Back in June, I was selected as a juror for what turned out to be a three-week-long criminal trial in Kings County Supreme Court. By pure coincidence, the crime took place at the NYCHA Albany Houses in Crown Heights where the victim, the defendant, and multiple witnesses lived. I explained to the judge and attorneys during the selection process that I was a local resident and blogger, but they felt this didn't disqualify me and they kept me on the case. The experience was unlike any other I've had, and one that I'm thankful for despite the sense of profound frustration it left with me. After kicking it around my head all summer and talking it to pieces with friends and family, I feel I've finally got enough perspective to tackle it here. I'm also out of town this week, which makes a short serial on the trial a convenient way to keep writing. Here goes:
Sometime in the very early hours of September 29, 2007, a 911 call was received from a cell phone stating that a man was lying unconscious in a pool of blood on a sidewalk in the Albany Houses. When police and EMS arrived, they found Steven Ingram unresponsive but alive, his clothes stained with blood and his face swollen and disfigured from what appeared to have been an assault. Mr. Ingram was taken to Kings County Hospital, where he lay in a coma for over two months before succumbing to his injuries on December 18, 2007. The cause of death was determined to be blunt force trauma to the head, and the case, hitherto an unsolved assault, became a homicide. The sidewalk where Mr. Ingram was found is pictured above.
Who was Mr. Ingram? He was an African-American man in his fifties, slightly built at 5'4" and less than 130 pounds upon his admittance to KCH. He was a Vietnam veteran and a native of Brooklyn, as we learned from his niece at the trial. He was not married and had no children, but he had lived with extended family members on and off and came around to see them at holidays. He was homeless, a sufferer of alcoholism and drug addiction with a long criminal record, as we learned during cross-examination, and someone whom locals referred to as "that crackhead Stevie," which we heard the defense lawyer say but which was stricken from our official record, as the court does not conscience the besmirching of homicide victims. He was a collector of cans and bottles, and frequently seen at the Albany Houses, according to the residents who testified, and he was never known to be aggressive or violent.
So why was Mr. Ingram killed, and by whom? Despite his past substance abuse, this was not a drug-related crime, nor was it a crime of passion, a gang initiation, or vigilante justice. According to eyewitness testimony, Mr. Ingram passed the evening of September 28, 2007 collecting cans and puttering around the Albany Houses. Meanwhile, a group of teenagers and young adults gathered at a party in one of the housing project's six 16-story towers, where they partied, as partygoers do, with a little booze and a little weed. One attendee was dancing with a girl, who turned out to have a boyfriend, who in turn had a problem with the first guy dancing with his girlfriend and decked him. A scuffle ensued, and the unwelcome dancer left the party in a rage, accompanied by a good friend. When the two got clear of the party, they came across Steven Ingram, and the angry teenager took a swing at him, hard enough to miss and fall down. Ingram turned and ran, but his assailant chased him down, hit him again, knocked him to the ground, and continued swinging. His friend tried to pull him clear, failed, and ran to get help.
Eyewitness accounts are scattered beyond this point - it is unknown how long this young man, a teenager at the time, hit Ingram, when or why he stopped, what condition he left Ingram in, or where he went afterward. A group of people was seen gathering around the victim, punching and kicking him, and another group (or perhaps the same one) was seen stealing money from his pocket and performing wrestling holds on his unconscious body, but by the time the police arrived, Ingram was unconscious and alone. He would never wake up.
The Albany Houses are a New York City Housing Authority complex that sits between Albany and Troy Avenues, Bergen Street, and Park Place in Crown Heights. Completed in 1950, the original project houses 1,965 people, and an additional three buildings built in 1957 adjacent to the original site house another 944. The New York Times Homicide Map shows 32 violent deaths within a quarter-mile of the Albany Houses since 2003. NYCHA's Fact Sheet states that the average family in one of these units gets by on $23,187 a year, and that nearly half (49.5%) are below the federal poverty line ($22,050). Over half of NYCHA families (52.6%) do not work, and minors under 21 account for 36.8 of the public-housing population (29.7% are under 18). Those under 18 at the Albany Houses attend Paul Robeson High School, which was one of 19 failing schools nearly closed last year and where a student shared an ugly tale of neglect and criminal behavior last year (the Post has made Paul Robeson a cornerstone of its campaign to close failing schools, but in the school's defense, it produced the four eloquent, brilliant young women who participated in the Crown Heights Oral History Project). Crime in the 77th Precinct, where the Albany Houses are located, is down from where it was 20 years ago, but remains higher than the city averages. Numbers are hard to come by for specific areas, but across the board, homelessness is high in Brooklyn, and the risk of being the victim of a crime is much higher for the homeless.
In subsequent posts, I'll explore the ways in which a case like this is handled by the executive and judicial branches of New York State, from the police investigation to the trial itself. Many parts of the process were maddening, but the core of my disquiet lies rooted in the facts of the case, and the facts of the Albany Houses, as detailed above. The young people who live in the Albany Houses comprise over a third the project's residents. They are unlikely to work and even less likely to graduate from the failing school they attend (Robeson's graduation rate is 40%). Their families live on or below the poverty line, and violent crime is a constant threat. Does this last fact, do perhaps all of these facts, cheapen life? They must, or how else would one (or more) of these young men have been able to beat a helpless, homeless man to death and walk away?
A final note on Steven Ingram, whose death was not reported anywhere. He was killed, as are many homeless people, for being homeless, for being an easy target in a world that did not value him. Deaths like his are a major reason the National Coalition for the Homeless is seeking to have the homeless protected by hate-crime laws. Hate, however, may be too narrow a concept to describe what killed Steven Ingram, for while a quick flash of hatred may have animated his young assailant's mind, it is our collective apathy, a crime of disinterest, that allows this hate to find expression so easily and so frequently.