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A Young Prisoner’s Dilemma: Freedom or a Risky Shot at Clearing His Name

Prakash Churaman wants to prove his innocence after being convicted of so-called felony murder at age 15.
Prakash Churaman wants to prove his innocence after being convicted of so-called felony murder at age 15.
Courtesy of Prakash Churaman

Prakash Churaman, behind bars since age 15 on a felony murder conviction, recently got a new trial and an offer from Queens prosecutors: plead guilty to a lesser charge and walk away at age 21 next summer.

But he maintains his innocence, and is willing to risk getting sent away for 25 years to life.

“I’m not taking it because I’m innocent,” Churaman told THE CITY during a phone interview from Rikers Island.

His pro-bono lawyer, Ron Kuby, wants him to reconsider — and wants off the case.

“We have differences in our view of how he should be defended,” said Kuby, who called his client’s teen years “a remarkably sad story.”

Kuby, who has a long career of taking on difficult cases while championing liberal causes, took the unusual step of petitioning the judge to be relieved.

Queens Justice Kenneth Holder ruled that Kuby must remain on the case, saying it would be impossible for another attorney to be able to get up to speed before the upcoming trial tentatively set to begin in the next few months.

“I was really shocked it was denied,” Kuby said.

ID’d by Voice

The case has been winding its way through the court system since Churaman’s arrest on Dec. 9, 2014.

Authorities contend he was one of three masked gunmen who busted into a home in Jamaica, where 21-year-old resident Taquane Clark was fatally shot and another person was wounded.

A woman who lives on the ground floor testified in Churaman’s first trial that she recognized his voice as one of her grandson’s friends. No DNA linking him to the scene was ever found.

It is unclear why the trio burst into the home. Cops initially said they were looking for marijuana, but prosecutors later alleged they were looking to steal pricey sneakers.

After he was picked up by cops, Churaman, then 15, spent the first nearly three hours insisting he was innocent. He later confessed to being involved, but maintained he didn’t wear a mask or carry a gun.

“I was taking psychotropic medications for anxiety and depression,” Churaman, who called Clark his “best friend,” told THE CITY last week. “They coerced a false confession.”

He noted that his mother, whom he says didn’t understand the gravity of the situation, gave police permission to speak to him.

Defense lawyer Ron Kuby in 2014.
Defense lawyer Ron Kuby in 2014.
Thomas Altfather Good/Wikimedia Commons

“I felt trapped,” he recalled. “I felt like I had no other choice but to just say whatever they wanted to hear.”

Prosecutors said Churaman made incriminating statements to NYPD Detective Barry Brown after his arrest.

Brown was also involved in drawing a confession from 20-year-old Chanel Lewis in the 2016 slaying of Karina Vetrano in Howard Beach. Lewis, who was convicted in 2019, later recanted and has maintained his innocence.

Churaman spent more than three years locked up before his case went to trial in 2018.

“I can’t really express the injustice I’ve experienced,” he told THE CITY. “I literally grew up behind bars.”

In December 2018, he was sentenced to nine years to life in prison after he was convicted on a series of charges, including second-degree murder and kidnapping.

In February 2018, Elijah Gough was sentenced to 65 years to life in prison. The third person has never been identified.

Murder by Association

The case has brought new attention to the so-called felony murder charge for Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz who took over as the borough’s top prosecutor in January.

New York’s felony murder statute allows people to be charged even if they didn’t kill anyone, as long as the death occurred while they are committing another serious crime.

Canada and the United Kingdom have nixed that sort of charge. So have several states, including Hawaii and Kentucky.

Criminal justice advocates contend the charge unfairly punishes criminal accomplices.

In California, lawmakers voted to restrict the offense by eliminating cases in which defendants had little to do with the original crime and no intent to kill.

In June, Churaman’s conviction was overturned and a new trial was ordered up by state appeals judges who ruled police may have unfairly browbeaten him into making a false confession.

The Appellate Division judges also said that his defense should have been allowed to present an expert witness on false confessions.

“As the evidence of the defendant’s guilt was not overwhelming, the error in precluding the testimony of the defendant’s expert was not harmless,” the panel ruled.

Katz’s office is trying to avoid another trial, court records show.

Prosecutors offered to let Churaman plead guilty to an assault charge with a 3 ⅓ to 10 years sentence. That would mean he’d likely be free to go in August.

But the plea would require him to admit to being part of the crew that was involved in Clark’s death.

“I don’t even care if they gave me time served,” Churaman said. “I’m not taking it. I’m being accused of being part of the murder of my best friend knowing I did not commit this crime.”

He’s lined up a new attorney while Kuby files paperwork asking the judge to reconsider.

“I respect his right to make these decisions,” Kuby said. “He’s not 15 anymore. He has seen the legal system. He has seen the worst of it.”

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