Tuesday, August 10, 2010

A Crown Heights Homicide: Part II - The Investigation

(Author's note: Earlier this year, I served as a juror in Kings County Supreme Court. The crime was the killing of a homeless man in Crown Heights. What follows is the second installment of my report and reflections on the experience. You can read Part I here.)

The first responder on the scene of Steven Ingram's assault was a beat cop from the 77th Precinct working the graveyard shift. He noted the time of his arrival (but later changed it twice, hampering the investigation), confirmed the presence of an unconscious man, called Emergency Medical Services to confirm that they were on the way, and stood watch. This was all he was required to do, and it was all he did. He did not cordon off the crime scene with police tape to preserve evidence. He made no notes on the evidence or the scene. He did not speak with anyone at the scene to inquire as to how Mr. Ingram ended up lying bloodied and unconscious on the sidewalk. When questioned at trial, he remembered only that he found Mr. Ingram unconscious in a pool of blood.

An ambulance arrived shortly thereafter, and the paramedic who treated Mr. Ingram observed that he had sustained serious blunt force trauma to the head. He did not observe or treat any other injuries to Mr. Ingram. The doctors who treated Mr. Ingram (and later performed his autopsy) confirmed that the source of fatal injuries was blunt force trauma to the head.

The following afternoon, a detective from the 77th Precinct was assigned to the case. He visited the scene, where he took a photo of what appeared to be a dried bloodstain, too far removed from the event for DNA testing. He spoke with a few local residents, none of whom knew the assailant's identity. Finally, he sought and obtained the tapes from the closed-circuit cameras that monitor the Albany Houses for a 45-minute period during which, he thought, the crime took place (as mentioned previously, the original officer on the scene was unclear about his time of arrival). The tapes were recorded and managed by the NYPD's Video Interactive Patrol Enhancement Response (VIPER) Unit, which has most often come under fire as a storage locker for problem cops. In this case, the problem was more elemental - the tapes were utterly and completely useless, the lenses of the cameras dirty and their placement and rotation laughably non-functional. One of the cameras that was supposed to cover the parking lot area where Steven Ingram was assaulted spent nearly half of its panoramic sweep covering the brick wall it was attached to. The detective was unable to see anything on the tapes he watched, which consisted of 90 minutes of film (two cameras during a 45-minute period). He watched no other tapes.

At trial, the detective assured us that he canvassed residents after the initial investigation described above, but that these conversations yielded nothing. The matter was essentially put on hold until December 18, 2007, when Mr. Ingram died and the case became a homicide. At this point, another detective from the Brooklyn North Major Crimes Unit was assigned to assist the 77th's detective, and the two returned to the case, sending Mr. Ingram's clothing to the forensics lab for testing. No DNA other than his own was found. The police did not request that forensic tests be performed on hair and fiber recovered from Mr. Ingram's clothes nor on a small metallic fragment found in the skin of Mr. Ingram's cheek, and these tests were not performed. Renewed canvasses yielded nothing.

In March of 2008, officers arrested a minor (call him Tom) in connection with a robbery. While he was in the station, officers questioning him wondered aloud whether he might have been involved in Mr. Ingram's death, as he was a resident of the Albany Houses. He had seen the man unconscious, as he told police, and had seen two other young men (call them Dick and Harry) kick his body to see if he would respond, put his legs in a wrestling hold, and then rifle through his pockets and take his money.

A few weeks later, an older resident of the Albany Houses was arrested on a separate charge, and revealed when questioned about the case that he had chased off a group of young men for kicking and punching an unconscious man next to his parked car. Nonetheless, Tom, Dick, and Harry all swore that they came upon Mr. Ingram when he was already out cold, and Dick and Harry were later charged with grand larceny for taking his money.

Tom remembered one other thing - he had walked by one of the buildings in the Albany Houses the day after the incident and heard someone brag that "people around here aren't gangster enough to kill someone with their bare hands." Call that someone John.

In putting together the case against Dick and Harry, the detectives learned that John had a friend, Paul, who had an outstanding warrant for failure to appear on an open container summons. In June of 2008, they picked Paul up at 7AM in the Albany Houses. After a few hours at the station, during which time they told him he could be charged with Mr. Ingram's murder, Paul wrote out a pair of statements describing the details of the night of Mr. Ingram's death (covered in Part I). Paul was deeply distraught as he handed these statements incriminating John over to the NYPD. John was arrested soon thereafter and charged with first-degree manslaughter, the only individual charged in the death of Steven Ingram.

The quality of the investigation was a focus of John's defense. John's lawyer derided the work of the first responding officer, pointing out that we never truly learned when the crime took place and that despite ample evidence of an assault, that the officer made no effort to conduct any preliminary investigation. The defense took the 77th's detective to task for failing to comb through available video more thoroughly (at no point in any videos watched by the detectives - or jury - could any assault be seen in progress), and for failure to produce any corroborating testimony, despite Paul's assertion in his statement that nearly 20 people witnessed John's attack. John's lawyer demanded to know why hair, fiber, and metal fragments went untested, and why Dick and Harry were never charged in connection with Ingram's death, despite evidence that they to may have assaulted him.

The jury shared the defense's frustrations with the investigation - some things seemed left undone, and much of the process seemed left to chance, based purely on the willingness of those arrested for other reasons to talk. After the trial, I took my concerns to a friend and veteran of the force. Where many others had listened solemnly as I described the case, he shrugged. "A homeless man found beat up in the projects? They weren't working too hard on that one." Besides, he told me, residents of the Albany Houses and NYCHA sites in general were tight-lipped - no detective was going to learn anything from canvassing them. Ingram's death, which made the case a homicide, was a headache, but still, my friend added, "this wasn't their first priority. This is the kind of case where you need to find a suspect, charge him, and move on." These guys have so many other cases to deal with, he added, that they wouldn't have had the time or motivation to devote beyond the work they put in, particularly as the victim was a homeless man with a record. I expressed no small amount of frustration about this, and he shrugged again "This stuff happens all the time."

Tomorrow: Part III - The Trial


  1. Nick: Thanks for your very thoughtful reflection on your experience on this jury and the very sad circumstances surrounding this crime. I look forward to reading the next installment.