Boy Charged in Barnard Student Stabbing Highlights Perils of Navigating The Justice System As a Minor

A 13-year-old boy accused in the stabbing death of Barnard College student Tessa Majors will face felony murder and robbery charges, a judge ruled on December 17. But, the boy’s defense attorney cast doubt on the teen’s alleged confession, saying detectives yelled at him and asked leading questions during interrogation, according to The New York Times.

The boy reportedly confessed that he and two of his classmates from P.S. 180 went to Morningside Park on the evening of December 11 to rob people. The three boys initially followed a man with the intention of robbing him, but ultimately decided to confront Majors.

The two older boys, both 14 years old, placed Majors in a chokehold while they mugged her, the 13-year-old told police. He told police he witnessed one of his friends stab Majors with a knife before the three ran away. Majors managed to struggle up a set of stairs where she was discovered by a police officer. She was taken to Mount Sinai St. Luke’s Hospital, where she ultimately died due to her injuries.

Authorities used the park’s surveillance video to track the three boys back to their homes, where police reportedly recovered knives, none of which have turned out to be the murder weapon. Detectives interrogated the 13-year-old, who allegedly confessed to investigators.

One of the 14 year olds invoked his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent when investigators attempted to interview him with his lawyer and mother present. He was then released. Officials said that the second 14-year-old, who is believed to have stabbed Majors, has not be located. The New York Post reported that he jumped out of a moving car on December 16 while on his way to meet detectives, prompting a manhunt in Harlem.

The names of the three boys are not being released due to their age.

At a hearing in Family Court on December 17, public defender Hannah Kaplan cast doubt on the reliability of the 13-year-old’s confessions. Kaplan suggested that a detective yelled at the boy and asked leading questions during the interrogation, The New York Times reported. The boy’s uncle, who is one of the boy’s legal guardians, was present during the interrogation but a lawyer was not.

The Legal Aid Society, which is representing the 13-year-old boy, said it was “absolutely troubled” that their client was questioned and interrogated by police without an attorney present.

“Tessa Majors’ death is a terrible tragedy and we extend our condolences to her family, friends, and everyone affected by it,” the Legal Aid Society said in a statement. “We caution, however, against any rush to judgment that would only cause additional harm to the Harlem and Barnard communities. No one should seek to exploit this tragedy to press for new, ill-advised criminal sanctions against our young clients.”

This case comes more than 30 years after the arrests of the Central Park 5, five Black and Latinx boys accused of robbing and raping a 28-year-old white woman in Central Park. Detectives in that case used questionable interrogation tactics, including keeping the teenage boys awake for nearly two days and videotaping their so-called confessions. The boys were convicted without any forensic evidence to tie them to the crime.

In 2002, convicted rapist Mattias Reyes finally confessed to raping the 28-year-old jogger. His DNA matched a sample collected at the scene. Reyes, who was serving a life sentence at the time of his confession, was not prosecuted for the Central Park rape because the statute of limitations had passed.

It’s been seventeen years since Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Kharey (Korey) Wise and Raymond Santana had their convictions vacated. But how much has been done to protect minors from experiencing the same injustices they experienced 30 years ago?

Push For Reforms in Juvenile Interrogation

The New York State Legislature is considering a juvenile interrogation bill in both the Assembly and the Senate. Assembly bill A6982-A, or S4980 as it is known in the New York Senate, would radically change how law enforcement in the state are allowed to interrogate juveniles.

Kate De Zengotita, from the public defense firm New York County Defender Services, explained that current New York State law does not require an attorney or a parent/legal guardian to be present during an interrogation of a minor. Parents and legal guardians must be made aware of the child’s Miranda rights, but they do not necessarily need to be present when their child is being questioned by police, De Zengotita told The North Star.

The bill, which was introduced on April 3, would require law enforcement to notify the parent or legal guardian that the minor has been taken into custody. De Zengotita said that the bill would require minors taken into custody to consult with an attorney before being able to waive their Miranda rights.

New York State Senator Jamaal Bailey, who, along with Assemblywoman Latoya Joyner introduced the bill, told The North Star that the bill will allow for “someone competent” to be present if a juvenile is being questioned by law enforcement. Bailey noted that young people often don’t realize the gravity of the charges against them and “their parents may not be well schooled in the justice system as we would presume an adult to be.”

There is support for the bill in both houses, Bailey said, adding that he plans to work hard for it to pass the state Senate. The bill, De Zengotita noted, “would be like the most progressive [bill] of its kind in the country if it were to pass.”

De Zengotita told The North Star that she “absolutely” supports the new bill. “No child should be deemed capable of making a 'knowing, voluntary and intelligent' waiver of his or her rights under Miranda without first consulting with counsel,” she said. “The current law leaves a terrifying amount of room for confusion, coercion and unlawful or false confessions.”

Other states, however, have even greater protections in place.

West Virginia state law does not allow the admission of statements from minors under the age of 14 to law enforcement without legal counsel. Minors between the ages of 14 and 16 must have either legal counsel or a parent or “interested adult” who has been informed of the minor’s rights.

California recently passed a law that minors aged 15 and under must consult with an attorney before they can give any type of confession to a law enforcement officer while in custody. “But a lawyer worth their salt would never say, ‘Go ahead, talk to the police,’” De Zengotita said.

Indiana adopted a per se rule that requires the adult and juvenile be advised of their rights. According to Litigating Miranda in Juvenile Cases, the adult must understand the juvenile’s rights and have the opportunity to advise the juvenile as to whether they should waive their rights.

In Colorado, a parent or interested adult must be present when a minor is being questioned or interrogated by law enforcement. While in Massachusetts, New Jersey and Kansas, parents must be present during questioning if the minor is under the age of 14.

Navigating the Criminal Justice System as a Minor

The 13-year-old boy in the Majors case was charged with felony murder and robbery, which means that he is not accused of actually committing murder but of committing a felony — in this case a robbery — during which a murder occurred. The felony murder charge the boy faces is considered a “designated felony,” which could result in the strictest punishment for juvenile offenders.

De Zengotita explained that juvenile court systems use “all kinds of nice words” to separate itself from adult criminal court. Juveniles are not convicted in Family Court, instead the juvenile court makes a formal finding called adjudication. Afterward, juveniles are not sentenced but instead receive a disposition.

Due to his age, the boy is being tried in Family Court and not adult criminal court. His two friends, both 14-year-olds, will likely be tried in adult criminal court if they are charged with intentional murder. Minors charged with intentional murder under New York State law can be tried as adults.

If a Family Court finds the 13-year-old boy is guilty, there are several outcomes he could face. De Zengotita noted that he could be placed on probation, but he could also be given “restrictive placement,” which would be an initial placement of five years that could be extended every year until the boy is 21. The initial year of that restrictive placement would be at one of the State’s secure placement facilities.

Judge Carol Goldstein ruled there is probable cause to proceed with felony murder and robbery charges against the 13-year-old boy. Goldstein ordered the 13-year-old be held at least through the end of the year. Another hearing is scheduled for January 2, 2020.

About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has published in various venues, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Europe, Asia, Australia and the Americas.