June 11, 2015
Browder was found dead Saturday, hanging from a window at his family’s Bronx home with a cord around his neck. He was 22. Browder’s tragic story first came to light via The New Yorker, who profiled the questionable circumstances surrounding his arrest, and the subsequent nightmare he was forced to endure.
In 2010, at just 16-years-old, Browder and his friend suddenly found themselves surrounded by police cars while walking home from a party. An officer said a man reported that he had been robbed by them, but the boys had nothing in their possession, and insisted that they were innocent. The man, who was in the back of one of the squad cars, then said that the robbery actually occurred two weeks earlier, and that the boys had stolen his backpack. It was enough to land Kalief Browder at Rikers Island for the next 3 years.
After the arrest, the two were held and appeared in front of a judge at the Bronx County Criminal Court. His friend was released and allowed to remain free during court proceedings, but Browder was still on probation from an earlier incident, and his bail was set at three thousand dollars. With his family unable to raise the money, he was soon on a bus headed for Rikers Island, a New York City jail notorious for sub-human living conditions and rampant violence.
As bad as that seems, things only got worse for Browder. Despite what should have been a relatively straightforward case, he entered a Bronx criminal court system that is chronically backlogged do to being understaffed and financially strapped. Even with what seemed like murky circumstances and shoddy evidence, a grand jury indicted him on second degree robbery charges. Because he was still on probation, this was considered a violation, and the judge remanded him to jail without bail.
Over the next three years, Browder’s life was a recurring nightmare. He was attacked by prisoners and guards, forced to live in cells overrun by vermin, starved, and spent upwards of seven or eight hundred days in solitary confinement, where he attempted to end his life on multiple occasions. In court, it didn’t get any easier. Browder steadfastly maintained his innocence and desire for a trial — refusing to enter a guilty pleas in exchange for sentencing. Prosecutors would continue to delay the trial, and Browder was forced to languish at Rikers.
Only when a new judge was appointed to help deal with the backlog of cases did Browder’s case get an earnest review. Still maintaining his innocence, and after more than a thousand days at Rikers and on his thirty-first court appearance, the judge ruled that the District Attorney was not in a position to go forward with the case, prompting prosecutors to move for dismissal. Browder had finally, unceremoniously, won the battle for his innocence, and was released the next day.
But by this point, Kalief Browder had been irreversibly broken by a system that threw away the key on an innocent 16-year-old without as much as a trial. The endless days and nights spent enduring solitary confinement, violence and repulsive living conditions had taken its toll.
Jennifer Gonnerman, the journalist for The New Yorker who penned Browder’s original profile, visited the family after hearing the news of his death.
“Ma, I can’t take it anymore,” he had told his mother that Friday night. The next day he would be dead.
In April, Gonnerman acquired and published surveillance video of Browder as an inmate on Rikers Island, showing graphically just the kind of abuse he endured — both at the hands of guards and fellow inmates.
The Los Angeles times spoke with Browder’s lawyer, Paul V. Prestia, on Sunday about Browder’s condition.
“When he came out [of jail] and I first met him, he was completely broken — I had to show him how to use a computer; he had to get a job,” Prestia said. “These were issues he was going to have for his whole life. It’s not his fault. He didn’t deserve that.”
Browder did seem to make progress after his release from prison, enrolling in college and holding a part time job, but ultimately the damage from his ordeal was too deep.
“I’m not all right,” he told Gonnerman in the original New Yorker piece. “I’m messed up. I know that I might see some money from this case, but that’s not going to help me mentally. I’m mentally scarred right now. That’s how I feel. Because there are certain things that changed about me and they might not go back.”
Kalief Browder is not the first, and he won’t be the last victim of an unjust legal system — one that is especially oppressive to young, minority men. But his case is a vivid and sobering lesson, and a cautionary tale on the implications of failing to address the status quo.
In the days, months and years following his arrest, Kalief Browder was robbed of his rights to liberty and to pursue happiness. With the final chapter of his short, tragic life drawing to a close on Saturday, the same justice system that chewed him up and spit him out, now, as a result of the irreparable scars it left with him, took the last thing he had left — his life.