Another teen victim at Rikers Island
reports on the story of Pedro Hernandez, who is trying to overcome the horrors of New York City's criminal justice system, for himself and others like him.
SIX MONTHS after he was finally released from three agonizing years on Rikers Island based on false charges, Kalief Browder gave an interview in December 2013 to Mark Lamont Hill for Huff Post Live.
After they talked about the brutality that Kalief had endured and his struggle with suicide attempts, Hill turned the conversation to the future. Now that he was free, Hill asked Kalief, "What's next?"
"I can't really tell you what's next," Kalief responded, "but I feel like the whole point of me being on this show is just to get my story out there because I feel like this happens every day. This happens every day.
"I feel like this has got to stop because there's a lot of people in there for stuff they didn't do, and they've got to be in there for about three years, and when they get offered time like me, a lot of people aren't strong so they'll take the plea deal, knowing that they didn't do it. And it happens every day. It happens every day."
Because of his heroic refusal to accept the plea deal--and his eventual suicide in June 2015--Kalief Browder became an international symbol of the brutality and racism of the American criminal justice system, and his name continues to loom over every discussion about Rikers Island Jail.
Immediately after Kalief's death, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio declared that "the changes we are making at Rikers Island are a result of the example of Kalief Browder. So I deeply wish we had not lost him, but he did not die in vain."
In June of this year, de Blasio laid out what he called a "credible path" to shutting down the infamous facility that would take at least a decade.
Yet less than a month later, the story of another brutalized teenager, Pedro Hernandez, has broken out of the walls of Rikers and exposed the emptiness of de Blasio's promises.
LIKE KALIEF Browder, Pedro Hernandez was arrested at the age of 16 on what appear to be completely fabricated charges. Until last week, Pedro had been languishing at Rikers for a year for allegedly firing a gun into a crowd and shooting another teenager in the leg. His bail was initially set at an impossibly high $250,000.
Numerous eyewitnesses--including the victim of the shooting for which Pedro is being charged--not only deny that Pedro was the shooter, but also claim that NYPD Detective David Terrell tried to physically force them to accuse Pedro.
"He wanted me to lie on some light-skinned kid," the victim told NBC New York. "He threatened to push my head into the wall and stuff."
Physically threatening a teenager who suffered a shooting injury may seem unbelievable to those unfamiliar with the daily machinations of the NYPD, but such outrageous misconduct is all in a day's work for many New York City cops.
Terrell is well known to the residents of Morrisania, the South Bronx neighborhood where the 42nd Precinct is located, and to Pedro Hernandez in particular. Terrell has a string of pending lawsuits for wrongful arrests and was recently caught on camera forcing neighborhood teens to literally roll the dice in a game of sidewalk craps to save their friend in the back of his squad car from getting arrested.
Terrell arrested Pedro once before, landing the then-15-year-old at the Sheltering Arms Children and Family Services juvenile detention site in the Kingsbridge neighborhood. The charges from Terrell's arrest were eventually dropped. but not before Pedro was severely beaten there by a 60-year-old counselor named Gregory Hyman.
Hyman was eventually charged with multiple crimes against Pedro, including assault, endangering the welfare of a child and "criminal obstruction of breathing and blood circulation.". But despite clear video evidence, it took nearly two years for him to be arrested.
The incident at the misnamed Sheltering Arms and Pedro's subsequent experience with the justice system has left him "mentally devastated," said his mother Jessica Perez to NBC New York. "He sometimes tells me he wants to die."
THE DISTRICT Attorney (DA) offered Pedro to be released and get time served and probation in exchange for pleading guilty. But like Kalief Browder, Pedro refused to plead guilty for a crime he didn't commit.
The overwhelming evidence that could prove Pedro's innocence goes even beyond the eyewitness testimony. A time and date-stamped video from his building's security camera shows Pedro returning from a trip to the grocery store during the time of the shooting. Then there's the fact that Terrell has already been stripped of his gun and badge, and placed on modified duty for an "off-duty domestic incident."
Yet Pedro Hernandez would still be on Rikers today if his mother hadn't been his tireless advocate, reaching out to news channels and sympathetic reporters like Shaun King of the New York Daily News.
"Everybody needs to stand together and say that our kids don't deserve a plea deal," Perez told WPIX. "They deserve a future."
After graduating high school with honors from a program on Rikers, Pedro was set to receive a scholarship that would pay his way through college. But the fact that he was still incarcerated was going to prevent him from receiving it.
So his mother set out to crowdsource funds, putting out a desperate plea to pay her son's exorbitant bail. Over 3,000 people from around the world responded with donations that totaled over $105,000.
Incredible as that was, it still wasn't enough. Perez had to move yet another mountain. Court-imposed bail restrictions required her to prove where the money was coming from, meaning that she would need to collect bank statements from every donor. With so many thousands of people from every corner of the globe, that was obviously impossible.
Miraculously, a sympathetic--and very wealthy--donor got wind of Pedro's story and offered to put up the bail. While the courts wouldn't accept the money from the crowdsourcing site, they couldn't refuse it from Kerry Kennedy of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Organization. For some reason, once Kennedy got involved, the judge reduced the bail to $100,000.
After 13 trying months, Pedro was released on bail to be home with his family, in the nick of time to still have a shot at the scholarship.
PEDRO'S TROUBLES aren't over. The New York Daily News reports he is still "facing charges of criminal possession of a weapon, criminal possession of a firearm, assault and reckless endangerment."
The Bronx DA needs to drop the charges immediately. There is not a shred of evidence that supports the claims of abusive cops, and Pedro shouldn't have to wait for some internal investigation.
Moreover, it is clear that Pedro, like countless others, is the target of predatory cops who are allowed, as a matter of course, to harass and abuse the teenagers who live in the neighborhoods they patrol.
"Pedro has been falsely arrested four times in the past year," said attorney John Scola when Pedro was first arrested. "He's beaten every case because he didn't do it. Basically, they are trying to pin things on him in order to save face because of a vendetta."
Pedro's case isn't just about one corrupt cop, but an entire system riddled with abusers and those who encourage, enable and cover up for them. He's faced indifference, contempt, abuse and cruelty from every corner of New York City's justice system.
While he is thankfully home now, Pedro is going to have to step back into the same society that seems determined to break him down. And, thus far, he seems even more determined to fight for his life, as well as those still languishing at Rikers Island without a wealthy donor to save them.
"Incarceration at Rikers has been incredibly difficult for me," Hernandez wrote in a note to all those who made a donation to his bail fund. "But it was my family who truly suffered. Being back with them is the greatest gift."
"There are too many more like me who are still inside Rikers," he added, "just because they can't afford to pay bail. I hope my experience elevates their struggle and causes all of us to rethink how we treat those who are least able to purchase their freedom."