Seven years ago, Prakash Churaman was an anonymous teenager begging anyone to listen to his claims of innocence in the murder of his friend, Taquane Clark. Today, Prakash has had his original conviction overturned, and there is growing pressure on Queens DA Melinda Katz to clear his name and drop the charges in advance of his second trial this summer.
The details of Churaman’s case, documented by The Indypendent last year, read like a multi-count indictment of criminal justice ills: juvenile false confessions, violation of the right to a speedy trial, an excessively broad definition of “felony murder” and the waiving of Miranda rights for minors, among others.
Indypendent coverage also raised the issue of potential bias on the part of Judge Kenneth Holder, a former prosecutor with the Queens District Attorney’s office. Unfortunately, Holder’s actions at a special hearing he called on May 10 didn’t do anything to dispel those concerns.
The atmosphere at the hearing did not resemble the legal system that children are taught about in school, in which a neutral judge presides over arguments between opposing attorneys. Instead, the prosecutor barely spoke as Holder and Churaman’s attorney Jose Nieves engaged in repeated shouting matches, while in the gallery executive members of the District Attorney’s office nodded and smirked whenever the judge berated the defense.
Holder called the hearing in response to a story by Hell Gate reporter Max Rivlin-Nadler about a $2 million settlement that New York City agreed to pay two men who were wrongfully accused after detectives Daniel Gallagher and Barry Brown “ignored critical and exonerating evidence” that could have proved their innocence.
Gallagher and Brown are the same detectives who extracted a confession from Prakash Churaman, who has since said he was coerced. Since-retired Brown is also the detective behind the equally controversial confession of Chanel Lewis in the high-profile murder of Karina Vetrano.
With no physical evidence connecting Churaman to the murder scene, his confession was the prosecution’s primary evidence along with testimony from Clark’s grandmother that she recognized his voice during the home invasion. So it would have been reasonable to wonder if Judge Holder called the hearing to ask if the prosecution still had a case now that the most critical piece of evidence had been discredited.
Instead, it quickly became clear that the hearing was called not to discuss the improper actions of Gallagher and Brown, but about those actions being made known to the public. Judge Holder was upset that the Hell Gate report referred to expert testimony on how Gallagher and Brown had used flawed techniques to obtain then-15-year-old Churaman’s confession. How, the judge demanded of Nieves, could information about this testimony have found its way into the press?
Holder’s anger might have stemmed from the fact that this was the very testimony on juvenile false confessions that he had refused to allow the defense to present in Churaman’s first trial in 2018 — and that this refusal was found to be unwarranted two years later by the New York Supreme Court Appellate Division Second Department and was the basis for Churaman’s conviction being overturned.
Nieves denied leaking any evidence to the press and argued that, precisely because the issue of the expert testimony had been taken up by the Appellate Division Second Department, information about it was publicly accessible online — something that Rivlin-Nadler affirmed in a second article.
Holder nonetheless issued a protective order, at his own discretion, that bars Churaman from having personal access to the evidence in his own case. The order only allows Churaman, who is under house arrest, to view evidence while in his lawyer’s office, a major blow for someone who has been his own primary advocate for the past seven years.
For at least one veteran of the city’s criminal justice system, Holder’s order seemed extreme. “I don’t think I’ve ever had a situation in almost 37 years of practicing in New York criminal courts where the court prohibited a defendant from having access to evidence against him,” says Michael Letwin, a veteran defense attorney with Legal Aid Society.
There are times when protective orders are issued to prevent defendants from having and disseminating personal information that could be sensitive to witnesses and alleged victims. But Holder’s order, in this case, seems to have been issued based on an unwarranted suspicion that Churaman is leaking information to the press — and that that information concerns the misconduct of two NYPD detectives.
This is not the first time that Holder complained in court about press criticism of his or the prosecution’s conduct in the Churaman case. During a hearing last February, the judge complained about his unfair portrayal in our Indypendent story and criticized Nieves for being quoted in the article.
At the hearing, Holder argued that his concern is that negative press coverage might taint the jury pool. With all due respect to the importance of independent media, it seems far-fetched that a few articles in The Indypendent and Hell Gate will influence potential jurors nearly as much as the daily barrage of violent crime headlines in city tabloids.
Plus, as Churaman told The Indypendent, “the DA’s charges against me poisons the jury pool against me. Keeping me incarcerated for four to six years and imposing protective orders hinders my ability to fight these charges.”
In addition to the mention of the testimony about false confessions, Holder sharply challenged Nieves for expressing surprise to Hell Gate about a $2 million settlement when he should have already been given that information from the prosecution. Nieves objected that while he was given a case caption and index number, he didn’t know that the DA’s office “dismissed a homicide case against two defendants based on the fact that the detective coerced one witness to falsely testify.”
Holder appeared to be questioning Nieves’ capacity to litigate Churaman’s case, but Churaman told The Indypendent that the judge “has to remember that my attorney is an 18B lawyer [assigned by the courts] who doesn’t have the resources like the Queens DA’s office to interrogate every document.”
The disagreement at the hearing is part of a larger struggle in the courts over how to implement 2020 reforms to New York’s discovery laws that require prosecutors to share more information with defendants and their attorneys. These reforms came in response to decades of prosecutorial misconduct that led to convictions of innocent people and a string of recent exonerations in Queens Criminal Court.
The Daily News reported that the city has had to pay $17.5 million in settlements over prosecutorial misconduct under former Queens District Attorney Richard Brown, who apparently knew of the misconduct yet didn’t stop it for the sake of conviction rates.
Last year, a group of law professors launched a broadside against Queens prosecutors, making public a list of active grievances of misconduct against sitting prosecutors of the Queens District Attorney — and earning swift retaliation from the New York City Law Department.
For Prakash Churaman, the battle is taking place both inside and outside the courtroom. On the morning of his hearing, supporters and organizations such as DRUM, HOLLA and the Party for Socialism and Liberation, rallied outside the Queens criminal courthouse and chanted for Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz, who recently identified herself as a progressive prosecutor, to drop the charges.
“Prakash is an example of a system that has failed, that is ripping families apart,” said City Councilmember Shekar Krishnan. “It is a court system that has failed us and a court system that participates in this injustice is complicit in that failure. Joergen Ostensen, a member of the Free Prakash Alliance, wrote in the San Francisco Bay View that “Katz considers herself to be a progressive…the reality is that she stands to lose a lot if Prakash is exonerated because that would open the door to civil lawsuits where settlements can be in the millions.”
Churaman’s next court hearing is set for June 6, when Judge Holder will rule on several motions, including the prosecution’s own motion for a protective order on Churaman’s defense. The retrial of Churaman’s case is likely to begin in the summer. The Free Prakash Alliance will be holding rallies outside his hearings.
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