QUEENS — Prakash Churaman was 15 years old when detectives showed up at his family’s basement apartment in Jamaica in December 2014 and handcuffed him, charging him with his best friend’s murder.
For two hours and 45 minutes, with his mother sitting in the squad room, Churaman denied he was part of a 3-man team that wore masks and held guns to an elderly grandmother’s head, before her grandson — Churaman’s friend, Taquane — was fatally shot in the head during a botched robbery.
“They were just aggressively interrogating me and, like basically, pressuring me,” Churaman, now 21, said of the two detectives who questioned him.
The victim’s grandmother, Olive Legister, had identified Churaman as one of the masked gunmen by his voice.
Police said the crew wanted to steal marijuana and some high-end items from the house.
The teen eventually admitted being on the scene but denied having a gun or wearing a mask.
Churaman’s current defense lawyer, Jose Nieves, noted, “Ear witnesses are inherently unreliable.”
“The fact of the matter is, you have an elderly person who has the stress of being under gunpoint, whose home is being invaded by people in masks,” Nieves said.
The lead NYPD detective on the case, Barry Brown, was the same investigator who secured a confession from Chanel Lewis in 2017, in the murder of Howard Beach jogger Karina Vetrano.
After four years in a juvenile detention center and then Rikers Island, Churaman was convicted in 2018 of murder.
When Judge Kenneth Holder sentenced Churaman to nine years to life in state prison, he told the teen Churaman was fortunate the crime happened when he was 15, otherwise, he “would never see the light of day.”
Holder had sentenced a 31-year-old man convicted in the same case to 65 years to life.
But Churaman’s conviction was vacated by judges in the appellate division in June 2020, because the original defense attorney, Ronald Kuby, successfully argued Churaman was improperly denied the opportunity to have an expert testify about false confessions involving juveniles.
The judges ruled, “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 risk of of vulnerability to manipulation and the interrogation conducted by the detectives….”
A new trial was ordered.
A movement called #FreePrakashAlliance gained traction, with members raising $20,000, along with additional bail money, to get Churaman out of prison pending a second trial.
“Any opportunity to get him out of there is, I think, a worthwhile cause,” said Joergen Ostensen, a Fordham University student who interviewed Churaman when he was transferred back to Rikers in the fall.
“I think it’s a question of a coercive tactic of a 15-year-old kid who did not understand that he has Fifth Amendment privilege,” Ostensen said. “Prakash’s parent is an immigrant [from Guyana]. She didn’t necessarily understand any differently than he did what was going on.”
Professor Emily Haney-Caron, an attorney and psychologist with John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said parents are not always helpful to their children in the interrogation room.
“In actuality, when parents are in the interrogation room, they almost never help the situation and sometimes they hurt the situation,” Haney-Caron said. “If they’re putting pressure on their child to talk to the police, that may increase the risk of a confession that isn’t really valid.”
Churaman is now home under house arrest and wearing an ankle monitor, expecting he will go to trial again.
Churaman has turned down an offer from the Queens District Attorney’s office to plead guilty to a lesser charge of assault, a deal that would see him freed for good this summer, essentially with time served.
“I’m innocent,” Churaman insisted. “I have morals and ethics. I’m a man at the end of the day. And I know deep down inside I did not commit this crime.”