Man jailed years with­out a trial com­mits sui­cide

Kalief Brow­der, whose case spurred calls for re­form in New York, was ‘bro­ken’ by Rik­ers Is­land, at­tor­ney says.

Los Angeles Times - - THE NATION - By Matt Pearce matt.pearce@la­times.com Twit­ter: @Mat­tDPearce

Kalief Brow­der, whose three years in jail with­out trial in­spired calls for re­form in New York, has com­mit­ted sui­cide at age 22, his at­tor­ney said Sun­day.

Brow­der was 16 when he was ar­rested on sus­pi­cion of steal­ing a back­pack, and he spent about two years in soli­tary con­fine­ment. He died at home in the Bronx on Satur­day, at­tor­ney Paul V. Pres­tia said.

“I think what caused the sui­cide was his incarceration and those hun­dreds and hun­dreds of nights in soli­tary con­fine­ment, where there were mice crawl­ing up his sheets in that lit­tle cell,” Pres­tia said in a phone in­ter­view Sun­day evening. “Be­ing starved, and not be­ing taken to the shower for two weeks at a time … those were di­rect con­tribut­ing fac­tors.… That was the pain and sad­ness that he had to deal with ev­ery day, and I think it was too much for him.”

Pres­tia then be­came emo­tional, his voice wa­ver­ing as he re­called Brow­der, whom he said hadn’t had men­tal health prob­lems be­fore he was ar­rested and jailed in 2010.

“He was a good friend of mine — I wasn’t just his at­tor­ney, you know?” Pres­tia went si­lent for a few sec­onds, then con­tin­ued: “He was a re­ally good kid.”

Brow­der came to promi­nence in Oc­to­ber when he was fea­tured in a story by the New Yorker’s Jen­nifer Gon­ner­man ti­tled “Be­fore the Law.” (Gon­ner­man was the first on Sun­day to re­port Brow­der’s death.)

Brow­der, who was black, in­sisted he was in­no­cent. The story told how he had spent two of his three years on Rik­ers Is­land in soli­tary con­fine­ment, and how he had at­tempted sui­cide mul­ti­ple times be­fore pros­e­cu­tors ul­ti­mately dropped the charges in May 2013.

Pub­lic­ity around Brow­der’s case came at a time of in­creas­ing scru­tiny on jails, prisons and mu­nic­i­pal courts, es­pe­cially in how the na­tion’s jus­tice sys­tem treats peo­ple of color.

Brow­der’s story drew a pas­sion­ate out­cry from high-pro­file fig­ures in­clud­ing Rosie O’Don­nell, and it prompted New York Mayor Bill de Bla­sio and Jonathan Lipp­man, the state’s chief judge, to an­nounce re­forms in April that would speed up the city’s mu­nic­i­pal court sys­tem.

“Kalief Brow­der’s tragic story put a hu­man face on Rik­ers Is­land’s cul­ture of de­lay — a cul­ture with pro­found hu­man and fis­cal costs for de­fen­dants and our city,” De Bla­sio said in April.

Brow­der con­tin­ued to strug­gle af­ter leav­ing Rik­ers.

“When he came out [of jail] and I first met him, he was com­pletely bro­ken — I had to show him how to use a com­puter; he had to get a job,” Pres­tia said. “Th­ese were is­sues he was go­ing to have for his whole life. It’s not his fault. He didn’t de­serve that.”

Brow­der made at least one more un­suc­cess­ful sui­cide at­tempt six months af­ter his re­lease.

He got his GED, but strug­gled in his first se­mes­ter at Bronx Com­mu­nity Col­lege be­fore drop­ping out in the fall, Pres­tia said, adding that Brow­der was hos­pi­tal­ized in a men­tal health fa­cil­ity over the hol­i­days in De­cem­ber.

“I’m not all right,” Brow­der told the New Yorker in its Oc­to­ber story. “I’m messed up. I know that I might see some money from this case, but that’s not go­ing to help me men­tally. I’m men­tally scarred right now. That’s how I feel. Be­cause there are cer­tain things that changed about me and they might not go back.”

Brow­der reen­rolled in col­lege in spring and did well, fin­ish­ing the se­mes­ter with a 3.5 GPA, Pres­tia said, and he had a job at the com­mu­nity col­lege tu­tor­ing GED stu­dents.

“He had vary­ing in­ter­ests; I think they changed,” Pres­tia said. “I think he wanted to do some­thing like some sort of busi­ness-man­age­ment type of work, but I don’t think he re­ally found his niche.… He didn’t re­ally have an ed­u­ca­tion in jail. His ed­u­ca­tion was vi­o­lence; that’s what he learned, pre­dom­i­nantly, so he was just feel­ing things out.”

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