By Aminta Kilawan Narine, Esq.
This is the kind of story you’d see on a Netflix series. Prakash Churaman, was just 15 years old when police entered the basement apartment he was living in with his mother in Jamaica, Queens on December 9, 2014 at around 6:00am. He recalled them saying. “Listen, we gotta take you to the precinct.” Churaman thought, “What?” The police had neither an arrest warrant or a search warrant. “They came in, placed me in handcuffs, held me in an unmarked vehicle somewhere in Queens for about three hours.” Prakash said, “I was living at 142nd Street and Foch Blvd. That was only 10 minutes from the 113th Precinct. Why did it take so long?” Churaman was eventually taken to the 113th Precinct where he indicated he was aggressively and vigorously interrogated. “I had no experience with law enforcement like that. I had never been placed in an interrogation room,” Churaman said.
At the precinct, Churaman was handcuffed to a wall until his mother arrived. Detective Barry Brown, who notably has a history of misconduct, alongside Detective Daniel Gallagher, steered Churman into waiving his right to have an attorney present, paving the way for them to coerce Churaman into making a false confession on the brutal murder of his friend 21-year-old Taquane Clark. According to Churaman, Brown cursed and yelled at him while Gallagher remained generally quiet, the two playing good cop/bad cop. In a recent article in The Independent, Churaman was quoted saying, “I really did not know what to do. I was lost. I didn’t know what they were talking about. I don’t even know why I’m here. Eventually, I broke down. At one point in the interrogation tape, I said, ‘I’ll say whatever you want to hear.”
Here’s what happened. In 2014, three men robbed a home in Jamaica, Queens. In the midst of the crime, 21 year old Taquane Clark was shot to death, and Jonathan Legister, Clark’s uncle, was wounded. One of the assailants was also shot, and left behind DNA evidence linked to 28 year old Elijah Gough, who was ultimately found guilty in 2018 and sentenced to 65 years to life in prison. During the robbery, Olive Legister, Jonathan Legister’s mother, was also present and was held hostage. She subsequently told the police that she believed the voice of one of the robbers was Churaman’s, who had been a friend of her son. It was solely on the basis of this ear-witness testimony that police felt they had probable cause to arrest Churaman.
Churaman hails from Berbice, Corentyne, Guyana. He was born in Skeldon Hospital, and his family is half Hindu, half Muslim. Churaman migrated from Guyana to Florida when he was around 6 years old. His childhood wasn’t easy. His parents divorced and he and his little sister had been living with his father. Churaman experienced family violence while there. At about 11 years old, he let the local Children’s Services agency know that he no longer wished to live with his father. “Me and my pops always had issues. He used to beat up on me all the time. I didn’t want to live with him anymore.”
Over the course of his childhood and during the time he was arrested, detained and interrogated, Churaman had been taking psychotropic medications for depression and anxiety.
Churaman was ultimately convicted on the basis of his false confession and the ear-witness testimony. He spent most of his formative young adult years behind bars at Rikers Island. While incarcerated, Churaman realized he had to literally fight for his life and single-handedly developed his own advocacy team including a surprising ally in cellist Jacob Cohen who had become one of Churaman’s closest confidantes. The two struck up a friendship while Cohen visited Rikers Island for a music program designed for inmates. Churaman said, “One day, Jacob asked about my case and I told him. He said no, this is crazy, something has to be done.” The two established a GoFundMe page and created a video on YouTube to amplify Churaman’s story. Churaman’s case has received coverage from several local and Citywide news outlets.
Now at 21 years-old, Churaman is out on bail relying on funds to sustain himself and his mother collected from the aforementioned GoFundMe page. He currently lives with an ankle monitor and cannot plan for his uncertain future. At a rally held before his last court appearance on the steps of the Queens Criminal Court, Churaman ended a rousing message by saying, “Free Them All!” He sees the injustice that occurs at the hands of the carceral system to Black and Brown young men of South Queens where he is from. “When I say free them all, I mean free everyone that has been illegally detained, everyone who is innocent behind bars.” Churaman has been offered two plea deals, but refused both of them, maintaining his innocence. He was offered the opportunity to plead guilty to a lesser charge and to be released from jail, but will not consider entering a guilty plea. “I look at my interrogation tape and it is an exact replica of the Central Park Five,” Churaman stated, referencing the case of five Black and Latino youth falsely convicted of assaulting a female jogger in Central Park who were later exonerated after a prison inmate confessed to the crime in 2002.
Churaman is hoping that his Caribbean people will support him in all aspects. “I want them to support me, physically, emotionally, and even spiritually, you know what I mean?” he said. “Strong community ties play a huge role, especially when I go to trial. The jury will look at the people behind me,” said Churaman.
A rally will be held before Churaman’s next court appearance on May 3 at 1pm in front of the Queens Criminal Court located at 125-01 Queens Boulevard, Queens, NY 11415.