The ongoing investigation into the death of Tess Majors has been a topic of national and local concern. Many in the Columbia community are calling for justice, but the alleged behavior of detectives involved in the case and their treatment of the teenage suspects have led to concern that law enforcement will repeat mistakes made in the Central Park Five case.
The NYPD has reported that there are three individuals of interest in the Majors case, one 13-year-old and two 14-year-old boys. The 13-year-old, who Bwog will not name due to his age, was the first person of interest to be arrested in the Majors case; he has been charged with robbery, weapons possession, and felony murder (since the death was a byproduct of a robbery felony instead of the intention), and as such can’t be tried as an adult, and is instead being tried as a juvenile delinquent in Family Court. He has been named in several news outlets, including the New York Post, and his identity was confirmed by his legal counsel. It is unclear how or who initially identified him to the public; the NYPD is unable to release the names of those under sixteen unless they are classified as a juvenile offender, as opposed to the juvenile delinquent status under which the thirteen-year-old has been charged.
Much of the growing concern about the handling of the Majors case has centered around how the case against the 13-year-old has proceeded. He is being represented by the Legal Aid Society, an NYC-based social justice law firm whose mission statement proclaims that they are “built on one simple but powerful belief: that no person should be denied their right to equal justice”. In the official statement from the defendant’s council, they note that their client “is a 13-year-old child who is presumed innocent with no juvenile record.” Legal Aid’s statement ties his arrest into a long history of “high profile cases tried in the media, rushing law enforcement to a wrongful arrest and conviction.”
It seems likely that one of the similar cases that Legal Aid’s statement refers to is that of the 1989 Central Park Five case (also referred to as “The Exonerated Five” case). Many outlets, including the New York Times, have noted the similarities between the two cases: a young, white woman assaulted in a park, with the main suspects being Black teenage boys. In the Central Park Five case, the suspects gave false, videotaped confessions of guilt following hours of interrogation. None of the teenagers had attorneys present during questioning. Despite retracting their statements, all five were sentenced to jail for multi-year sentences, before the real perpetrator was found in 2002, at which point their convictions were thrown out. Public opinion of the Exonerated Five case has shifted markedly in recent years, directly impacting the Columbia community. Exonerated Five prosecutor Elizabeth Lederer stepped down from a lecturer position at Columbia Law School in June 2019, following years of activism by Black students on campus that culminated in a petition by the Black Students’ Organization.
Comparison between the Majors case and the Exonerated Five case has continued after reports emerged that 13-year-old had no lawyer present during his interrogation, only his uncle. During an initial hearing in Family Court, one of his Legal Aid lawyers, Hannah Kaplan, went further, alleging that “a detective had yelled at the boy and asked leading questions after the boy repeatedly denied knowing his friends intended to rob Ms. Majors”. The two fourteen-year-old suspects in the case have both been questioned by authorities and released. One such questioning occurred after a two-week search in which the NYPD took the unusual step of circulating photos of the 14-year-old suspect, a move not normally taken in cases involving juveniles. The suspect in question was released into his attorneys’ custody but could still be charged in the case. Unlike the 13-year-old suspect, it’s reported that the boy’s lawyers were present at the time of his questioning. Reporting by the Times cites top police officials who claim precautions are being taken to ensure the rights of all suspects are respected. They also state that all three teenagers have been questioned in the presence of a guardian or lawyer. However, this does little to answer criticisms about the use of force and absence of an attorney alleged by Legal Aid in the initial questioning of her 13-year-old client.
Bwog has been in contact with Legal Aid regarding these allegations, and we were provided with a statement that further calls into question the credibility of Detective Wilfredo Acevedo. In the statement, included in full at the end of this post, Legal Aid cites several lawsuits that Acevedo “planted and falsified evidence, lied in court documents, and used excessive force” as well as “three substantiated disciplinary findings from the Civilian Complaint Review Board” as a reason to question his reliability in this case.
In addition to the statement, Legal Aid provided Bwog with legal documentation from five lawsuits and three disciplinary findings filed against Detective Acevedo. The cases against Acevedo never went to trial, but at least two were settled by the city in favor of the plaintiff. They point to a pattern of abuses of power, including but not limited to unwarranted arrests, excessive use of force, filing of false and misleading police reports and testimony, negligence, and violations of civil rights, among other claims. In many of these cases, the legal documents indicate that the plaintiffs were young African American males. Legal Aid also provided documents from one pending Civilian Complaint Review Board complaint filed against a key witness in the Majors case, Detective Vincent Signoretti, which alleges he used unlawful physical force.
Several outlets have reached out to Detective Acevedo for comment regarding Signoretti’s controversial past, but he declined due to the pending nature of the case. Other members of the NYPD have spoken out against Legal Aid’s accusations. NYPD Commissioner Dermont Shea called these claims “an obvious and unethical effort to make prejudicial statements outside the courtroom to effect a jury pool.” According to the Commissioner’s statement, Detective Acevedo “has never been found to have made a single false statement or falsely arrested anyone by either the Department, the [Civilian Complaint Review Board], any Civil Court or District Attorney.” In a phone call to Gothamist, Michael Palladino, president of Acevedo’s union (the Detectives Endowment Association) responded to Legal Aid’s questioning of Acevedo’s credibility by stating that the lawsuits against Acevedo “are the nature of the beast” for active officers. Both statements can be found in full at the end of this post.
In the weeks following this tragedy, there has been vocal debate across campus on what these new accusations mean for the Majors case. The Columbia Women of Color Pre-Law Society began a now widely spread petition on “Ensuring Community-Wide Healing Following the Tragic Loss of Tess Majors.” The petition asks for a “just and fair investigation,” that ensures that the investigation into Tess Majors’ death does not result in wrongful punishment for innocent suspects. Citing the Exonerated Five and other such cases, the petition warns that a false conviction could further the divide between the Barnard/Columbia community and the Harlem neighborhood. It urges the two communities to work together to ensure safety, inclusion, and restorative justice. As Bwog’s previous reporting has noted, Columbia, Barnard, and the NYPD have yet to outline specific steps that are being taken in the community and in the prosecution of the case to meet the petition’s demands. A copy of the petition emailed to Bwog as well as university officials has been signed by 1,238 people total, including 35 student groups, 56 faculty members, and 656 students.
At the time of publication, neither of the fourteen-year-old suspects have been charged while police turn to DNA evidence to build their case, but arrest in the future is possible, as the investigation is ongoing. On January 2, 2020, a Family Court judge ordered that the 13-year-old remain in police custody, without bail, until his trial, scheduled for March 16, despite his lawyer’s insistence that he is not a flight risk. As of now, it remains unclear whether or not the 13-year-old’s confession occurred due to badgering by police or if Detective Acevedo’s credibility has been damaged by the allegations brought forward and the history that looms large over this case.
Legal Aid’s statement to Bwog:
“Detective Wilfredo Acevedo’s troubled past, which includes lawsuits alleging that he planted and falsified evidence, lied in court documents, and used excessive force, coupled with three substantiated disciplinary findings from the Civilian Complaint Review Board, is of great concern. These allegations of a pattern of serious misconduct cast further doubt on the case against our client, and given Acevedo’s long problematic history of violating New Yorkers’ constitutional rights, he simply cannot be regarded as credible.”
“The calculated, personal attacks against a member of the investigative team working to solve the murder of Tessa Majors is an obvious and unethical effort to make prejudicial statements outside the courtroom to effect a jury pool… The detective singled out here has made 237 arrests including 93 felony arrests removing dangerous criminals from our streets. He has been recognized with 24 department medals. He has never been found to have made a single false statement or falsely arrested anyone by either the Department, the [Civilian Complaint Review Board], any Civil Court or District Attorney.”
“That’s the narrative police critics and the criminal justice reformists would like to generate, but active officers, like Acevedo, are going to collect complaints and lawsuits…Unfortunately it’s the nature of the beast, and it’s a typical strategy employed by defense attorneys.”
Additional reporting contributed by Isabel Sepúlveda
110th and Broadway via Bwog Staff