The Ballad of Donovan Drayton


On the morning of October 1, 2007, Donovan Drayton was a 19-year-old kid with serious ambitions of following his father, Ronny, into the music business. The elder Drayton was an accomplished guitarist who has performed with the likes of Parliament Funkadelic, the Chambers Brothers, and Wilson Pickett. Donovan was brought up in a Jamaica, Queens, house crammed with instruments and the constant hum of creativity.

Though he attended three high schools without earning a degree, Donovan had landed a coveted internship with Bad Boy Records, the label founded by Sean “P. Diddy” Combs. “That opportunity would have catapulted me into the future,” he says. “I was trying to follow in my father’s footsteps.”

He wasn’t a saint. He smoked weed and sold a little from time to time. But he had no criminal record, and was generally considered a pretty good kid.

He was about to face the most difficult test of his young life, in a case that raises troubling questions both about the length of pretrial detention, and the lengths that prosecutors in Queens will go to obtain a conviction.

The weather that day was overcast but dry. Drayton had spent the previous evening at a barbecue with a girl who then stayed the night. About 8:30 a.m., he got a call from Craig Glover, who wanted to score some weed. Glover would be coming over with a friend, Jason White.

The 22-year-old Glover was unemployed, known around the 115th Road neighborhood as a stick-up artist. A tattoo on one hand read “Survival Through Mayhem.” Another on his neck seemed to state his personal mantra: “Get Money.” He and White, also 22, were members of a gang known as the Set Trip Mafia.

Drayton knew the men, but not well. They arrived in a red Hyundai, White behind the wheel. They picked up Drayton, navigating the flat landscape of postwar single-family homes and frayed business districts, checkered with auto body joints, pawn shops, and liquor stores. Their supposed quest: to see someone who owed Glover money.

White dropped off Glover and Drayton at a house at 143-36 110th Avenue, then left, ostensibly to buy rolling papers. They found themselves in front of a tattered two-story home with a rust-flecked iron gate, a sad little dirt lawn, and a white security door.

Drayton leaned against a car and started rolling a blunt. At that point—and this is where the contradictory stories begin—two other men approached the house, coming from the direction of the local bodega: Dwight Bent, 30, and Anthony “Ant” Wright, 27.

Bent was the son of a hospital food service worker. He was unemployed and on probation for selling drugs. He had 10 bags of marijuana on him. Wright, tattooed with the word “Grumpy,” sold weed from the 110th Avenue house, which doubled as an unlicensed day care center.

At that moment, Wright’s sister, Felicia Johnson, was inside looking after four children.

When Wright saw Glover holding a gun, he ran inside the house and locked the door, leaving Bent stuck outside. He ran upstairs and grabbed an AK-47 assault rifle, a gift from Bent to protect their drug stash. Wright pointed the rifle out the window. Below, Glover had a gun out and was yelling at him to come downstairs.

Wright fired at the curb across the street, hoping to scare Glover away. Instead, Glover opened up on Bent, firing several shots.

Glover and Drayton ran to Jason White waiting in the red Hyundai. The trio fled.

Wright’s mother, Sandra Sumpter, later told cops that she was in her room with a migraine that morning. She heard banging noises and then her son yell, “Ma, call 911. Someone is robbing Dwight.” Then she heard shots.

It took her several tries to reach a 911 operator. She looked down the stairs and saw Bent bleeding on the floor, her son shouting, “Don’t die on me!”

After hearing the shots, Joe Macchia, a phys-ed teacher at PS 160 down the block, gathered his students from the playground and hurried them into the school. That’s when he saw two men fleeing.

Wright first hid his rifle in a closet and ran downstairs to Bent’s side. Police Officer Joseph Zummo, the first cop on the scene, testified that Wright “was crying and kind of frantic. He was clenching the gentleman lying on the floor with his arms around his shoulders and body.”

Bent was shot multiple times in the chest and legs. The fatal bullet entered his shoulder and traveled across his chest, striking both heart and lungs.

His mother, Greta Bent, later testified that she got the call from her daughter. “She said come to the hospital. I walked in and saw the priest. I said, ‘Where is Dwight?’ And the priest said, ‘Ms. Bent, do not go in that room.’

“He walked in that room with me. I saw my son and he was in a body bag. I unzipped the bag. I ran my hand through his hair and then I fell to the ground.”

Detectives found shell casings at the crime scene. Hidden in Wright’s attic closet was the AK-47, about 80 rounds of mixed ammunition (including .45 caliber bullets), a scale, and $1,320 in cash.

Media coverage focused on the day care angle, missing the fact that the shooting happened at a drug house. The murder of Dwight Bent rated a quick report on the TV news, a few grafs in the tabs, and that was it.

The police took Bent’s murder more seriously. There were children on the scene, after all, and it took place in broad daylight near a school.

Wright claimed one of the robbers fired first. He told police that when a light-skinned male pulled a gun on Bent, he ran upstairs and got his gun “as an act of self-defense.”

“I think this happened out of jealousy because people know that I sell marijuana,” he said.

Wright also neglected to tell detectives that Glover and White had robbed him at the same house just 10 months before, on Super Bowl Sunday.

By the long day’s end, police would charge him with criminal use of a firearm, criminal possession of a machine gun, and reckless endangerment. But Wright would continue to shade his statements to detectives.

The police now had Glover’s name. But when they pinpointed his location, Glover escaped through a rear window.

Meanwhile, Drayton’s name also came to the attention of investigators. He was arrested in the early morning of October 12. At first he denied any knowledge of the Bent murder.

When his father found out about the arrest, he drove immediately to the 113th Precinct and demanded to see his son. The detectives at first gave him a hard time, and finally allowed the men a few minutes to talk. By the time their conversation was over, Donovan said he would cooperate.

“I just told him, ‘This is one of those moments where you have to make a choice about where you want to be in your life,'” Ronny says.

Without a lawyer present, Donovan told police that Glover had searched Bent and found a gun, tossing it to Drayton.

“As soon as I caught the gun, the guy that was in the house started shooting from the top window. Me being so scared, I ran and let a shot off in the air and kept running, then I heard some more shots go off.

“[White] dropped me off at my crib and that was the last I saw of them both. I had no knowledge of what was going on until it happened. If I knew I never would have been there.”

The following day, Wright picked Drayton out of a lineup. Drayton was sent to Rikers.

Glover, meanwhile, would be a fugitive for six more days. On October 18, Nassau County police officer Lisa Cardinale, looking for suspects in two West Hempstead burglaries earlier that day, spotted Glover and his girlfriend carrying several bags. Cardinale arrested them and found stolen jewelry, video game equipment, and a loaded handgun in their hotel room.

Glover promptly blamed her for the burglaries. And when the interrogation turned to the Dwight Bent homicide, he gave a statement blaming Drayton for the crime.

He claimed that Drayton planned the robbery of the 110th Avenue drug house, and that Drayton brought the guns. After Wright fired his “warning shot,” it was Drayton who opened up on Bent.

“It was Donovan’s idea,” Glover told detectives. “The only reason I played along was because I don’t have a source of income.”

When police found White the next day, he, too, implicated Drayton, claiming the three men plotted the robbery the night before, and that Drayton supplied the guns.

The Bent case fell to prosecutor Shawn Clark, a tall, officious 16-year veteran of the Queens District Attorney’s office. He soon discovered that Drayton wouldn’t play a willing fall guy.

Surprisingly—and perhaps evidence of his credibility—Drayton decided to waive immunity and testify during his grand jury hearing. He hewed verbatim to his initial statement to police, reiterating that he had no prior knowledge of what happened on 110th Avenue four months before.

“I’ve never been in this position in my life,” he said. “I am not a stick-up kid [or] robber. I was going to school, working. I just got an internship. I was frozen. I didn’t know what to do.”

Why didn’t you call the police when you got home? Clark asked.

“I did not want to put my family in jeopardy or danger. Those guys know where I live at. I only have one father. I don’t want anybody to shoot my father. I did not want to die because, listen, where I come from, sir, if you only knew.”

What he didn’t know at the time was that Clark had already made deals with both Wright and White in exchange for lighter sentences. By default, Drayton—the guy who cooperated first and waived immunity before the grand jury—had become suspect No. 1.

In the subsequent months, prosecutors tried to pressure Drayton into pleading guilty. So did Judge Robert Hanophy. Clark offered 18 years. Hanophy, who has since retired, told Drayton if he did not take the deal, he would get 28 to life.

But in court, Ronny Drayton told his son he didn’t trust prosecutors. Donovan turned down the plea deal.

“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.”

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.

There was precious little evidence to tie Drayton to the crime. No fingerprints. No blood. No surveillance video or photos. Neither the gun taken from Bent nor the .38 used by Glover were ever recovered. There was no conclusive evidence that any of Bent’s wounds were caused by the .45 Drayton admitted to firing in the air.

The case boiled down to the testimony of Anthony Wright, Jason White, Craig Glover, and Drayton. It became an example of how the sausage is made in Queens.

White copped to his past as a stick-up artist and admitted to involvement in planning the robbery. He had originally faced 25 years in prison. But Clark handed him a seven-year deal as long as he cooperated.

White testified that Drayton helped plan the robbery and brought the guns. He said Drayton admitted shooting Bent in the leg.

But White also denied being a gang member, and his testimony was filled with inconsistencies. He admitted that he was going to make a deal as soon as he got arrested. And he admitted to lying to police on the day of the murder. He further confessed that because he thought Drayton ratted him out, his anger moved him to cooperate.

“Everybody lies,” he said at the end of his testimony. “I mean, who doesn’t lie?”

Anthony Wright, a rifle-toting drug dealer doing business over his sister’s day care center, also got a favorable deal from Clark. The police could have charged him with attempted murder for firing the assault rifle. Instead, they charged him with criminal use of a weapon. Clark sweetened the deal further by agreeing to three years probation if Wright cooperated.

Wright testified that Drayton initially “put a gun” to Bent. But his testimony was also riddled with inconsistencies. He withheld information from the police—like the fact he fired first, that Glover and White had previously robbed him, and that he had an assault rifle.

Since the shooting, Wright had been arrested twice—once for punching his stepfather in the face and again just before the trial, when cops raided his home, which was still being used as a day care center, and found guns, cocaine, and heroin. Even so, Wright was released without bail. Neither arrest affected his deal.

The defense called convicted murderer William Thornton to testify. According to Thornton, White told him that Drayton didn’t know anything about the robbery plan; he was brought along as a scapegoat just in case things went bad. But Clark argued that since White was not first confronted with the statement, Thornton’s testimony should not be allowed.

Judge Robert McGann agreed. So Drayton’s attorney, Douglas Reda, tried to recall White.

McGann denied this, too, saying the defense had had plenty of time to ask White about the statement.

Irked, Reda asked the judge, “The only reason you are denying this is that you think his [Drayton’s] right to cross-examine and call his own witnesses is less important than an extra day of this trial on a murder case?”

Reda then tried to call Glover to testify about his recantation. McGann grudgingly allowed it, but after promising Reda an hour to prep his witness, the judge ended up giving him just a few minutes.

McGann had effectively botched two key witnesses. He’d also approved the lavish plea deals. To the Draytons, the truth seemed trapped behind an iron screen, visible yet out of reach.

The lone defense witness was Cyonne Malcolm, who testified she was with Drayton the entire night before the shooting, and he had never met with Glover and White. But despite having much of his defense hindered, the jury nonetheless acquitted Drayton on the three most serious counts—first-degree murder, weapons possession, and manslaughter. It had hung on the other counts: felony murder, being an accessory to murder, robbery, and attempted robbery.

Drayton’s team say the verdict was 10-2 in favor of acquittal, but Kevin Ryan, a spokesman for the Queens District Attorney’s office, said in a statement, “I do not know if that is accurate.”

Clark immediately opted to retry Drayton, requested that Drayton continue to be held at Rikers. Despite the acquittals, McGann once again ordered him held without bail.

Drayton spent the final two years and eight months of his jail stint in the Anna M. Kross Center. Toward the end, the martial pace of jail was wearing on him. But he never thought of pleading.

“They are used to wearing everyone down,” he says. “People say, ‘Fuck this,’ and take the plea. What really propelled me to fight the way that I fought was being innocent. If I had committed this crime, I wouldn’t have gambled like this.”

Opting for new counsel, the Draytons turned to Brooklyn attorney Michael Warren, a respected defense lawyer with an elegant, understated presence in the courtroom. He famously won a $360,000 settlement after he and his wife sued for a false arrest when they objected to police kicking a drug suspect in the head.

In 2002, the rangy, Indiana-born Warren persuaded convicted rapist Matias Reyes to finally confess to the brutal 1989 rape and assault of female jogger Trisha Meili in Central Park. The attack on Meili was one of the highest-profile crimes in the city’s history, and the wrongful convictions of five young black men dominated headlines for years.

Warren set about getting Drayton out of jail. He appealed to a state appellate panel in Brooklyn, arguing that the length of detention was unfair. The chief judge described the length of Drayton’s pre-trial detention as “appalling and an outrage.”

“This happens in Queens a lot, and the objective is to break a person down and force a plea,” Warren says. “Judges are put in a position of either accepting or rejecting remand and I think they are afraid to cross the district attorney, so they go along with it.”

In a lengthy rebuttal, Ryan, the spokesman for the Queens D.A., said the no-bail recommendation in this case was appropriate given that Drayton was facing life in prison. “Bail is set by the judge—not by the D.A.’s office,” he wrote in a statement.

After the first trial, he said, the D.A.’s office sought remand again because, despite the acquittals, Drayton was still facing life.

Ryan also blamed the delays after the first trial on Drayton’s defense team. (“He’s a liar,” Ronny Drayton says.)

In October 2012, Donovan Drayton was finally free on bail. “It took five years, but I finally got out.”

The second trial was held in July before a typically polyglot Queens jury during a brutal heat wave. The judge was now James Griffin. At lunchtime, people filled the McDonald’s down the street from the courthouse to escape skyrocketing temperatures. By then, Jason White—the driver of the getaway car—had already been released from prison.

Craig Glover, meanwhile, was in state prison, serving 23 years for the Bent murder and the Nassau County burglaries. His first chance at parole was 14 years away. And his statement clearing Drayton still hadn’t seen the light of day.

Drayton’s family and friends filled the gallery. In a bit of gamesmanship, Clark had interns and first-year prosecutors—up to a dozen at times—sit in the front row usually reserved for media and lawyers. They spent much of their time texting and answering e-mails.

Bent’s mother sat quietly in the rear of the courtroom, holding silent vigil for her slain son.

Odette Hall, a medical examiner who conducted Bent’s autopsy, offered key testimony, but it was what she didn’t say that was most telling. Hall did not, could not say that any of the bullets in Bent’s body came from a .45 caliber gun—the gun Clark claimed Drayton fired.

In his closing, Clark once again tried to make White and Wright seem credible.

“I’ve handled a lot of case in my career, and this was a dirty case,” Warren says. “Deals like the ones in this case promote perjurious testimony and result in people who are innocent taking the weight. The people who get the breaks are the most culpable.”

Warren believes Clark committed misconduct. “He knew they were liars, and he put them on the stand anyway,” Warren says. “Their sole objective was to get a conviction. That’s suborning perjury.”

While not directly responding to Warren’s criticism, D.A. spokesman Ryan said when White initially made statements to police, he was not a cooperating witness and had not yet been made any promises of leniency.

“White was cooperated by the prosecution because he was the least culpable,” Ryan said. “He never left the car and was not involved in the actual shooting.”

As for the Wright deal, Ryan said, the D.A.’s office needed him as a witness. “If we did not cooperate him and get him to testify we would not have been able to legally prosecute the case,” he said.

Ryan said Wright’s arrest for hitting his stepfather wound up as a noncriminal violation, and he insisted that Wright did not continue to sell drugs after Bent’s murder.

In objecting to Thornton’s testimony in the first trial, Ryan said Clark was just following the law. “Absolutely nothing prevented the defense from calling Thornton at the second trial,” he noted.

As for the handling of Glover’s recantation, Ryan denied that prosecutors ignored any of Glover’s written statements.

The jury would deliberate for less than a day, coming back with an almost complete acquittal for Drayton, who had aged from a callow 19 to a seasoned 25. His lone conviction was for weapons possession.

In a case that spanned six years, a jury of regular New Yorkers arrived at a verdict that, in the end, closely followed the account that Drayton had given police 10 days after the murder. He had possessed a gun and fired a shot in the air, but he was neither murderer nor robber.

Afterward, jurors told Warren that they didn’t think the prosecution’s witnesses were credible and were fairly shocked that Clark put them on the stand.

“A number of the jurors wanted to acquit him of everything,” he says. “It was a classic compromise verdict. In the end, they wanted to go home.”

It was simply how justice is dealt on Queens Boulevard.

Clark appeared stunned, brazenly asking that Drayton be sent back to Rikers pending sentencing in September.

Judge Griffin refused. He ordered Drayton’s release, telling him that he had earned a second chance at life and he shouldn’t waste it.

“What I don’t understand is that it had to have crossed [Clark’s] mind at some point that ‘maybe this kid didn’t do it,'” says Drayton. “‘He’s fighting like he didn’t do it.'”

Drayton wept and embraced his father. The strain in Ronny Drayton’s face finally dissipated.

Sentencing is scheduled for September 18, but given all that time in jail, it’s unlikely Donovan will serve more.

His life has turned back to the future. He finally got his high school diploma, and is trying restart the music career that was interrupted on a dry, overcast day in 2007.

A couple of clarifications:

We wanted to note the full sequence of how Matias Reyes came to confess to the Central Park jogger attack. Reyes first spoke to a minister and a chaplain in prison. He then spoke to a correction officer, who notified the inspector general of the state prison system. The IG then interviewed Reyes and tape-recorded him. That tape was turned over to the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, which then conducted its own investigation.

Attorney Michael Warren became involved a few months later when relatives of three of the five wrongly convicted men retained him. He and his wife, also a lawyer, spent two days with Reyes and obtained an affidavit which became key in exonerating the Central Park Five.

Warren also asked us to clarify one of his comments related to the relationship between the Queens District Attorney and judges in Queens County. “For the most part, the DA controls a lot of the judges, but there are some judges who are very fair,” he said. “I didn’t mean to imply that all of the judges in Queens are intimidated.”

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