Following the death of Barnard first-year Tessa Majors, community members began calling on court officials and the New York Police Department to ensure a fair trial for the three youth suspects involved in the case.
On Dec. 11, 2019, Majors, 18, entered Morningside Park and was stabbed to death. The incident shook the community and brought significant attention to—among other concerns—the issue of youth crime in West Harlem. Just days after the initial incident report, the NYPD drastically increased its presence in the neighborhood, several government officials commented on the tragedy, and news outlets flocked to be the first to uncover the latest developments of the case. In an effort to locate one suspect, NYPD published photos of the 14-year-old on social media.
Majors’ death also called attention to long-ignored safety problems in Morningside Park, as the additional officers and funding that historically had been delayed or denied to the park were drawn in to locate the suspects.
Across social media, the public demanded justice. But now, criminal justice experts and community members say the public’s response manufactured a sense of urgency to find and prosecute suspects, opening the door for unjust treatment of the three youths on trial, two of whom face the potential sentence of life in prison.
“[The state] wanted them to go to jail for as long as possible,” said Monica Dula, a Legal Aid Society attorney and member of Community Board 9, a local advisory board representing Morningside Heights and the surrounding areas. “That’s why they charged them in adult court.”
According to the 2018 Juvenile Justice Profile for New York City, 93 percent of the juvenile detention population is made up of those who are 14 years or older, and 63 percent of the entire population has been charged with a felony.
Since December, two 14-year-old suspects and one 13-year-old suspect have been detained; all are currently awaiting trial. Despite being the same age as the majority of those that pass through juvenile courts, both 14-year-olds in Majors’ case are being tried as adults.
In response to incidents such as Majors’ death, experts warn of prosecutors’ bias to be “tough on crime.” The ‘“tough on crime” era arose in 1988 after a television advertisement against Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis accused him of being soft on crime and spread the story of a convicted murderer who was charged with rape and robbery during a weekend that he spent outside of prison. This advertisement gained traction and swept the country, convincing many to rally behind the “tough on crime” movement.
This was the same year that Matthew Bogdanos became an assistant district attorney in New York City. He spent the formative years of his career during a time when mandatory minimum policies—sentencing that requires offenders to serve predetermined amounts of time for certain crimes—and fear-mongering adverts set the precedent for decades to come. In 1998, Bogdanos prosecuted a 16-year-old as an adult for a charge of manslaughter.
Now, Bogdanos is prosecuting the two 14-year-olds as adults for felony homicide charges in the Majors case.
According to experts, however, this sense of urgency to find suspects varies across racial lines.
In 2018, among 197 homicides involving Black and Black-Hispanic victims,
For the 26 homicides with white victims, however,
that number drops to 19 percent.
This is due in part to the publicization of crimes involving white victims, said Robert Wright, program director at the Center for Justice at Columbia University. Following Majors’ death, Mayor Bill de Blasio ordered increased police presence within the Morningside Heights area in a highly publicized press conference. The NYPD vowed for an “all hands on deck” response for the investigation, putting pressure on the detectives to solve the case.
As the media has covered and sometimes sensationalized the case, the prosecutors have claimed to uphold the rights of the youth suspects, according to a press release from the district attorney's office in February.
“We are committed to holding these young people accountable, and equally committed to a fair process which safeguards their rights,” District Attorney Cyrus Vance said in the press release. “This is how we will achieve true justice for Tessa and her loved ones.”
However, the “true justice” may be skewed to be punitive, Dula said, noting that the public often sees a crime committed and immediately looks toward punishment.
“Someone has to pay. … That’s how [the public] sees it,” Dula said in regards to the Majors case.
In addition to prioritizing punishment, Dula said the treatment of the suspects during interrogation raised concerns within the community.
In December, during a probable cause hearing for the 13-year-old, Legal Aid attorney Hannah Kaplan questioned Detective Wilfredo Acevedo, who had interrogated the youth suspect, on his interrogation tactics.
In the hearing, Kaplan testified that the 13-year-old was repeatedly asked if he intended on robbing Majors.
“He told you that 10 times in different ways; is that correct?” Kaplan asked Acevedo.
Kaplan also noted how Acevedo asked the youth how far he was standing from Majors at the time of the incident. According to her cross-examination, the 13-year-old stated the room was not big enough to represent his distance, although Acevedo said he did not remember that response. Kaplan claimed the detective still asked the boy to stand up and show him anyway; Acevedo said he did not recall whether that was true.
Community members have raised concerns about these processes at several CB9 meetings.
“The way that many of our young men of color were being taken in for questioning, whether or not there was any evidence relating them to that, was something that deeply troubled us,” CB9 Chair Barry Weinberg said at the February board meeting. “That caused a lot of fear in our community.”
Wright said district attorneys and justices are pressured by the media and the public to maintain their “tough on crime” position, which maximizes punishment. However, he warned against their influence in sensitive cases, recalling the Central Park Five, a famous case in which five Black youths were falsely accused and imprisoned for a brutal rape in Central Park.
“[The case] is a great example of us not being so quick to jump to conclusions and penalize and grandize these unfortunate events,” Wright said. “When you publicize them so much, there’s more urgency for them to get prosecuted and for the prosecution to win the case.”
Wright said all of these worries in the community highlight the damage that incarceration can cause on a community.
“It’s like losing a family member. … It devastates a community,” Wright said.
As it lies at the intersection of various tensions such as age, race, and class, this case weighs heavily on the state, the defense, and the people to decide the fate of these three youths, Wright added.
“Everyone’s there with [their] lives, and they don’t have a say,” Wright said. “These kids … their lives are in other people’s hands.”