Three months to the day after 63-year-old Ozone Park resident Walter Ance died of COVID-19, which he contracted while behind bars on Rikers Island, dozens of protestors rallied outside the Queens Criminal Courthouse in Kew Gardens Monday in order to publicly shame District Attorney Melinda Katz for not fulfilling her campaign promises.
Ance had been held without bail for more than a year for allegedly stabbing his wife and The Legal Aid Society argued for his release, saying he was at high risk due to diabetes and prostate issues. Katz declined his release at the height of the COVID-19 crisis.
“Social distancing is impossible inside Rikers Island, and saving human beings’ lives should be our top priority during a pandemic,” Policy & Strategy Vice President Kandra Clark said. “As a community that believes in the power of personal transformation, individuals and community healing and using restorative justice approaches to mitigate conflict, Exodus Transitional Community calls on Melinda Katz to keep the promises she made, to move away from mass incarceration, and to operate with fairness. Our communities and organizations like Exodus have created other ways to deliver true justice and safety for our communities, but DAs like Melinda Katz have kept choosing incarceration. After decades we finally have a new DA in Queens, but still too many of our fellow New Yorkers are suffering on Rikers Island.”
Protesters held signs citing pledges the group feels she has not fulfilled, along with a photo depicting Katz as Pinocchio. They called on the Queens DA to stop utilizing cash bail to hold people in jail, to consent to release as many people as possible to help stop the spread of COVID-19 inside the walls of the Rikers Island prison complex and to stop opposing the release from prison of people wrongly convicted by her predecessor, the late Richard Brown.
“No one should die in jail or prison. We need to focus on building communities and stop using jail and bail as an excuse for public safety,” Just Leadership USA Member-Leader Peggy Herrera said. “We can’t arrest or incarcerate our way out of the challenges that face our communities. Mental health, homelessness and poverty are not crimes! Neither is a mother who calls for help for her son who suffers from mental health issues. Low-level offenses do not deserve to end in a death sentence, and people should not have to sit in jail because they can’t afford bail or take a plea in order to be released. Rikers Island only adds more trauma. Melinda Katz, Queens needs to do better.”
Katz countered saying when she took office on Jan. 1, she made significant policy changes to reduce the population in city jails and that she is committed to “ultimately ending cash bail because a person’s financial status should not be a factor” in whether they are incarcerated pre-trial.
“As a result, over 70 percent of those charged with bail qualifying offenses have been released either on their own recognizance or with supervision,” Katz said. “Since my first day as district attorney, the number of individuals in jail on a Queens County case has been reduced roughly in half.”
Katz added that since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the city she has worked daily with the mayor’s office, the courts, public defenders and defense attorneys to “prioritize and expedite the release of the most vulnerable,” and that her office actively pursued dispositions and modified sentences to effectuate early releases.
As for Ance’s case, the DA explained in April that he was facing attempted murder charges for allegedly stabbing his estranged wife.
“The stabbing for which he was incarcerated was the culmination of years of physical and mental abuse that the defendant allegedly inflicted upon the victim,” Katz said in a statement. “Despite repeated arrests and orders of protection that were in place, in March of last year Ance walked into the victim’s bedroom and stabbed her once in the chest. Body-worn video footage from police who responded to the scene shows the victim holding her chest and the couple’s son crying and telling police what he witnessed saying ‘he just stabbed her.'”
The protesters said that Katz ran on a platform of fairness and justice, but she is failing to deliver on her promises.
“We are here to remind Melinda Katz of her campaign promises to end cash bail,” Rise & Resist Member Jody Kuh said. “No one should be getting sick and dying behind bars, but Melinda Katz’s broken promises are exposing people to COVID-19, including those who haven’t stood trial and have only been accused of a crime. We all have the obligation to ensure that all are given the same opportunity to protect themselves against this virus.”
The protesters complained that Katz continues to seek cash bail, opposes the release of wrongly convicted people and continues to prosecute people for charges of low-level crimes that she promised to decline.
“Melinda Katz said that she would end money bail, but on the very first case I watched under her regime in Queens, she asked for money bail,” Court Watch NYC and VOCAL-NY Member Jon McFarlane said. “She lied.”
Katz said she will uphold justice and ensure the rights and safety of victims and defendants are safeguarded.
“I will continue, each and every day, to work toward a more equitable system, to restore trust and to help build a community that truly sees each other, hears each other and respects each other,” Katz said.
Additional reporting by Dean Moses.