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Queens, N.Y., community demand freedom for wrongfully accused man ahead of 97th court appearance

On the morning of May 10, around 30 demonstrators gathered at the steps of the Queens County Criminal Court in New York City to demand that District Attorney Melinda Katz drop all charges against 22-year-old Prakash Churaman. Desis Rising Up and Moving organized the rally, and it was attended by the Party for Socialism and Liberation, How Our Lives Link Altogether, Voices of Community Activists and Leaders, the Free Prakash Alliance, the Democratic Socialists of America, and local politicians, such as City Councilman Shekar Krishnan.

The rally was called in response to an emergency court hearing that Judge Kenneth Holder ordered last week after a reporter obtained records that showed the two investigators in Churaman’s case, Daniel Gallagher and Barry Brown, withheld cell phone record evidence in a separate case in 2015 that would have exonerated two men. Their withholding of this evidence led to the incarceration of the defendants, Julian Douglas and Sahel Green, at Rikers Island for over two years, as well as a $2 million settlement paid out by the City. 

The DA’s office never disclosed the details of this case to Churaman’s attorney. Additionally, Brown led the interrogation of Chanel Lewis, a Black man charged with the 2014 murder of Karina Vetrano. Lewis has since accused the investigator of coercing him into confessing to the crime.

Railroaded by the system

Churaman was arrested in 2014 when he was just 15 years old and coerced into a false confession by Gallagher and Brown for the murder of his friend Taquane Clark during a botched robbery. The sole piece of “evidence” in the case was an “earwitness” testimony from Clark’s then-74-year-old grandmother Olive Legister, who claimed she heard Churaman’s voice during the robbery. No physical or forensic evidence links Churaman to the scene of the crime. 

Churaman then spent the next six years incarcerated at Rikers Island and another jail. He was tried and convicted in 2018 of felony murder, but that conviction was later overturned in 2020 due to the judge not allowing an expert on false confessions to testify. Despite limited resources, Churaman organized his own bail and release from jail and has been under house arrest since January 2021. He has been waiting for a retrial since. 

This latest hearing marks Churaman’s 97th court appearance since his arrest in 2014. During the hearing, Judge Holder ordered a protective order against Churaman’s attorney, Jose Nieves, which places new restrictions on how documents are shared with his client. Churaman must now travel to Nieves’s office in order to view evidence related to his case. According to Holder, this order is meant to limit information leaking to the press.

Community members in support of Churaman. Liberation photo by Caro Yao

Community vows to continue support

Some activists at the rally had strong words for those in their community who continued to support Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz.

“I’m so proud to see so many South Asian siblings and our Black siblings with us today in solidarity,” said Felicia Singh, a community advocate and former Democratic nominee for City Council. “But let me tell you this for our Indo-Caribbeans and South Asians who aren’t here today, or haven’t been standing up for Prakash. You need to wake up — and stop showing up to DA Katz’s events! Stop feeding her money and support and allyship when she betrays our community every single day by not dropping [Churaman’s] charges! So it’s about time we show up every day for this young man, who is our brother, who is our son, who is our friend — and who has been received of injustice by this injustice system!”

Other community members emphasized that they would continue to rally and support for Churaman as long as it took until he was exonerated.

“The NYPD and the court system understand that this is not only a case of a wrongful prosecution — it is a case of a corrupt prosecution!” exclaimed Krishnan. “How many more times do we need to stand here before this DA’s office gets the message loud and clear, that the charges in this case must be dropped?”

Churaman’s retrial is expected to be scheduled for this summer.

You can support Churaman by donating to his GoFundMe, which goes toward living expenses as he’s currently under house arrest and barred from employment.

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