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In 2014, at the age of 15, Prakash Churaman was arrested at his home at 6AM without a warrant. After driving him around for a few hours, police brought Churaman to the 113th Precinct and, as Churaman and his attorney maintain, coerced a confession out of him for a crime he did not commit. As reported in the Queens Daily Eagle, “Prosecutors say Churaman was one of the gunmen in a robbery gone wrong when Churaman, alongside two others, allegedly broke into his friend’s home and ended up fatally shooting [Taquane] Clark and injuring one other. An elderly woman who lived in the home during the robbery later told police that she recognized Churaman’s voice and identified him as one of the suspects. Her testimony, which is at the crux of the prosecution’s case, has been called into question by Churaman’s attorney.” Even after the court overturned Churaman’s conviction, he is still fighting to clear his name and is now facing a second trial after declining to take a plea deal.

In this episode of Rattling the Bars, Eddie Conway talks with Churaman and his attorney Jose Nieves about how the criminal justice system railroads juveniles into false confessions, and about the ongoing fight to get all charges against Churaman dropped.

Pre-Production/Studio/Post Production: Cameron Granadino


Transcript

Eddie Conway:        Welcome to this episode of Rattling the Bars. Recently, we have been looking at Rikers Island and the conditions up there. One case caught our attention, that’s the case of Prakash Churaman. And so today, joining me is Prakash Churaman and his lawyer Jose Nieves. Thanks for joining me.

Jose Nieves:          Thank you for having us. Prakash is very happy to be here, and so am I. And we hope that this will be a productive discussion.

Eddie Conway:             Okay. Let’s start with what happened, Prakash? How did you wind up in this predicament?

Prakash Churaman:        NYPD came to my home, to my residence, at the age of 15, four days after an alleged crime took place two blocks away from where I lived at that time. And due to the fact that an elderly woman made claims that she recognized my voice, that gave NYPD probable cause to “apprehend me” and take me into custody. That was four days after this alleged crime took place. At approximately 6:00 AM in the morning I was apprehended in my basement apartment. I was living with my mother at the time in Jamaica, Queens. I think it was literally like –

Jose Nieves:                   I think it’s important to also make note that at 15 years old, you have detectives knocking on this young man’s door, 6:00 AM in the morning. They don’t know what’s going on. His mother is shocked by the entry of these police officers in their home. And they grabbed him. They put him in a van for over three hours and then they brought him to the precinct and began an interrogation that lasted multiple hours. I mean, it was an extended interrogation of a 15-year-old who had just woken up, thrown in the back of a van, driven around. And when his mother got there she was told mistruths, half truths, just outright misinformation. And they were using that to try to get her to manipulate him.

So just think about that if you have children at home, a 15-year-old under those extreme circumstances, what could possibly happen. And unfortunately in this case after many, many hours of interrogation, Mr. Churaman had made some incriminating statements. But even statements that he did make were not a full admission to any type of criminal activity whatsoever. But unfortunately after the long interrogation he did make some statements. And this is a case that really highlights how juveniles are really railroaded by the criminal justice system. And he had to spend six years in jail before I took the case and was able to get him released on bail and assigned to home confinement. It happens all the time. It’s very sad. And it really cries out for attention to how we’re dealing with our young people in this criminal justice system.

Eddie Conway:              Yeah. In fact, I see in the exoneration of a lot of people, and thousands of people are exonerated every year in this country, every year at least 2000 or more are exonerated. And the statistics show that probably almost a quarter of them are confessions that’s been forced or intimidated by the police department, particularly on juveniles. How did you feel at that time when they were interrogating you?

Prakash Churaman:         I honestly felt trapped. Prior to being brought in that small interrogation room I was handcuffed to a metal bar in the precinct for about two hours waiting for my mother to arrive at the precinct. And I honestly as soon as I entered the interrogation room itself, I felt like the walls were literally getting closer and closer and closer to me. Especially as the interrogation with these two NYPD detectives, who also, in fact, have prior misconduct within their own departmental policies and within the NYPD. Like I said, I felt intimidated. I felt pressured. And I literally was broken down mentally, physically, until I literally said whatever they wanted to hear.

Eddie Conway:                 Yeah. I understand they even encouraged your mother to encourage you to cooperate without her really having all the facts and circumstances. When was it you decided to reach out to your lawyer, Jose, and try to rectify this?

Jose Nieves:                  Marshall, on that point that they used the mother as a leverage in the interrogation, it’s not even our own perspectives that they improperly used his mother in the interrogation. The Second Department Appellate Division, which is the higher court in this case that overturned Mr. Churaman’s first conviction, basically put in writing in their opinion that the use of his mother in the interrogation was improper and possibly lead to a false confession. Now, this is something that they do on a regular basis. This is just routine protocol for the NYPD, unfortunately, when they have a young man in their grasp. We’ve seen it with the Central Park Five case where they just bear down. And if you would see the video of this interrogation, you would see two grown men yelling and cursing at this 15-year-old child, even with his mother present. And they’re saying things that they know are not true, and they’re just pressuring and pressuring and pressuring.

And the mother is just completely confused as to what’s going on. And she, as we all do, we want to believe the police, we want to believe that the police officers are doing their jobs and doing the right thing. But in this case, they were just truly, truly bearing down on this young man and just shooting him with misinformation, and his mother. And that’s one of the things that we really need to look at in this criminal justice system where those lies and untruths create a false confession. Especially when you have a vulnerable population like juveniles where under normal circumstances, completely un-pressured circumstances, that they tend to be misled or misstate things that they know are not true. But when you bear down on them like these two detectives did in that interrogation he had no chance. He had no chance. They were going to get him to say whatever they wanted him to say and his mother was just going to go along for the ride because she had no idea what was going on.

Eddie Conway:                  Yeah. And that’s equally true, not as much, but equally true of older people that’ve been in contact. A lot of times, they just actually force confessions to make a deal, or plea to this, plea to that, and we’ll give you less time. 90% of the convictions, in fact, are some sort of plea deals anyway. I probably got those figures wrong, but it’s close. But how did you survive Rikers Island at 15? That in itself is a crime, from 15 to 21 to put you in an environment like that. How did you survive that?

Prakash Churaman:         Well, to be honest with you, when I was initially arrested, I was 15 so I was taken to a secure juvenile detention facility by the name of Crossroads which is located in Brooklyn. I was held there for about a year and a half. And a month after I turned 17 I was then transferred to Rikers Island. So when I got to Rikers Island, it was in July of 2016. I was there from 2016 in July all the way until January of 2019. My first trial was done in November of 2018. I was sentenced to nine years to life on Dec. 11 of 2018. I immediately appealed my conviction. My conviction was overturned on appeal and the new trial was ordered on June 24 of 2020. So within that remaining time I was then transferred to a maximum security prison from January 2019 and held up there in a prison for a whole nother year and a half just awaiting a decision on my appeal. Once I got the decision on my appeal –

Jose Nieves:                    It can’t be understated, the amount of violence Mr. Churaman has witnessed. I’d speak to him several times, I’ve had him evaluated and spoken to by a psychiatrist, and the trauma, just the mental trauma that he’s endured for six years, not only at Crossroads but at Rikers, at the maximum security detention facility in the state, it’s incredible that he’s able to come out of that and just be able to speak and be articulate as he is because the amount of violence and stress that was put on him. I’m amazed that he’s even able to undergo this interview.

Eddie Conway:                 Yeah. Yeah. And I’m very aware of that kind of trauma. I understand you had started organizing for your release though. You were organizing people outside to support your case. Talk a little bit about that.

Prakash Churaman:        Yeah. So after my conviction was overturned I was then remanded back to Rikers Island, and I was transferred from state prison back to Rikers on July 1 of 2020, last year. So within that time frame, a plea bargain had presented itself by the DA’s office which I immediately rejected. I said, I’m not taking no deal whatsoever. So my attorney at that time withdrew from my case and that’s how Mr. Nieves was assigned to my case. But within that time frame, that was basically from July of last year leading up to January of this year, I literally picked up this book called Connections. And within this book there are organizations that assist formerly incarcerated and currently incarcerated individuals.

So I just started going through the pages and I just started calling up different organizations. Most of them were just grassroots-led organizations within the NYC community. And then I just also started networking with other individuals that I was incarcerated with that’s involved with other orgs that I necessarily didn’t know about. Needless to say, if it hadn’t been for my networking and connecting while I was back on Rikers Island, I could have probably still been sitting in a Rikers Island cell right now waiting for a new trial. But by the grace of God, you know.

Jose Nieves:                   It’s important to note that the reason why he’s released is two reasons. One is that I, again, went back to the Second Department Appellate Division. I asked them to set bail because the original, the presiding court, had remanded him. He couldn’t get out no matter how much money you had. But the Second Department disagreed and they set bail. But it was his support network that raised the money that allowed him to actually make the bail that he made and be released. Many of my clients don’t have the benefit of that support network that can help them raise money to pay for bail. Unfortunately so many people, especially young people, are just sitting in jail simply because they’re too poor to buy their way out. And one of the reasons that I, and it can’t be understated, one of the reasons that I took this case is because Mr. Churaman turned down the deal that they offered him after they overturned his conviction.

They literally gave him the keys to the cell, and they said, just plead guilty and we’ll let you go. You’ll have a conviction. It really reminded me of Kalief Browder and how he refused, no matter what the DA offered, no matter how they claimed they were going to give him a deal to plead guilty, because he was innocent and he refused to take that plea. And that is exactly what Mr. Churaman did. He refused to take that plea which gained my interest in his case and is one of the reasons why I accepted the case for assignment was because this is a young man who’s fighting for his life. And he’s not accepting the system’s force and coercion. He’s innocent, and he’s going to prove, and he’s going to stand trial. He’s going to fight for his life.

Eddie Conway:                Okay. It’s the DA, the new DA, that was supposed to be creating an integrity unit to look at cases like this, Jose, and I hope you don’t mind me calling you Jose –

Jose Nieves:                   Go right ahead. Go right ahead.

Eddie Conway:               Okay. What happened with that unit? Because it looked like they did not do their due diligence in this particular case, because I understand there’s no forensic evidence, no DNA, no eye witnesses, nothing to connect your client to this case other than an ear witness. Which is shocking to me, because a 74-year-old ear… I need hearing aids myself. I mean, I wouldn’t trust a 74-year-old saying that they heard this or they heard that clearly to recognize a voice. So what’s with the DA and what can be done about that?

Jose Nieves:                    I’ve been in contact with the head of that unit. And the policy is they don’t look at pending cases, which is sad because what you’re basically saying is, even if there’s a case that’s at question, that really draws concern in the community, we’re not going to look at it because we have convicted the individual accused of a crime. How many people have to be wrongfully convicted before the DA’s office looks at a case seriously and says, you know what, this is wrong. We shouldn’t wait until a conviction happens and then look at it afterwards. We should look at cases right from the start all the way through to the end, even after conviction, and make sure we got it right. Because that’s what people think is happening, but that’s not what’s happening in the criminal justice system.

And it’s sad because the policy doesn’t make any sense to me. Because you have a clearly… You said it was an ear witness. The only thing that connects him is an ear witness that testified four times. And every time she takes the stand she says something different. And it’s incredible to me that the DA’s office doesn’t take that into account, that their witness keeps changing the circumstances of how she can identify the people in this crime. And it’s like they ignore the reality of it and they’re just going forward. Almost damn the evidence, we’re going to go forward. And it’s sad to see that because, you know, I was a prosecutor for many years as well. And I was always taught that we were ministers of justice as a prosecutor.

And if you’re truly a minister of justice, then you should be looking at what your case is and are you doing the right thing? And really looking hard at the evidence and saying, this the evidence that we have and can it really meet the burden of proof? Which is beyond a reasonable doubt of 12 people agreeing on that burden. And I don’t think that’s going to be the case in this case. And I think that they’re not going to be able to meet their burden. So I’m looking forward to the trial.

Eddie Conway:              Okay. Speaking of trial, that’s due to come up in a few months? Is that right?

Jose Nieves:                   No, it’s not going to come up in January, next court date’s in January. So what the judge did, he granted the prosecutor the opportunity to have Mr. Churaman evaluated by a forensic psychiatrist. And now they have to pick their forensic psychiatrist and then they also have to have him evaluated, Mr. Churaman evaluated, for that purpose. So it’s not going to happen in January, might happen in February or March, but we’ve been waiting over a year. I mean, when I got involved with this case it was late November of 2020. And the delay that the prosecutor has engaged in to see how they can make their case. Maybe circumstances will change. And there’s been no change in circumstances. The evidence is what it is. It’s not going to get better with time. And I don’t believe that the DA’s office is going to meet their burden. So I’m looking forward to trying this case in April or March of next year.

Eddie Conway:              Okay. I understand that there’s a lot of public support. There’s been rallies, newspaper articles. What can the public do to make sure that this doesn’t happen to the next juvenile? I mean, it needs to be checked right here because it could be my 15-year-old grandson. It could be anybody. What can the public do to focus some attention on this?

Jose Nieves:                     Well this case, and every other juvenile case, should be of great concern to the public. And one of the things that they can do as the public is vote in DAs that are progressive. They are going to look at these cases in the right way and hold them to account. If a candidate comes out and says they’re going to support, raise the age, and they’re going to make sure juveniles are given opportunities, a second chance in life, and they’re going to hard look at the evidence in cases that involve juveniles, and they don’t do that, then you have to hold them accountable in the ballot box.

And that’s so important. Other than just keeping Prakash Churaman’s name out there, his story, keeping it alive, keeping it in the public sphere, because he should not be persecuted the way he’s been persecuted by this DA’s office in the dark courtrooms of Queens County Supreme Court. I think we need to bring to light the facts of his case and make sure everybody knows what the DA’s office is doing in this case.

Eddie Conway:                  Mmm, okay. And I think it’s important too, because earlier it was mentioned that initially he had been sentenced to nine years to life. That doesn’t mean he can go home in nine years. That means he might end up doing 29 years or 39 years of his life. And so it’s important to know that those numbers give a false sense of leniency when actually they could keep you in prison until you die.

Churaman, do you have any final words, anything you want to say to the public?

Prakash Churaman:             I want society to know that we have rights, especially in situations like mine where I didn’t have the knowledge, the experience. I never had any prior experience with law enforcement prior to this, nor did my mother. So that also enhanced the situation at hand. Like I said I just want society to know that we have rights, and especially when you’re in police custody and about to be questioned. You have the right to invoke your Fifth Amendment Constitutional right against self incrimination. You know what I mean? And people need to know that. People need to teach their children, their grandchildren. Because it’s sad that law enforcement can sit there and lie to you in your eyes, lie to you, spoon feed you information just to solicit a false coerced confession out of a 15-year-old child, a child.

I’m going to continue fighting. And one of my main goals is to push that lawmakers make sure that police deception on youth in particular is abolished. It needs to be abolished immediately. But yeah, and I ask folks to just continue signing and sharing my petition on change.org. I also have a GoFundMe where I’m trying to just continue to raise funds to maintain stable housing so I could stay out on house arrest versus being in the Rikers Island cell. So that’s another thing I’m asking the public and society to just share if they can and just support me in any way possible, honestly.

Eddie Conway:               Okay. Jose, you get the final word then.

Jose Nieves:                   What I would say to the public at large, especially the public that look like us, the Brown and Black citizens of the City of New York is to talk to your children and tell them, don’t talk to the police. It’s sad to say, but too many times this happens where kids are brought into the precincts and they’re coerced into making incriminating statements or saying things that are not even true. It’s come to a point where I have to advise anybody I can, anybody who would listen, don’t talk to the police. Parents, do not give permission for the police to talk to your children. How many individuals do we have to see, kids, who we have to see wrongfully convicted before we start saying, you know what? We just can’t trust the law enforcement dealing fairly with our children.

And it’s sad, it hurts. Because I have a child, and again, I was in law enforcement for many years myself, and I know there are good cops out there. I know there’s good law enforcement officials out there, but there are too many that are willing to skirt the lines of fairness and skirt the lines of what’s right and what’s wrong and just get to something that they think is right. And the means do not justify the ends when you’re dealing with kids. When you’re dealing with kids you really have to look at what you’re doing and how you’re treating them and whether you’re really coercing them into saying something that’s just not true, that they don’t agree with, it’s not part of what they are.

Jose Nieves:                       So unfortunately, my advice to the city and to minorities in the city is, don’t talk to the police. And if they try to talk to you, get an attorney, invoke your right. Say, I want an attorney. Don’t even ask them, do I get an attorney? I want an attorney. And that’s the only thing you should be saying to the police.

Prakash Churaman:      Given the color of my skin and the fact that people of color don’t hardly ever even see a second chance when you’re battling against the criminal justice system here in New York, I now have a second chance at life to fight, to prove my innocence. So I just want to emphasize that this upcoming trial, it will be the trial of my life.

Eddie Conway:                Okay. Thank both of y’all for joining me. I hope this will be instrumental, instructing other young people so that they won’t get caught up in this web, in these kinds of traps. So thank you.

Prakash Churaman:         Thank you very much, Marshall. And thank you everyone from The Real News Network, shout out to The Real News Network team for making this happen. I’m very appreciative. Thank you.

Jose Nieves:                        Thank you for having us.

Eddie Conway:                  All right. And thank you for joining this episode of Rattling the Bars.

Eddie Conway

Executive Producer
Eddie Conway is an Executive Producer of The Real News Network. He is the host of the TRNN show Rattling the Bars. He is Chairman of the Board of Ida B's Restaurant, and the author of two books: Marshall Law: The Life & Times of a Baltimore Black Panther and The Greatest Threat: The Black Panther Party and COINTELPRO. A former member of the Black Panther Party, Eddie Conway is an internationally known political prisoner for over 43 years, a long time prisoners' rights organizer in Maryland, the co-founder of the Friend of a Friend mentoring program, and the President of Tubman House Inc. of Baltimore. He is a national and international speaker and has several degrees.