Katz ran for DA in 2019, she was the favored choice of the Democratic machine that has handpicked judges and prosecutors in Queens for generations. Katz unexpectedly found herself in a dogfight against the progressive campaign of public defender Tiffany Cabán. Eager to court progressive votes, Katz pledged to establish a Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) to review some of the cases of those imprisoned by her controversial predecessor Richard Brown — and she told WNYC’s Brian Lehrer that she would see if Lewis should be one of the cases reviewed.
A year and a half later, the CIU has helped to uncover Leventhal’s misdeeds, but Katz remains silent on Lewis and Churaman. The new DA may be reluctant to shine too bright a light on the secrets of the Richard Brown regime. But many of those secrets are incarcerated human beings with families and supporters.
Prakash Churaman’s conviction has already been overturned, but supporters are demanding that Katz drop charges and not put him and his family through another trial. His next court date is July 14. According to his lawyer Jose Nieves, the prosecution has “indicated they’re going to object again to our expert witnesses.”
Nieves told the Indypendent that he wants to call at least three expert witnesses: one on juvenile forced confessions, another on earwitness reliability (to challenge the other primary evidence against Churaman) and a third on the vulnerabilities of Churaman when he was interrogated as a 15-year-old who had already been put through the juvenile system and family court.
One hurdle Churaman faces is that these challenges will be heard by the same judge, Kenneth Holder, whose refusal to allow key defense testimony was the basis of the first trial being overturned. In addition to prosecutorial misconduct, another major issue raised at the May 3 rally is the role of trial judges who are supposed to be a check on overzealous prosecutors.
The judge in the Lewis trial was Michael Aloise, a former prosecutor whose daughter works in the Queens DA office and who reportedly wore purple ties during the trial to demonstrate solidarity with the victim’s family. Like Aloise, Holder is a former prosecutor in the Queens DA office. Given how much the criminal justice system depends on judicial impartiality, it seems at least worth questioning whether judges can truly be impartial when one side is their former co-workers and the other side are the lawyers they used to go up against.
The Indypendent’s previous coverage of Prakash Churaman’s case noted that Holder has had 27 convictions reversed on appeal. Holder didn’t appreciate the scrutiny. During Churaman’s previous court date in February, Holder complained about the Indy article and even chastised attorney Nieves for allowing himself to be quoted in it.
Churaman vows to continue fighting for his own freedom and to organize more rallies to increase the pressure on the Queens DA. His refusal to plead guilty to a crime he says he did not commit in exchange for a lesser sentence has inspired other victims of the mass incarceration machine to join him at rallies and start speaking out. One of those people is Aaron, a member of the Free Prakash Alliance who spoke at the rally about his own traumatic teenage experience with the NYPD:
“I wish I was as courageous as Prakash because I plead out. I thought if I go to trial it’s over for me … My Mom is sitting there crying in the court saying just do what they say. Because that’s what they do – they get not just you but every single person around you to break. That’s the most regrettable thing I ever did in my life is plea to something I never did. But can you claim me? They got over me once. And I’m not letting it happen to him.”
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