Before the Law chronicles sixteen-year-old Kalief Browder’s arrest, three-year incarceration in the Rikers Island Correctional Facility, and the months following the dismissal of his case without a trial. On May 15, 2010, Roberto Bautista reported to the police that he had been robbed. The police detained Kalief, but he was not in possession of any of the stolen items. When they spoke with Bautista after the search, he changed the date of the robbery to two weeks prior. On Bautista’s inconsistent accusation alone, Kalief was arrested on multiple felony charges and held without bail.
Kalief spent the next three years in the juvenile detention facility on Rikers Island. Though the prosecution stated that they were ready for trial, they later retracted their statement of readiness and requested endless adjournments. Further hearings became delayed by weeks or months due to court congestion. Kalief steadfastly waited for trial, refusing on numerous occasions to be coerced, by both the prosecution and the judge, into a guilty plea for a reduced sentence. Over time, his resolve waned, and he attempted suicide twice. However, on his 31st court date, 1,110 days after his arrest, the prosecution dismissed his case due to their inability to meet the burden of proof required for conviction. Bautista, the only witness, had returned to Mexico and was unable to be contacted. Kalief was released the following day.
Since his release, Kalief has been unable to return to his life as it was before his arrest and suffers from continuing mental health problems, including depression, social anxiety, and flashbacks. He has filed a lawsuit against the New York Police Department, the City of New York, the New York Department of Corrections, and the Bronx District Attorney. All have denied any wrongdoing.
Justice Delayed is Justice Denied: “Before the Law” by Jennifer Gonnerman, The New Yorker, October 6, 2014. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/10/06/law-3
Student Researcher: Kari Johnson, Indian River State College Faculty
Faculty Evaluator: Jared Kinggard, Ph.D., Indian River State College
The court’s treatment of Kalief’s case flagrantly violates the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution, which together afford individuals the right to a speedy trial in state courts. In accordance with the Amendments, New York allows for a case to be dismissed for failure to prosecute a felony within six months after the commencement of a criminal action, N.Y. Code Crim. Proc. §§ 30.20, 30.30. However, New York’s highest court has held that once the prosecution has stated on the record that they are ready for trial to proceed, post-readiness delays due to court congestion do not provide a basis for dismissal, see e.g. People v. Cortes, 80 N.Y.2d 201, 210 (1992), People v. Nielsen, 306 A.D.2d 500 (2d Dep’t 2003). These decisions directly conflict with a prior United States Supreme Court ruling that rejects the notion that limitations of the States’ public resources justify unreasonable delay. Barker v. Wingo, 407 U.S. 514, 538 (1972).
The Constitution’s Bill of Rights and Fourteenth Amendment serve to protect the public’s inalienable natural rights from overreaching federal and state governments. However, when a preponderance of evidence suggests that an individual has violated the rights of another or of society, the violation acts as a forfeiture of the individual’s right to freedom and autonomy in that society. In these instances, the speedy trial clause exists, in part, to protect these individuals from potentially wrongful imprisonment lasting longer than is necessary to determine their guilt or innocence. The decisions of Cortes, et al. offend this process and the moral foundations upon which the Bill of Rights was constructed. Cortes, et al. essentially permits the state to shed the burden and consequences of its own deficient justice system by placing them upon those who are involuntarily bound within it.
This modus operandi renders the most basic maxim of American justice, “innocent until proven guilty,” completely meaningless. A finding of innocence is nothing more than a platitude if a sentence reserved for the guilty has already been served. Kalief was only sixteen when he was arrested, and was wrongly denied the entire latter half of his adolescence. He missed teenage rites of passage such as attending prom, earning a high school diploma, participating in graduation, and attending college with his peers. Though the lawsuit that he has brought against the various institutions and divisions of New York may result in the award of compensatory damages, Kalief is without any truly equitable remedy for the loss of three formative years of his life.
Kalief’s story is only that of one individual, and it is so egregious that it is appealing to dismiss him as an anomalous victim of “the system.” Indeed, in a justice system as large as the United States’, with large populations and extensive procedural requirements, an otherwise functional court system may be granted the occasional mistake. It is unrealistic to expect perfection from any being or entity. However, he is only one of hundreds of Americans whose fundamental rights have been violated by the deficient Bronx County court system. Bronx County accounts for two-thirds of New York City inmates awaiting trial for more than five years (William Glaberson, Faltering Courts, Mired in Delays, N.Y. Times, April 13, 2013, available at nytimes.com). A lack of resources is actually but one of a plethora of reasons for the court’s delays, including shortened courthouse workdays, unqualified judges, and prosecutors’ vacations and picnics, id.
Kalief’s ordeal illuminates the Bronx County court system’s chronic violations of the inalienable rights granted to us by our Constitution – rights that we retain regardless of the financial resources available to the judicial district in which we happen to reside. However, another matter altogether are the abuses he suffered at the hands of the correctional officers and inmates during his time at Rikers, his lack of redress for stopping those abuses, and the insufficiency of the evidence upon which he was originally arrested. These injustices are each troubling in their own right and deserve further attention.