By Evan Triantafilidis
At the age of 15, Prakash Churaman says he was forced to confess to a crime he maintains he had nothing to do with.
Initially convicted of the murder of his best friend, Taquane Clark, in South Jamaica in late 2018, Churaman says he was denied from presenting evidence that would have acquitted him.
He was sentenced to nine years to life, before having the conviction overturned by the Appellate Division court in June 2020.
Churaman, who is of Guyanese descent, was held in pretrial detention at Rikers Island for nearly four years before he was afforded his first trial. When he was waiting on his appeal case, he was sent to a maximum security prison in upstate New York for an additional year and a half.
When the conviction was eventually overturned, he was offered and later refused a deal to plead guilty to assault and be released in a matter of weeks. Instead, Churaman is opting to fight for his freedom in his looming retrial.
“My life, since the day I was placed in handcuffs, has been a living nightmare every single day,” Churaman, now 22, said. “It destroyed me, it destroyed my family. It took a lot away from me.”
Churaman was officially charged with second-degree murder, along with charges of assault, kidnapping, attempted robbery and criminal possession of a weapon.
The key piece of evidence was testimony from Clark’s grandmother, who claimed she heard Churaman’s voice that night. There is no forensic evidence that places Churaman at the scene of the crime.
Churaman was arrested the following day and maintained his innocence for the first three hours of his interview with police. Churaman claims he was coerced into eventually giving a false confession, with his non-English speaking mother by his side at the 113th Precinct.
Neither was aware of their right to an attorney.
“There is little to no evidence, and the little evidence they do have is unreliable and inconsistent,” said Churaman. “Other than that, all they have is a coerced false confession extracted out of an innocent 15-year-old boy.”
In December 2020, Churaman was granted bail at $150,000 on the condition of wearing an electronic monitoring ankle bracelet in December 2020. Since then, he has been confined to his home as he awaits a new trial.
Exactly a year to the day of his last day spent as a detainee on Rikers Island, Churaman appeared back in Queens Criminal Court in hopes of learning the date of his new trial. Before stepping inside the court, Prakash was welcomed by a group of supporters.
“I’ve been waiting over a year-and-a-half for a new trial,” Churaman said from the steps of Queens Criminal Court, alleging that the District Attorney’s office is dragging out the case.
According to court transcripts from Churaman’s appearance at court last week, Assistant District Attorney Andrea Medina signaled that the prosecution has been ready for retrial, and also levied her own allegations of delay tactics against Churaman and his defense.
Churaman’s lawyer, Jose Nieves, objected to the claims that the defense was delaying the proceedings, and also to the court’s latest order that Churaman not speak on the steps of the courthouse again.
Churaman said he was nearly remanded when the judge overseeing his case relayed that he would prefer Churaman not make any public statements on the courthouse steps. The court also warned against any attempts to influence a jury pool, as well as where Churaman is allowed to be when he is not at home or at court.
“If I find out that you are violating that, you will be remanded and there will be no further discussions about your liberty,” said Judge Kenneth Holder, according to court transcripts. “I will not entertain it.”
In November, elected officials from across the borough penned a letter to the office of Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz calling for her to drop the charges against Churaman.
The list of signees includes Congress members Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Grace Meng and Carolyn Maloney, as well as over three dozen State Senators, Assembly and City Council members and district leaders.
“Churaman will never get back the last six years of his life,” the letter reads. “Given the context of the confession, the lack of forensic evidence, and the unjust prosecution of yet another young man of color, we call on you to drop all charges against Prakash Churaman immediately.”
Churaman welcomed his first child, Kayden, in November, coinciding with his first holiday season spent at home in six years.
The Queens District Attorney’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Churaman’s next scheduled court date is set for February 7, when he hopes to learn when his new trial is slated to begin.
“There’s no definite date for justice,” Churaman said.