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Queens Judge Overseeing Murder Trial Furious That Hell Gate Found, Reported on Public Documents

At an emergency hearing, Judge Kenneth Holder tightened restrictions on how Prakash Churaman and his attorney share information.

10:19 AM EDT on May 11, 2022

A group of Prakash Churaman's support sit with signs on the stairs of the Queens courthouse.

Supporters of Prakash Churaman outside the Queens courthouse on Tuesday morning (Hell Gate)

The judge overseeing the second murder trial of Prakash Churaman angrily reacted to a story published in Hell Gate last week, accused the defense of leaking publicly available information, and tightened the restrictions on how Churaman and his attorney share information.

“The press might look for this, for that, but the only side that gets reported on in the media are things that have been unfair treatment to your client. It just seems a little odd,” Judge Kenneth Holder told Churaman’s attorney, Jose Nieves, during an emergency hearing in Queens Supreme Court on Tuesday morning.

As Nieves rebutted Holder’s claims that he was improperly feeding material to the media, and noted that Hell Gate’s reporting drew from the public record, Holder waived off this explanation and shouted through a protective visor, “This is my courtroom, don’t you forget it.”  

The publicly available information, reported on exclusively by Hell Gate last week, included the fact that the two detectives who led the investigation into Churaman had allegedly hid exonerating evidence in another case that eventually led to a $2 million civil settlement. The story also noted that an expert’s report stated that the detectives possibly used coercive techniques during Churaman’s interrogation. The oral arguments for the successful appeal, which included the information about the expert report, can be viewed here.

Prakash Churaman was originally arrested in 2014, when he was 15, and charged with felony murder during a botched robbery, which he ultimately confessed to during an interrogation. His original conviction was overturned by an appeals court in 2020, after it ruled that Judge Holder had inappropriately excluded a defense expert who would testify about the reliability of juvenile confessions. Rather than take a deal for time served, Churaman is fighting to clear his name at trial, again.

Judge Holder was particularly incensed that Nieves claimed in an interview with Hell Gate that he was not informed about a previous case involving the two detectives at the center of Churaman’s case — Daniel Gallagher and Barry Brown. Gallagher and Brown were also at the heart of the civil case settled by the city for $2 million in 2021. The case alleged that Brown and Gallagher had hid exculpatory evidence, and that Gallagher had possibly helped coerce a witness, while two innocent men sat on Rikers Island for a combined five years.

Nieves had previously told Hell Gate that he was “unaware” of the case and the settlement. But when pressed by Judge Holder if the Queens District Attorney had disclosed to him anything about the civil case, Nieves admitted that they had given him the civil case number as part of previous discovery disclosures.

Repeated requests for comment from Hell Gate to the Queens DA’s office, specifically on what kinds of discovery was handed over to the defense, have gone unanswered.

The complaint and other details related to the civil case, for any defense attorney or journalist who likes to look for such things, have been publicly available on PACER for the past year.

On Monday night, Nieves filed a motion alleging that the Queens DA improperly held back information related to the civil settlement. In court, he also told the judge that certain details of the underlying criminal case — involving the innocent two men — should have been disclosed to the defense, including the reasons for the District Attorney eventually dismissing the case.

Holder refused to let Nieves discuss his motion during the fiery back-and-forth and said he would rule on it at a later time.

New York’s criminal procedure law requires prosecutors to turn over all information that tends to impeach the credibility of a testifying prosecution witness. In Churaman’s case that would presumably include anything in the detectives’ personnel files or the DA’s records related to the alleged misconduct that led to the $2 million settlement. Whether the DA turned over those materials isn’t clear.

Since comprehensive discovery reform went into effect in 2020, trial judges across New York City have reached different conclusions about exactly how much information a prosecutor must now turn over. While some judges have found that the prosecution should disclose possible misconduct by police officers uncovered in civil cases, even if they’re settled without the city admitting fault, others have felt that the possibly voluminous discovery requests were clogging up the system.

In Churaman’s case, Nieves has had to repeatedly return to the court seeking more information from the District Attorney about evidence relating to the case.

Whatever does get turned over, Holder does seem convinced that Nieves and his client can no longer be trusted to keep it to themselves.

“This is becoming a scenario where you could improperly affect the fairness of the jury,” Holder said, just before issuing his protection order, and implied that he himself was holding back critical information. “I know enough about this case that would shock you.” Just what Holder, a former Queens prosecutor, was referring to, he left unexplained.

Holder then issued the order, severely limiting how Nieves can share information with Churaman, who is currently under house arrest. The order restricts Churaman to only viewing documents related to the case at his lawyer’s office. Judge Holder, whose current judicial term runs through 2035, said he was doing so to prevent any “new information from coming out.”

Nieves said in court he will be appealing the protective order. The Queens DA’s office did not return a request for comment.

Churaman’s next court date is set for June 6. A retrial is likely for later this summer.

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