By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
By Albert Samaha
By Anna Merlan
By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
On the day that he arrived at Rikers Island last October, Steven Morales was a major suicide risk.
He was just 17 years old, charged with murder, accused of suffocating his infant daughter. He was a product of the city's foster-care system, his mother having abandoned him at birth. He had no money, little or no ties to family, and few friends. His only solid relationship—with his girlfriend, the mother of the dead infant—was collapsing.
Morales's lawyer considered the suicide risk so great that he recommended to a judge that the teen be housed in protective custody—where, the lawyer presumed, someone would keep a closer eye on him.
Protective custody, where inmates are locked in their cells up to 23 hours a day, was introduced to Rikers by jails boss Martin Horn in 2005 to house dangerous or vulnerable inmates, who would be safer there than in the general population.
But on April 27, something went terribly wrong when Horn's supervision system broke down.
That afternoon, Morales spoke to his girlfriend on the telephone and learned that she was breaking up with him, severing his last tie to the outside world. Devastated, he returned to his cell, secured a towel to the top of his cell door, wrapped the other end around his neck, and ended his life.
The officers assigned to the unit didn't notice until one of their bosses visited the floor and found him. By then, of course, it was too late.
"Someone needs to be held accountable," says Morales's lawyer, Javier Solano, a former Brooklyn prosecutor. "Based on his history and the fact that this kid, at age 17, was accused of a horrific crime, there certainly should have been much more supervision. I don't understand how he was able to do it in that setting."
The suicide in the Robert N. Davoren Center— occurring in the very place where inmate safety is supposed to be the highest priority—raises new questions about security issues at the jails under Horn's supervision, which the Voice has been reporting on for several months.
While conditions in the jails are certainly better than they were at the height of the crack epidemic, documents and interviews have revealed that violence is still a problem in the system. A series of Voice stories, for example, disclosed a spate of cases of correction officers using inmates as enforcers.
Correction Department spokesman Steve Morello declined to comment on the suicide, pending the results of several investigations.
The city Health Department, which is supposed to oversee the jails' for-profit medical and mental-health contractor, Prison Health Services, also declined to comment, citing federal and state patient-confidentiality laws.
Morales was born David Chow. After his mother left, he lived with his father. But child-welfare officials placed him in foster care when he was still quite young. He bounced from one abusive home to another until he eventually landed with a family who adopted him at age 14. (See also "The Jail Interview Steven Morales Gave to Columbia Grads" by Molly Messick and Sarah Morgan).
About three years ago, his adoptive mother took him to Spain, for reasons that are still unclear. There, he met his girlfriend, Olga. They fell in love, and before long she was pregnant.
But Olga's family didn't approve of Morales—he was too dark-skinned for their tastes—and so they kicked their daughter out of the house, says Stephanie Heredia, Morales's adoptive sister. The couple lived for a short period on the street, getting by with money from odd jobs and family members.
In mid-2007, their daughter, Sophia, was born, and the couple decided to move to New York City. They arrived with their baby, unemployed and without prospects. They took a cheap room in a Bronx building, and Olga found a job in a New Jersey bar.
For a while, things seemed OK. "The baby had a stroller, a playpen, everything she needed," Heredia says. "They weren't doing so bad."
On the night of October 7, with Olga out at work, Morales was trying to put Sophia to bed, but the infant was crying. She wouldn't settle down.
What happened next is a matter of dispute between Morales's lawyers and Bronx prosecutors.
The indictment charges that Morales threw Sophia repeatedly into the crib face-down with such force that he left fingerprint marks and bruising on her scalp and "severe bruising" on her bottom. Then he covered her face with a blanket, suffocating her.
Morales told Solano that he gave Sophia a bottle, then wrapped her in a blanket so she wouldn't fall off the bed. Then he took a shower. When he returned to the baby's side, she was blue. Morales called 911 immediately and tried to perform CPR. It was too late.
The police began to interrogate Morales at the hospital. The interview continued throughout the night and the following day. By the end of it, Morales was admitting to throwing Sophia in the crib and placing the blanket over her head.
In all, Morales was interrogated without a lawyer for 22 hours and gave seven different statements, including three that were videotaped.