During his nearly eight-year odyssey through the Queens criminal justice system, Prakash Churaman continually professed his innocence while facing murder charges in a case that came to an abrupt and joyous end Monday afternoon.
During a hearing before Queens Supreme Court Justice Kenneth Holder, Churaman on June 6 was exonerated after the Queens district attorney’s office moved to drop all charges in the case and Churaman walked out of the Queens Criminal Courthouse in Kew Gardens a free man.
In 2014, Churaman was a 15-year-old immigrant from Guyana living in Rosedale when he was arrested and charged with the murder of 21-year-old Taquane Clark during a botched home invasion in South Jamaica. He was incarcerated for six years, spending four of those in pre-trial detention on Rikers Island.
Churaman was convicted at the trial in 2018 based on testimony from an “earwitness,” and he was sentenced to nine years to life in prison. The Appellate Division overturned that decision in June 2020 and he was just weeks away from his retrial when the charges were dismissed altogether.
“The truth will always prevail no matter what adversity life brings,” Churaman said on June 7.
His attorney Jose Nieves, who ran for district attorney against then-Borough President Melinda Katz in 2019, took over as Churaman’s criminal defense attorney in 2020. Shortly thereafter, Churaman rejected a plea deal.
“They offered him an Assault 2 charge and he declined,” Nieves said, adding that Churaman refused to admit his guilt for a crime he says he never committed.
On June 7, the Queens DA’s office released a lengthy statement from Katz noting that Nieves filed a motion to dismiss five out of the six charges in the indictment on the grounds that Churaman had a valid defense of “infancy,” a statute that allows prosecution only for certain specified offenses in a criminal court and requires dismissal or removal to family court of all other charges, even after a jury’s guilty verdict.
“Today, more than three years later, defense counsel raises the infancy defense for the first time,” Katz said. “Had counsel properly raised the issue at the time of the initial verdict, this matter would have been disposed of long ago. Even now, counsel raises the issue in an incomplete manner. Counsel does not move for any relief regarding the weapon possession charge, but that charge cannot be prosecuted in this court. Moreover, due to the defendant’s age now, prosecution in family court is no longer an option. As a result, the counts must be dismissed.”
Councilman Shekar Krishnan, who voiced his support for Churaman during a rally outside the Queens Criminal Court last month, was stuck in a budget hearing when he heard the news.
“Prakash Churaman’s freedom is a testament to his own relentless perseverance in proving his innocence,” Krishnan said. “Locked up as a child after a coerced confession, separated from his family for the last quarter of his life, yesterday’s decision to drop all charges will not undo the mental and emotional damage this ordeal has inflicted on Prakash, but it is a result long overdue. Finally, justice was achieved.”
“I’m free,” Churaman said several times as he walked out of court Monday afternoon and after a champagne toast with Nieves and his supporters from the Free Prakash Alliance. One of them offered to cut off his ankle bracelet.
Members of the Jackson Heights-based nonprofit DRUM (Desis Rising Up & Moving), which represents South Asian and Indo-Caribbean immigrant communities, said an investigative piece by Hell Gate exposed that the same NYPD officers in Churaman’s case were found to be hiding evidence in other cases and the city had to pay $2 million in settlements. They further charge that the DA’s office failed to inform the court and Churaman’s attorney.
“The NYPD and the Queens DA knew that they were destroying Prakash’s life for the past eight years,” DRUM’s Racial Justice Organizer Sherry Padilla said. “Who is going to give Prakash back all those years? Who will make up for the years lost between Prakash and his mother?”
DRUM’s Executive Director Fahd Ahmed said Churaman’s case is just one instance of systemic and pervasive issues with the NYPD and the DA offices across the city.
“The Hell Gate investigation exposed additional cases where the same NYPD officers had undertaken similar dirty tactics and destroyed lives,” Ahmed said. “Chanel Lewis’ case has the same patterns. We need an independent investigation into these officers and the Queens DA’s office. We need the Queens DA’s office to pay restitution to Prakash so he can put his life back together.”
Churaman said will file a lawsuit against the city for $25 million. But for now, he is relishing his unexpected freedom.
“After I got the ankle bracelet removed, me and my family and some of my supporters went to a Chinese buffet restaurant on Atlantic Avenue,” Churaman told QNS Tuesday afternoon. “It was my first time I was able to be out of the house and I was like wow, it felt really weird being out after house arrest and free. It’s going to take me some time to digest everything that went down in the last 24 hours.”