Inmates charged with violent crimes poised for release due to COVID-19
NY state and local officials are seeking the release of nearly 1,500 inmates.
Two men allegedly involved in a robbery where a New York City police detective was killed in friendly fire were among the violent offenders on the list of inmates slated to be released from the infamous Rikers Island jail complex due to the coronavirus pendemic, until prosecutors intervened, multiple sources told ABC News.
Christopher Ransom, 28, and Jagger Freeman, 26, were charged with armed robbery in connection with the February 2019 shooting death of NYPD Detective Brian Simonsen. They appeared on a list of names obtained by ABC News that also included Viktoriya Nasyrova, 45, who was accused of trying to kill a woman in 2016 with a poisoned cheesecake.
The only thing that kept alleged violent offenders from being released was the intervention of the city’s five district attorneys, who said in a joint letter issued Monday that “we want to make clear that the categories of those proposed for release have, in some instances, included individuals who pose a high risk to public safety.”
As the coronavirus, formally known as COVID-19, began its stranglehold on New York State, it crept into Rikers Island, a sweeping complex near LaGuardia Airport that is one of the largest jail compounds in the world. The virus infected the first correction staff member on March 15 and an inmate three days later.
The arrival of the virus prompted city officials, defense attorneys and advocates to call for the of release inmates, since jails are notorious breeding grounds for germs.
New York City's Board of Correction (NYCBOC), which oversees the Department of Correction (DOC), instructed the city and criminal justice agencies to work together to "immediately remove" inmates at higher risk from COVID-19 and to rapidly decrease the jail population.
"The City’s jails have particular challenges to preventing disease transmission on a normal day and even more so during a public health crisis," according to a March 17 statement issued by the NYCBOC.
Rikers Island at the time of the first diagnosis housed more than 5,000 inmates in separate facilities on an island along the East River between the Bronx and Queens.
'High risk to public safety'
In a joint letter sent to the New York City's Mayor Bill de Blasio and the DOC's Commissioner Cynthia Brann, the city's five district attorneys and its special narcotics prosecutor said that they supported reducing the number of those incarcerated -- but not haphazardly and without a plan.
"We fully appreciate the unique risks that the COVID-19 virus poses in our jails, and we agree that the number of those incarcerated must decrease to limit the spread of the virus on Rikers Island and in other facilities," the district attorneys wrote. "At the same time, we want to make clear that the categories of those proposed for release have, in some instances, included individuals who pose a high risk to public safety. In such instances, we have communicated our concerns, but these concerns have not always been heeded."
Defense attorneys and the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice (MOCJ) collected hundreds of names to propose to the district attorney offices in the jurisdiction of their clients' pending or closed cases.
MOCJ created a list of 84 inmates with underlying health conditions that would put them at higher risk if they came into contact with the coronavirus, according to two separate sources.
Representatives from each prosecutors' office had the option of agreeing or objecting to the inmates' release.
But prosecutors claimed in the letter sent on Monday that their "concerns have not always been heeded."
"As an example, when we learned last week that the Commissioner of Corrections was about to use her authority to order an across-the-board release of hundreds of inmates serving city sentences, we were assured that the release would not include those serving time for domestic violence or sex offenses, given the risks to victims. Unfortunately, we later learned that such individuals were indeed included in the ranks of those to be released," the letter read.
In other situations when an objection was made, MOCJ or defense attorneys would file a writ of habeas corpus -- an order to physically bring the client to court to argue if their imprisonment is lawful -- and argue for the client's release before a judge, another source said.
A Manhattan supreme court judge released accused murderer Pedro Vinent-Barcia from Rikers Island after Legal Aid Society lawyers successfully argued on Thursday that because of the 63-year-old's cardiovascular disease, he is at high risk if exposed to COVID-19, The New York Post first reported. The public defender organization was also able to argue for the release of 15 others, over prosecutor's objections, according to the Post.
The Legal Aid Society declined a request to comment for this story.
More lists of prisoners
After the first list was reviewed by the district attorneys' offices, MOCJ then submitted two other lists, according to another source.
A portion of one of the lists obtained by ABC News revealed that MOCJ requested that high-profile defendants Ransom, Freeman and Nasyrova be released.
Freeman, 26, and Ransom, 28, are alleged armed robbers charged in connection with the February 2019 death of NYPD Detective Brian Simonsen, who was killed by friendly fire. Nasyrova, 45, is accused of attempting to kill a woman in 2016 with poisoned cheesecake in order to steal her identity and remain on the run for a murder she allegedly committed in Russia.
Also included the same list obtained by ABC News were almost two dozen others awaiting trial for violent felony offenses.
Another source said MOCJ also suggested that rapists and a man awaiting trial for a double homicide case be released.
The DOC referred requests for comment about the release of inmates to MOCJ.
Avery Cohen, a spokeswoman for MOCJ, said in a statement on Tuesday morning that New York City is "facing an unprecedented public health crisis...That's why we have chosen to pursue the release of medically vulnerable individuals and those with lower level offenses."
"At the same time, we are doing everything we can to safely and humanely house those in our custody including opening up new housing units to ensure social distancing and moving everyone who is medically vulnerable into dedicated housing units where they can be separated and receive adequate clinical attention," said Cohen.
Another spokesman told ABC News that the ability to release inmates awaiting trial rest solely with the district attorneys and the courts, but did not explain why accused violent offenders were considered for release.
No plan in place
The prosecutors' two-page letter also raised concerns about the lack of a plan for how the inmates will be handled following their release, including their housing, supervision, and support-service needs.
Prosecutors offered a list of recommendations for the city to follow in order to give the public and courts the reassurance that releasing the inmates will "keep our communities both healthy and safe."
For instance, they suggested that additional resources be allocated to protect victims and survivors who may be vulnerable due to the unexpected return of these individuals. They also said additional resources should be allocated to provide adequate supervision and address critical needs, including testing for COVID-19 prior to release. They also said that those who remain detained should receive the resources necessary to live in sanitary conditions with quality medical care.
As of Friday, Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance had consented to the release of 259 inmates. Vance's office also completely vacated the convictions of nine inmates who had less than 90 days remaining on their sentence for low-level misdemeanors -- seven for petty larceny, one for fifth-degree criminal possession of stolen property, another for second-degree menacing -- and were over the age of 35.
Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez has consented to the release of about 120 inmates, and Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz has agreed to the release 30.
Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark said in a separate statement that her office has agreed to the release of "number of inmates" and are evaluating others.
"However, we cannot ignore in our assessment the seriousness of the crime for which an inmate is incarcerated, as well the impact that their release might have on public safety," Clark said. "Those who currently remain incarcerated are accused of the most serious violent offenses including murder, and their release will affect public safety. My duty is to protect the public, and the victims and survivors who remain vulnerable knowing that many of the individuals who were incarcerated are returning to the community."
The prosecutors also believe that the city's jails are capable of providing sufficient health care for the remaining population of inmates given the recent reduction in the city jail population and the increased housing options in city jail facilities. The Eric M. Taylor Center on Rikers Island has been reopened for those in custody who have tested positive for COVID-19 and new intakes who are showing symptoms.
Last week, Mayor de Blasio announced the release of 375 inmates as Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the release of 1,100 inmates statewide who are in jail for low-level parole violations.
On Friday, Legal Aid Society announced that they were also able to secure the release of 106 inmates.
The resulting jail population -- Rikers Island's lowest since the 1940s -- means that DOC is now ensuring social distancing by making sure there is an empty bed in between people in custody to increase space while sleeping.
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