Nov. 16, 2021 By Allie Griffin
A group of Queens politicians and lawmakers are calling on the Queens district attorney to drop all charges against a man who was arrested for murder when he was 15-years-old and is now facing a retrial after his 2018 conviction was overturned last year.
The local pols penned a letter Monday to Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz demanding that she drop all charges against Prakash Churaman, now 22, instead of retrying him.
Churaman was arrested and charged for the murder of Taquane Clark, 21, in a robbery gone wrong inside a Jamaica home in 2014. He was sent to Rikers Island following his arrest and was later convicted of murder in the second degree in 2018.
He confessed to playing a role in the crime but later recanted, saying he made the confession under pressure.
Churaman’s conviction was overturned in appellate court in 2020 on the basis that an expert witness— whose expertise is on the subject of false confessions — was denied the ability to testify. The expert witness was going to provide context about Churaman’s confession.
The pols said that the case against him is questionable because that there is no forensic evidence tying him to the crime and it relies heavily on the testimony of an older woman who said she heard Churaman’s voice at the crime scene — although didn’t see him since the suspects were masked. They said his confession also no longer holds up.
— Zohran Kwame Mamdani (@ZohranKMamdani) November 15, 2021
The letter-signers — Mufazzal Hossain, Democratic District Leader for the 38th Assembly District; Assembly Member Zohran Mamdani; Council Member-elect Shekar Krishnan; former Council candidate Felicia Singh and Council Member-elect Shahana Hanif — said Churaman has already suffered enough, spending his youth behind bars.
Churaman spent about six years — much of his teenage years — in prison. His alleged accomplice Elijah Gough, whose DNA was found at the scene, was convicted and is in prison.
He maintains that he was coerced into confessing to the crime in order to appease investigators. He was interrogated by detectives for three-and-a-half hours, according to the pols, and was taking medication for anxiety and depression at the time.
Churaman’s mother, a Guyanese immigrant, was present during the interrogation but didn’t understand what was happening, according to the pols’ letter.
“She didn’t understand the consequences of a confession and begged Churaman to comply with the police so that she wouldn’t be late for her job,” they wrote. “Churaman relented, and finally confessed, under duress, to being present at the scene of a botched robbery.”
The pols said his apparent false confession is not uncommon, especially given the fact that he was only 15 years old at the time. The National Registry of Exonerations cites that 22 percent of people accused of homicide gave false confessions and the number skyrockets when the accused is a juvenile, they wrote in the letter.
The officials also said there is a lack of forensic evidence linking Churaman to the crime. The case is built upon a then-74-year-old woman’s testimony. The woman, who lived in the home that was robbed and was present during the home invasion, said she recognized Churaman’s voice from one of the masked assailants.
“Outside of his confession, your office’s case against Churaman rests primarily upon an earwitness testimony,” the pols wrote to Katz. “There is no forensic evidence – not fingerprints, nor DNA, nor video, nor a murder weapon – that place Churaman at the crime scene.”
Churaman was offered a plea deal when his conviction was overturned. He could have pleaded guilty to assault and have been set free in weeks, with time served. However, he rejected the offer as to not admit to a crime he said he didn’t commit.
“Churaman will never get back the last six years of his life,” the pols wrote. “Given the context of the confession, the lack of forensic evidence, and the unjust prosecution of yet another young man of color, we call on you to drop all charges against Prakash Churaman immediately.”
The letter was co-signed by a long list of elected officials including Queens lawmakers like Congress Members Grace Meng, Carolyn Maloney and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; State Senators John Liu, Michael Gianaris, Jessica Ramos, Leroy Comrie, Nily Rozic and Khaleel Anderson; Assembly Members Catalina Cruz and Ron Kim; and Council Members-elect Sandra Ung, Tiffany Cabán, Julie Won, Nantasha Williams and Jennifer Gutierrez.
Churaman and his supporters protested outside Queens Criminal Court Monday morning where they called for Katz to drop the charges against him.
A spokesperson for the Queens district attorney’s office insisted that Churaman’s case must be decided in court.
“Criminal cases must be tried inside of our courtrooms, where the parties are afforded due process, and not tried on the steps of the courthouse,” the spokesperson said.
Churaman is due back in court on Jan. 19, 2022.
“We look forward to a just resolution of People v Prakash Churaman in a court of law, where a jury will hear and deliberate upon the evidence that will be presented,” the spokesperson said. “The sooner the matter is adjudicated, the earlier some form of closure can be found by both the defendant and the family of the victim in this case.”