Prakash Churaman was 15 years old when NYPD officers burst into his bedroom in Queens and arrested him for felony murder. From that point on, Churaman's teenage years were spent first at a juvenile facility, then Rikers Island, then the Great Meadow Correctional Facility in upstate New York. At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, he was sent back to Rikers, where he stayed until he was released home to Queens on home confinement. By then, he was 21.
For six years, Churaman suffered the worst of New York's carceral system. While at the Crossroads Juvenile Detention Center, he says he was physically attacked. At Rikers, Churaman tried to kill himself on two separate occasions, and he was slashed in the face while incarcerated at Great Meadow. Cumulatively, he spent more than a year of his life behind bars in solitary confinement.
Churaman, who had all charges against him dropped this spring by Queens prosecutors, says he'll never get over what happened to him while in custody.
"It feels good to be vindicated, but mentally, I'm not free," Churaman told Hell Gate. "For me to adjust to society, it's hard. I'm trying, I'm trying to figure out what I can do, but honestly, ever since I bailed out, I've just been trying to cope with everything I was going through."
This month, Churaman filed a lawsuit against the officers who arrested him, as well as the City of New York, for violating his civil rights during his arrest and confinement.
Churaman was arrested for allegedly taking part in a 2014 robbery in Jamaica, Queens, that left one person dead. But the only evidence that tied Churaman to the site of the robbery was an “earwitness” who claimed that she recognized Churaman's voice (the assailants were all wearing ski masks). Churaman was interrogated by NYPD Detectives Barry Brown and Daniel Gallagher, and after several hours, during which the detectives asked his mother to plead with him to confess, Churaman admitted to being present at the robbery, thinking he would then be able to go home. Instead, his incarceration was just beginning.
Churaman was convicted at a 2018 trial, and sentenced to possible life in prison. That conviction was overturned in 2020, after an appeals court found that the judge had improperly excluded testimony on the reliability of juvenile confessions.
After his conviction was overturned, Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz offered Churaman a deal that would have him plead guilty to a lesser charge, and most likely walk free, but Churaman declined the offer, maintaining his total innocence. A month after Hell Gate published an investigation into a contemporaneous case in which both Detectives Brown and Gallagher had ignored exculpatory evidence while two innocent men spent years on Rikers Island, prosecutors dropped all charges against Churaman, citing an unrelated technicality that barred them from going ahead with the prosecution.
Churaman's lawsuit names Brown and Gallagher as defendants, in addition to another detective, Rebecca Schmitt, along with ten other unnamed NYPD officers. Shortly after charges were dropped against him, Churaman filed a $25 million notice of claim—a prelude to this lawsuit—against the City.
"The criminal justice system failed Prakash Churaman. The police framed him, the Queens DA maliciously prosecuted him, and Rikers Island stole his childhood," Churaman's lawyer, Cary London of the law firm Shulman & Hill, told Hell Gate. "No amount of money will ever bring Prakash his childhood back. He is just trying to put his life back together and get some form of justice."
Both the Queens district attorney's office and the NYPD declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation. Brown and Gallagher were at the center of a $2 million settlement that the City reached with Julian Douglas and Sahel Green, the two men who were falsely accused of a separate murder in Queens. Hell Gate has also uncovered other cases where Queens detectives and prosecutors ignored exculpatory evidence for years, only dropping charges on the eve of trial. The City spent a record amount last year resolving lawsuits related to NYPD misconduct, with over $200 million in settlements.
Since the charges against him were dropped, Churaman, who has a one-year-old son, has been trying to piece together his life. He recently got a driver's license, and is searching for a job—he says it's tough to find someone willing to hire a 23-year-old without any prior work experience. But he still finds himself coming back to his ordeal behind bars. He admitted that it has been difficult to reorient his life after being focused for so long on proving his own innocence.
"That was my life, bro. Every day, thinking about my case and how I'm going to prove my innocence. So it's like, damn—how do I bounce back from that?" Churaman said. "I know I will, but where do I even start?"