The Ballad of Donovan Drayton

He spent five years in jail awaiting trial. Call it justice, Queens-style.

"Do you understand what you just did?" Hanophy asked Ronny.

"Yes," Ronny replied, "I just gave my son a fighting chance to win this case.

"After that, the right to a speedy trial became a joke," he says. "They started the delays, playing games with the calendar, putting off hearings. Somehow, they thought we were going to fold."

Ronny Drayton pulled every string he could to free his son Donovan.
By Caleb Ferguson
Ronny Drayton pulled every string he could to free his son Donovan.

The New York City Criminal Justice Agency was brought in to assess Donovan as a flight risk. He seemed to satisfy most criteria for bail.

Drayton had family ties, roots in the community, and no prior convictions. Those things usually add up to bail.

But Clark argued that the "seriousness of the charges" required jail. The judge agreed. So began Drayton's years in purgatory.

Detainees on Rikers Island with open murder cases are held an average of about one year and three months. Last year, the average time of homicide cases from indictment to disposition was just over two years.

But Drayton was about to double that—a wait of five years. In a testament to the grinding nature of Queens justice, on 39 of the occasions he was brought to court, his hearings were postponed.

He was moved in and out of a succession of jails. Documents depict a young man fed into a machine from which there was no reprieve. He tried to avoid the pitfalls, but the relentless atmosphere of jail sees to it that no one goes unscathed.

Drayton entered a program to obtain his diploma, and "lived" at the law library, poring over case law. "I really learned a lot about the law," he says. "That was my saving grace."

He read articles about other detainees who suffered absurd periods of pre-trial detention, like that of Ryan Dufort, who also served five years in a Queens case that began, incredibly, when he was just 15 years old. Dufort was acquitted amid allegations that prosecutors withheld key evidence that would have freed him.

Drayton even wrote his own motion to dismiss the indictment in ballpoint pen. "I am a layperson unskilled in matters of law and seek this court's indulgence for errors, defects and faults," he wrote, before detailing a series of problems with his indictment.

He found relief in religion, family, and sports, but violence was constant. He witnessed the aftermath of several slashings. "In the rec yard one time, a young man got his whole face cut badly. Beforehand, you could feel the tension in the yard; you could feel something was going to happen."

Out in the free world, Ronny was pulling every string he could to free his son. To say the elder Drayton is intense is a bit of an understatement. The words fly from him with speed and a passion for everything—music, politics, his neighborhood, his 25 years of sobriety, and most of all, his son.

"I don't know where I would be without him," Donovan says. "He did a lot of work on his own. He did some real ballsy stuff. He went and spoke to people in places that most human beings won't go to."

Indeed, Ronny scoured Jamaica's landscape of rival gangs. On one day at dusk, he found himself isolated in Baisley Park with gang members who were calling Donovan a "rat." The atmosphere became tense, until one of the men pulled Ronny aside and gave up some of the backstory on the events of October 1.

Ronny also organized two benefit concerts for his son. Performers included Living Colour, 24/7 Spyz, and Afrika Bambaataa.

He got supporters to write letters to the judge, pleading for Donovan's bail. Juan Quinonez, a musician married to a city lawyer, wrote, "We know that Donovan is not a danger to society."

"I have always found him to be a gentle and respectful human being," Reverend Lynn Keller added.

But the pleas crashed on the hard shoals of the Queens court system.

Before the trial, Drayton's lawyers obtained a statement from Craig Glover that could have turned the case around. He was now retreating from his claim that Donovan planned the robbery.

"I'm writing this is to straighten out a few things that happened on Oct. 1, 2007," Glover wrote. "When I met up with him, I told him to come with me to get some weed. I know for a fact that Donovan had no guns on him or any other weapon. The other statement that I made, I only wrote it 'cause I thought Donovan told, so I was being spiteful. Donovan had nothing to do with the incident that happened on Oct. 1 2007."

In a second note, dated January 1, 2009, Glover wrote: "I did the shooting. Donovan Drayton had nothing to do with my actions. I'm responsible for everything."

At the time, Glover was already in prison for his role in the Bent homicide and the Nassau County burglaries, and theoretically had no further axe to grind. Drayton's lawyers planned to call him to the stand.

The trial of Donovan Drayton began in June 2011. By that time, he'd been in jail just under four years. His early 20s were gone, and he was facing a life sentence.

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