During the past week, we got a glimpse of two sides of the NYPD’s investigative capabilities: patient and thorough in a high-profile murder case, shoddy in probing an alleged rape that didn’t attract attention until it made the front page of the New York Times as a study in how to alienate a victim.
The good work came in the arrests of the two 14-year-olds alleged to be the primary culprits in the stabbing death of Tessa Majors, an 18-year-old Barnard College student, after she resisted their attempt to rob her last Dec. 11. The boy accused of inflicting the fatal wounds, Rashaun Weaver, evaded capture for several weeks, apparently by hiding in a relative’s home to allow a bite wound he got from Ms. Majors to heal.
In the interim, Detectives working in tandem with the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office gathered other evidence, reportedly including a recording of Mr. Weaver allegedly stating that he stabbed Ms. Majors because she wouldn’t give up her cellphone, and his DNA, which was found under the victim’s fingernails. The second teenager who will be tried as an adult in the case on second-degree murder charges, Luchiano Lewis, was accused of holding Ms. Majors so she couldn’t get away as Mr. Weaver stabbed her.
His attorney questioned how sound the case was against Mr. Lewis by pointing to how long it took for him to be charged. In fact, that is reason to have confidence that cops arrested the right people, since both teens were identified early on by the third boy charged in the case, a 13-year-old who will be tried in Family Court .
The circumstances of the incident—a brutal assault on a white woman alone in a large Manhattan park, allegedly by teenagers of color—drew early comparisons to the Central Park Jogger case, in which five teens were found guilty of rape and assault, only to have their convictions vacated 13 years after the 1989 incident. An inmate with a long history of violent rapes belatedly confessed that he was the sole assailant, and it turned out that his was the only DNA found on the jogger’s body and her sock.
In contrast to the speed with which those youths were arrested and charged, Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance described this investigative process as “not a sprint, but rather it was a painstaking, deliberate and meticulous search for the truth.”
None of those adjectives, unfortunately, can be applied to the handling of a rape committed in January 2019. In that case, the victim—a student at New York University—told The Times that she had been discouraged from pursuing the case by Det. William McLaughlin of the NYPD’s Special Victims Division.
Detectives’ Endowment Association President Paul DiGiacomo told this newspaper’s Richard Khavkine that it was his understanding that the victim “was uncooperative and did not want to prosecute.”
But an NYPD source told Mr. Khavkine that it was the Detective who was uninterested in pursuing the case, saying that after finding a number of condoms in her room, he had told the victim that if the rapist was caught, his attorney would “make you look like a slut on the witness stand for having those condoms in your apartment.” The source also said the Detective told her that her name and picture would be widely disseminated by the media, although responsible news outlets refrain from publishing or broadcasting such material pertaining to rape victims.
A couple of months after the rape, The Times reported, police matched fingerprints on an unopened condom wrapper in the victim’s room to 22-year-old Tyler Lockett, who was already in jail for burglaries he committed in Brooklyn. But a rape case was not prepared against him, and he was released last July and assaulted three other women before he was finally captured and charged in those cases.
The department source told Mr. Khavkine that one reason the case wasn’t handled properly was that top police commanders, including former Commissioner James O’Neill, failed to follow through on their promises to upgrade the Special Victims Division after a blistering Department of Investigation 2018 report in early 2018 that found numerous shortcomings in its operations. Police brass initially brushed off the report, but by the end of the year addressed one of its prime criticisms by adding both Detectives and support staff.
The source said, however, that the department had failed to do the sort of oversight and screening needed to make sure the investigators assigned to the unit were properly trained and had the dedication necessary to handle what are often difficult, emotionally draining cases.
That insider’s perceptions are shared by victim advocates, who came to City Hall Feb. 18 to demand changes, with one saying the Special Victims Division remained “understaffed, undertrained and under-supported, and as a result women in New York City are in danger, and rape survivors are being denied justice.”
The onus is on both Mayor de Blasio and Police Commissioner Dermot Shea to ensure that there are no repeats of the egregious mishandling of the NYU rape case.
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