On January 16, 2007, Benjamin Henry Waters was arrested and charged with murder. Over the next six years, the case against him would see a lying witness, a mistrial, a judge questioning a prosecutor’s integrity, and, ultimately, an acquittal.
Through it all, Waters was locked up on Riker’s Island, another casualty of America’s pretrial detention system.
On Tuesday, Waters took the first steps toward holding the Bronx County District Attorney’s Office liable, filing a summons and complaint in New York State Supreme Court, the preliminary action to a civil lawsuit.
Waters’ complaint, which also lists the NYPD, the city, and the Department of Corrections as defendants, centers on how BX D.A. Robert Johnson’s office handled its main witness, Ronald Baker.
The crime took place in the early morning hours of January 14, 2007. Carolyn Vargas was stabbed to death in an apartment on 180th Street. Detective Luis Pineiro arrived at the scene and spoke to Baker.
Baker told the cop that he was in the apartment’s bedroom when he heard a loud thump coming from another room. When he entered that room, he saw Vargas bleeding on the floor and Waters leaving the apartment.
Waters meanwhile maintained that he committed the act out of self-defense. He would be held without bail.
As the proceedings trudged forward, Baker repeated his same story to a grand jury, to Waters’ defense attorney, and to his probation officer: he was in another room when he heard the thump.
It would be four and a half years before the trial finally began.
But when it did, it began with fireworks. On the trial’s second day, Baker testified that he had seen Waters stab Vargas. The defense attorney called him out on the obvious contradiction. As the judge tried to sort out the mess, the prosecutor made a remarkable admission:
He “acknowledged that he had been aware for several weeks that Mr. Baker had changed his story and would testify at trial that he saw defendant stab and kill Ms. Vargas,” Judge Edgar Walker later wrote in a decision.
The D.A.’s office had concealed this new evidence from the defense, a serious violation. Walker ruled a mistrial.
“The prosecutor’s ‘trial by ambush’ tactic resulted in both unfairness and inefficiency. Defendant was deprived of the opportunity to be thoroughly prepared for trial,” Walker wrote. “Even more trobling in this case is that the prosecutor had every reason to believe that Mr. Baker would make prejurious statements at trial given that his changed version of events was inconsistent with every prior statement made by him to the police, the probation office . . . as well as his sworn testimony before the grand jury.”
Waters’ new trial began a year and a half later. This time, Baker went back to his first story. The jury acquitted Waters.
By the time he regained his freedom, he’d lost six years of his life. In his complaint, Waters alleges that the D.A.’s office intentionally “withheld trial” until Baker “changed his mind and agreed to testify at odds with his grand jury testimony.” And because of the mistrial, Waters’ detention stretched even longer.
Over the course of his time at Riker’s, Waters spend a total of 360 in “the box”–solitary confinement.
Because of the prosecution’s conduct, the complaint states, Waters suffered “mental, emotional and psychological deficits directly caused by his incarceration.”
Long jail stays before trial are common across the country. More than 60 percent of America’s jail population has not been convicted. Many of them sit behind bars because they could not afford bail. Others, like Waters, were not offered bail because of the seriousness of their crimes or because they were considered flight risks. Those who are eventually acquitted return to broken lives–you can’t pay rent or make car payments or apply to jobs while in the joint.
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