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Prakash Churaman

Other Queens County, New York exonerations
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On December 5, 2014, at about 5:45 p.m., three males knocked on the door of a home 115-03 144th Street in Queens, New York. Home at the time were 72-year-old Olive Legister, her grandsons, 27-year-old Jonathan Legister, and 21-year-old Taquane Clark.

Jonathan Legister answered the door thinking it was his nephew, Tyler, who was due home from school. The three masked males burst in and one, 28-year-old Elijah Gough, sprayed Jonathan in the face with pepper spray. The other two went into the living area. One of the two confronted Olive in the kitchen at gunpoint.

Meanwhile, Gough and the third man demanded money from Jonathan. During a struggle, Jonathan was shot twice and Clark was fatally shot. Gough also was shot in the leg. The three intruders then fled empty-handed.

Olive Legister went to the police station. There, she identified the gunman who held a gun on her as “Nick,” a friend Tyler’s. She said she recognized him by his voice. She said that the only words he spoke to her were “Don’t worry, me not kill you, mommy; me not kill you.”

Jonathan showed police a Facebook profile picture of “Nick”—it was 15-year-old Prakash Churaman.

Meanwhile, Gough had checked into a hospital with a gunshot wound. When questioned by police, Gough identified the Facebook picture as one of his accomplices. Gough also said the third person was 26-year-old Jonathan “Trouble” Wells.

Jonathan Legister identified Gough as one of the gunmen, saying that during the attack, Gough’s mask came off. Jonathan was unable to identify Churaman as taking part in the crime.

Gough was then arrested. At 6:30 a.m. on December 9, 2014, police arrested Churaman and brought him to the police station. There, after more than three hours of interrogation by detectives Barry Brown and Daniel Gallagher, Churaman confessed to taking part in the crime. Churaman was charged with second-degree murder, assault, kidnapping, attempted robbery and criminal possession of a weapon.

Several pretrial hearings were held during 2015 and 2016 as Churaman’s defense attorneys sought to suppress the confession. They argued that Churaman, who had been diagnosed with a mood disorder, was not allowed access to his medication. They also said the detectives lied to Churaman, falsely telling him that Gough and Wells—who was never questioned or charged—had both implicated Churaman in the crime.

They also noted that Churaman’s mother had been present during the interrogation and took the side of the detectives. The defense said that she was “unrelentingly hostile” to her son, imploring him to help police to get the “bad guys.”

The detectives repeatedly told Churaman that multiple individuals had told police that the robbery was Churaman’s idea and that he had had a gun, when only Gough had identified Churaman. They falsely claimed they had video surveillance showing Churaman entering and leaving the Legister home. They encouraged Churaman to confess to lesser involvement to avoid the harshest punishment, knowing all along that any admission to involvement would expose him to a felony murder charge. They told Churaman that failing to confess endangered his mother and showed that he did not love her. After two hours and 45 minutes of insisting he was innocent, Churaman finally admitted he was involved.

During the hearings, Dr. Marc Janoson, an expert in forensic psychology, testified that he had examined Churaman. Dr. Janoson said that he did not believe Churaman was able to voluntarily waive his Miranda rights. The motion to suppress the confession was denied when the judge ruled that the statement was voluntary and that Churaman had adequate intelligence and capacity to understand and waive his Miranda rights.

Churaman obtained new defense lawyers in July 2018. At that time, the trial judge said the case had to be resolved by the end of the year. On September 28, 2018, the judge granted a defense motion to consult with Dr. Lindsay Malloy, an expert on false confessions. Trial was set for a month later.

In her report, Dr. Malloy identified numerous techniques employed by the detectives which she said correlated with eliciting unreliable statements from juveniles: confrontation, minimization, deception, contamination, and the presence of an un-allied adult. Dr. Malloy said that the combination of Churaman’s age, the presence of his antagonistic mother, his mood disorder and lack of access to his medication made him further vulnerable. She concluded that the confession was unreliable.

The Queens County District Attorney’s office filed a motion to bar Dr. Malloy’s testimony, claiming her testimony was inadmissible for several reasons, including that the average jurors did not need such expert testimony to guide them.

On October 25, 2018, the motion was granted. The judge ruled that there was no advance notice to the prosecution of Dr. Malloy’s testimony and that her testimony would not be needed to assist the jury.

On October 19, 2018, the defense filed a motion arguing that the tape of Churaman’s interrogation contained 31 instances of Churaman being confronted with inculpatory, testimonial statements made by non-testifying witnesses, violating Churaman’s right to cross-examination. The defense did not want those statements to be heard by the jury.

The statements included the detectives telling Churaman that they had “talked to your friends…and we know everything that happened.”

When Churaman denied involvement in the crime, the detectives told him: “[D]on’t let your friends get you in trouble, all right? Because your friends [are] telling a whole different story. You went there to buy weed, correct?...How do you think we got your name? They said this whole thing was your plan….They’re trying to put something serious on you where you’ll never see your mother again.”

“And your friends are saying you did it,” the detectives said.

Most of the 31 statements were false, the defense argued. Wells, the third accomplice, had never been arrested or interviewed. The prosecution said the statements were not offered for their truth, but to give context to Churaman’s denials.

The defense claimed that jurors would be prejudiced by hearing the detectives on the tape, particularly since the defense was not being allowed to present an expert to testify about the deceptive nature of the statements during the interrogation or their propensity for coercing unreliable statements from juveniles.

The defense motion was denied.

In November 2018, Churaman went to trial in Queens County Supreme Court. The prosecution offered shifting theories to support the idea that the crime was a robbery—for drugs, money, or a valuable sneaker collection, although nothing was taken, no drugs or money were found in the home, and the sneakers were in a room that the intruders never entered.

Tyler Deroux, who was Jonathan Legister’s nephew, testified that he smoked marijuana with Churaman several times a week. He said he knew Churaman as “Nick” because Churaman sold marijuana in small quantities known as “nicks.” Deroux said that he and his brother and uncle helped Churaman—allowing him to sleep over, eat meals and shower there because Churaman had a “bad” home environment.

Jonathan Legister testified that he was in his room listening to music through headphones when he got a text from Churaman asking if he was home. Legister said he texted back that he was at home.

Sometime later, Jonathan went downstairs to see who was at the front door. When he opened the door, three males forced their way in. He said Gough assaulted him and the third man put a gun to his head. Jonathan said he was dragged into the kitchen where he saw his mother being held at gunpoint by someone wearing a mask.

Jonathan testified that the person holding a gun to his own head was demanding: “Where’s the money?” Jonathan said he told the gunman to look in an empty shoebox to distract him and when he did, Jonathan rushed him. During the struggle, the gun fell to the floor. Jonathan said he crawled into his mother’s bedroom where he was shot twice. He said that he heard footsteps of the individuals leaving, realized he was bleeding and called 911. After that, he discovered Taquane had been shot dead.

During cross-examination, the defense noted that Jonathan’s phone had not been examined by police to verify his claim about receiving a text from Churaman. Olive Legister testified that she was cleaning up and cooking when she heard someone knock at the door. She thought it was Tyler coming from school, but instead it was three men in masks. She testified that she saw Jonathan being beaten and heard one of them say, “Go and take over grandma.”

At that point, one of the three pointed a handgun at her nose and ordered her into the kitchen. She said she tried to talk to the gunman, but he said, “You are not dead, mama.” She testified that based on those five words, she recognized the gunman as Nick.

She said she saw Jonathan get dragged into a bedroom and that he was saying, “I have no money.” She then heard two gunshots. She said she saw the two men come out of the bedroom and one was dragging his leg.

During cross-examination, Olive admitted that she had testified previously that she had only met “Nick” twice before and that she had given different versions of what the gunman told her. She had told a detective shortly after the shooting that the gunman said, “Don’t worry, me not killing mommy. Me not kill you.”

Detective Eric Bukowski of the Crime Scene Unit testified that he recovered several items from the home, including a cell phone, a black glove, a fired bullet with copper jacket, a can of mace, a swab of possible blood stain, a cell phone, a black shoe box, a bullet shell casing, and a gray sleeveless shirt with a possible bloodstain.

Detective Gallagher admitted during testimony that he never sought Jonathan’s cell phone or Churaman’s cell phone and that there was no attempt to identify any fingerprints in the home.

Detective Christopher Painton testified that in the absence of any firearm, all he could do was compare the bullets recovered to each other, and the result of his comparison was inconclusive.

Dr. Kara Storck from the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner testified Taquane Clark died of gunshot wounds.

Dr. Lana Ostojic from the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner testified that DNA testing linked a ski mask and a backpack recovered in the home to Gough. Dr. Ostojic testified that she examined nothing that linked to Churaman.

The transcript of the interrogation tape was moved into evidence.

After closing arguments, the defense then moved for a mistrial based on the judge’s preclusion of Dr. Malloy, the false confession expert. The motion was denied.

On November 19. 2018, the jury convicted Churaman of second-degree murder, assault, kidnapping, attempted robbery, and criminal possession of a firearm. He was sentenced to nine years to life in prison. By that time, Gough had been convicted in a separate trial. He was sentenced to 65 years to life in prison. Wells was never charged.

Churaman’s attorneys, Ron Kuby and Rhiya Trivedi, appealed.

On June 24, 2020, the New York Appellate Division, Second Department, reversed the convictions and ordered a new trial.

The appellate court ruled that the defense should have been allowed to present Dr. Malloy as a witness.

“Here, the report of the defendant's expert was sufficiently detailed so that it was relevant to this particular defendant, including discussing characteristics that heightened his vulnerability to manipulation, and the interrogation conducted by the detectives, such as the techniques that were utilized and the improper participation of the defendant's mother during the interview,” the court said.

On January 19, 2021, Churaman was released to house arrest and required to wear an ankle monitor.

On June 6, 2022, Queens County Supreme Court Justice Kenneth Holder granted a motion by the prosecution to dismiss the charges.

The following day, attorneys Cary London and Jason Goldman filed a notice with the New York City Office of the Comptroller of their intent to file a lawsuit on Churaman’s behalf seeking $25 million in damages.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 6/27/2022
Last Updated: 6/27/2022
State:New York
County:Queens
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Assault, Kidnapping, Attempt, Violent, Gun Possession or Sale
Reported Crime Date:2014
Convicted:2018
Exonerated:2022
Sentence:9 to life
Race/Ethnicity:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:15
Contributing Factors:False Confession, Perjury or False Accusation
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No