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Every day, thousands of innocent people are rotting in jail for crimes they did not commit. Some of them, like Kalief Browder, are MINORS who were forced to spend years behind bars without a conviction or even a trial. His story is a cautionary tale about what happens when Constitutional rights meet systemic injustice.

The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution reads:

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.

Kalief Browder

On May 15, 2010, Kalief Browder was on his way home from a party.  The 16 year old sophomore was walking with a friend through Little Italy in the Bronx, when several police vehicles approached and stopped them. The police were acting on a tip that Browder and a friend had:

…robbed a Mexican immigrant named Roberto Bautista—pursuing him, pushing him against a fence, and taking his backpack. Bautista told the police that his backpack contained a credit card, a debit card, a digital camera, an iPod Touch, and seven hundred dollars. Browder was also accused of punching Bautista in the face.

Browder told police he was innocent, but the police searched him anyway. They found nothing. No backpack. No iPod. No money. When police explained this to the alleged victim, he changed his story:

The officers searched [Browder] and his friend but found nothing. As Browder recalls, one of the officers walked back to his car, where the alleged victim was, and returned with a new story: the man said that they had robbed him not that night but two weeks earlier.

Despite the inconsistency, Browder was arrested anyway.

The police took him to the station, where he expected to be released. However, due to a probation violation, Browder was given bail instead. To secure his release, his family needed to come up with thousands of dollars for bail. They couldn’t afford it. So, Kalief was sent to Rikers Island to wait for his Constitutionally guaranteed speedy trial.

He would sit there, waiting, for another 3 years. 33 months. 800 days of which he would spend in solitary confinement.

According to New York’s “Ready Rule,” Browder should have received a trial within six months, or the charges against him could be dismissed. However, technicalities surrounding the rule meant that if the prosecutors were not ready, they could delay the six month clock:

As long as a prosecutor has filed a Notice of Readiness, however, delays caused by court congestion don’t count toward the number of days that are officially held to have elapsed. Every time a prosecutor stood before a judge in Browder’s case, requested a one-week adjournment, and got six weeks instead, this counted as only one week against the six-month deadline.

Making matters worse was the fact that very few cases in the Bronx actually went to trial. In 2011, out of 3,991 cases, only 165 went before a jury. Instead, many of them were disposed of by simply pressuring the defendant to take a deal.

Kalief Browder was offered deals numerous times. But, he refused them all. Despite the fact that he had been locked in solitary confinement for over 800 days, he always maintained his innocence. On numerous occasions, he had the opportunity to go home by simply pleading guilty. But, he was innocent, and he wanted his day in court.

One judge used a carrot and stick approach to get him to plead guilty:

Judge DiMango explained to Browder, “If you go to trial and lose, you could get up to fifteen.” Then she offered him an even more tempting deal: plead guilty to two misdemeanors—the equivalent of sixteen months in jail—and go home now, on the time already served. “If you want that, I will do that today,” DiMango said. “I could sentence you today. . . . It’s up to you.”

“I’m all right,” Browder said. “I did not do it. I’m all right…I want to go to trial.”

When other inmates heard about this, they thought he was stupid. But Browder was adamant that he was innocent, and he was not going to say otherwise.

Eventually, the charges against him were dropped. But, he was not found innocent by a jury of his peers. The prosecution dropped the charges when their main witness – Roberto Bautista – moved back to Mexico and they couldn’t find him.

After 3 years and 800 days in solitary, Kalief Browder was released from Rikers Island. And even though he was free, he never got his trial.

Who is to blame?

The Bronx DA says, “NOT ME“:

Robert T. Johnson, the Bronx District Attorney, will not answer questions about Browder’s case, because, once the charges were dismissed, the court records were sealed. But .. he was quick to deflect blame. “These long delays—two, three years—they’re horrendous, but the D.A. is not really accountable for that kind of delay”

And that’s the problem. No one is accountable. Not the police who’s shoddy investigation led to Browder’s arrest. Not Roberto Bautista, the witness who falsely identified Browder, and not the DA’s office who dragged the case out for years.

Despite incompetence across the board, no one is responsible. Except the taxpayers. Because you can bet if Browder wins his civil suit, they will be the ones who will be forced to pay.

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