Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and turmoil in the New York City juvenile detention system, the youngest suspect awaits sentencing after pleading guilty for his involvement in the death of Barnard student Tess Majors.
The Youngest Suspect
After almost six months since the tragedy in Morningside Park, the youngest suspect in the case of the death of Barnard student Tess Majors has pled guilty to one count of first-degree robbery. The now 14-year-old boy, referred to as Suspect 1, spoke remotely to a court on Wednesday, June 4, and said that “we went to the park planning to rob someone.” He also recounts details of witnessing the two older suspects stabbing Tess that night. Because he was 13 years old when first arrested, the boy is being tried in Family Court. He is facing six to 18 months in detention—perhaps to be served where he is currently in custody, at the Crossroads Juvenile Detention Center—and is set to be sentenced today, Monday, June 15.
Bwog reached out to the Legal Aid Society, the organization with the attorney representing Suspect 1. They responded with the following statement (edited to reflect Tess’s preferred name and pronouns):
Tess Major’s death was tragic. It caused incalculable pain to [their] loved ones and affected our entire city.
This plea to Robbery in the First Degree is consistent with our client’s limited role in this tragic event, as there was no finding that he acted in concert with others to cause [their] death. He did not touch Majors or take any of [their] property. Furthermore, no DNA evidence exists linking him to the events.
He will face its repercussions for a long time, likely the rest of his life. This plea clears a path for him and his family to move forward with their lives. His acceptance of responsibility is an important first step; it provides an opportunity for this now 14-year-old to achieve a successful future.
Bwog also reached out to Barnard College, and they declined to comment.
The Two Older Suspects
The two older suspects in the case had originally been charged as adults through the New York City Criminal Court, but have since been moved up to the New York State Supreme Court – Criminal Term. Felonies committed in NYC are by procedure moved from the NYC Criminal Court to the Criminal Term of the State Supreme Court, so it is not unusual for the cases of Suspects 2 and 3 to now appear before the Supreme Court after the original arraignment that charged them with felonies. In the New York State Court System, the Supreme Court is actually the name of the trial level court and is below the Appellate Division and the Court of Appeals.
The first of the two (Suspect 2) was arrested in Harlem on February 15 and is charged with two counts of second-degree robbery, three counts of first-degree robbery, and two counts of second-degree murder. Like Suspect 1, he is being represented by Legal Aid.
The oldest suspect (Suspect 3), turned himself in on February 19 and is being charged with two counts of first-degree robbery, one count of second-degree robbery, and one count of second-degree murder, and has private representation.
According to New York State Penal Law § 70.25 (2), “When more than one sentence of imprisonment is imposed on a person for two or more offenses committed through a single act or omission… the sentences… must run concurrently.” For example, if Suspect 3 is found guilty for both counts of first-degree robbery, and was sentenced to five years for each (five years is the mandatory minimum sentence for a class B violent felony), then he would serve those concurrently, meaning he would only serve five years instead of ten. If he is found guilty for both the robbery and murder charges, his sentences could be served consecutively rather than concurrently, meaning he would serve the time sentenced for the murder charge in addition to the time sentenced for the robbery charges.
In the past, Suspects 2 and 3 have appeared in court together, and it is assumed they will again, as their next appearances are both scheduled for June 29. Bwog reached out to Suspect 2’s lawyers at Legal Aid and to Suspect 3’s private representation to inquire about the possible effects of Suspect 1’s claims regarding witnessing them stabbing Tess. Legal Aid declined to comment on June 14, and Suspect 3’s private representation has not replied as of June 14.
Back in March, as concerns were emerging over the spread of COVID-19 in New York, news broke that two staffers at Crossroads Detention Center—where the three suspects have been detained—had tested positive for the virus. They were responsible for transporting detainees from Crossroads to court hearings. Both employees had to be hospitalized for their symptoms.
At the beginning of April, the Administration of Child Services (ACS) created a plan to establish Crossroads as a safe facility for uninfected juveniles, and detain those experiencing COVID-19 symptoms at their sister facility, Horizon Juvenile Center in the Bronx. Derek Robinson, Vice President of a union which represents staff at the two facilities, wrote in a letter to ACS on April 2 that “without testing, there’s no way to know how many kids or staff have Covid-19,” and voiced concerns that the Horizon facility “may well turn into a death camp.” He also urged for the ACS to reconsider their relocating plan, describing how “even if it were possible to confine all who contract the virus under one roof, by doing so ACS concentrates the risk to one segment of the workforce, [sowing dissentdissension] and inevitable staffing shortages.” ACS confirmed on April 3 that four detainees from Horizon had tested positive for COVID-19. However, Bronx Justice News reported on April 9 that “just one youth prisoner in the system is currently positive for coronavirus.”
ACS planned for 11 detainees with symptoms at Crossroads to be sent to Horizon and 15 not showing symptoms at Horizon to be sent to Crossroads, but claimed as of April 3 that “there were no plans to transfer anyone from Crossroads.” Yet, on April 4, ACS started relocating the “healthy” young people to Crossroads and those infected to Horizon, amidst urgent calls for the release of detainees. By April 9, it was reported that between the two centers, at least 13 staffers required hospitalization due to Coronavirus, 23 had tested positive, and three had died (although only one death has been confirmed as a result of Covid-19). Hearing dates for many have been pushed back from March or April to June. Per our investigation, these postponements have included scheduled hearing dates for the three suspects in the Tess Majors case.
The Legal Aid Society, which is representing two of the suspects in this case, filed a lawsuit on March 26 against the Administration for Children’s Services Commissioner David Hansell, calling for the immediate release of 22 juvenile delinquents ages 13 to 17 who have been detained by the Family Court in New York City.
In the suit, Legal Aid attorney Lisa Freeman describes how these “juvenile detention centers by design and operation, make it impossible for youth to engage in the necessary social distancing required to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 transmission.” She went on to note that the “ACS has not implemented protocols sufficient to protect either the youth in detention or staff working in the facilities,” and that they “suspended family visits to detention centers to reduce transmission, but that isolates youth from their families and support networks.”
Bwog was able to obtain a copy of the court’s April 17 decision, or writ, in this lawsuit. At the time of the Skype court hearings on April 6 and April 7, Legal Aid only represented five of the original 22 individuals. These petitioners were referred to as “John Does 1 through 5,” and the petition was withdrawn on behalf of John Does 1-4, so the entire suit was centered on John Doe 5. Ultimately, the court ruled that while “John Doe 5 remains at serious risk of medical harm resulting from his continued exposure to the Coronavirus… [the] petitioners have been unable to meet their high burden of showing that [ACS] has been ‘deliberately indifferent’ to John Doe 5’s medical needs,” and the petition for a writ of habeas corpus was denied. This means that the court found that his detention was still lawful, although they also stipulated that “increased vigilance” was required on behalf of ACS to protect John Doe 5 and other detainees from the coronavirus.
John Doe 5 seems to share many characteristics with Suspect 1 in the Tess Majors case. Both have been in custody since December 13, have made court appearances presided over by Judge Carol Goldstein in the New York County Family Court, and have had the same court appearance dates, in at least one instance.
The written records in the images above prove that Suspect 1 appeared on April 1 under Judge Goldstein, as did John Doe 5. Suspect 1’s other appearance dates are no longer accessible; thus, we do not have proof of them. They are also both 13-year-olds being held in Crossroads Detention Center, with John Doe 5 being held for murder in the 2nd degree under New York Penal Law § 125.25(3), which is equivalent to a murder committed during the course of a felony, the same charge originally given to Suspect 1.
Since he is a minor, the reasoning for all of the court’s prior decisions on Suspect 1 has been private and unattainable. The writ in the Freeman v. Hansell lawsuit details how on a March 11 appearance, the court found that “John Doe 5’s continued remand was necessary… [as] there was a serious risk that John Doe 5 would, before the return date, commit an act which if committed by an adult, would constitute a crime.” This means that the Court found this individual, who is possibly Suspect 1, would pose a clear and present danger to others and likely to commit a crime if released from detention while awaiting his next court appearance. John Doe 5 appeared in court multiple times to appeal the remand (or custody requirements) ordered on January 2 by Judge Carol Goldstein and was each time denied. This aligns with similar appeals made on behalf of Suspect 1. John Doe 5 has a private bedroom at Crossroads but shares all common areas with the other juveniles; however, the ACS says he “receives administrative one-on-one supervision for the child’s protection. [ACS’s Deputy Associate Commissioner for Detention Services] clarified that the staff member specifically assigned to exclusively supervise John Doe 5 must follow the same six-foot rule.” Suspect 1 had originally implicated Suspects 2 and 3 in the murder this past winter, and as of June 4, had claimed he witnessed Suspect 2 stab Tess. Throughout the duration of the lawsuit, all three suspects were detained together at Crossroads, and Suspect 1 was likely preparing his plea deal. Bwog reached out to Legal Aid to confirm that Suspect 1 and John Doe 5 are the same individuals—if so, was he was being protected from Suspects 2 and 3? Legal Aid declined to comment on June 14.
Bwog found some numerical discrepancies from what was recorded in the Court’s April 17 ruling to the original numbers reported by ACS or other outlets, as described earlier in this post. The ruling states that about 40 Crossroads staff members have tested positive or are assumed positive due to symptoms or exposure; however, as of April 9th, the union representative said that there were only 23 cases between both facilities. ACS had also claimed that they were not going to move detainees between Crossroads and Horizon, but the Court’s ruling details that since March 25th, “approximately 17 adolescents have been (or are in the process of being) transferred” from Horizon to Crossroads. This number does not include those sent from Crossroads to Horizon.
On April 15th, a violent riot broke out at Crossroads by former Horizon detainees. Conflicting sources say that either 30 officers (according to the NYPD) or 50 officers (according to media outlets) were brought in to stop the riot. The ACS has given few details about what transpired but confirmed that some staff members experienced minor injuries and one required offsite medical treatment. Several of the reports linked above regarding the riot allege that the detainees were protesting the COVID-19 related transfer.
Links to Previous Bwog Coverage
Reporting contributed by Lauren Kahme, Isabel Sepúlveda, and Caroline Mullooly.
Additional contributions by Ross Chapman.
Image of Barnard from Bwog Archives