Monday, April 15, 2013

For 3 Years After Killing, Evidence Fades as a Suspect Sits in Jail

They brought him into the Bronx courtroom late on that first day of the trial, his prisoner’s chains jingling.

But Chad Hooks, 23 years old and charged with murder, was used to waiting. He had been waiting for three years, seven months and three days at Rikers Island for a trial that never seemed to come.

“I hear the same excuse every time: ‘Not ready,’ or, ‘We’re doing something that’s more important,’ ” he had said at the jail. “I feel like I’ll die here.”

Melissa Lawyer had waited, too. Mr. Hooks was charged with shooting to death her 21-year-old son, Jevon, in a grimy hallway on Southern Boulevard near Hunts Point Avenue in the Bronx. For nearly four years, her hopes for justice had been choked by gnawing worry.

She had had nightmares in which Mr. Hooks was chasing her. She said it meant he would get away with murder.

This little-noticed case at the Bronx County Hall of Justice became a parable of the way delays infect trials with murkiness, mocking the very idea that courts do their best, when it matters most, to find out what really happened.

As the years passed, memories turned hazy. Detectives retired. One witness recanted. Two were lost and then found again. By the time the prosecutors said they were ready for trial on a September day in 2012, a fourth witness — the star witness — had been shot to death in the Bronx. What were left were contradicting claims and missing answers.

Sometimes it seemed that the lawyers and judges had forgotten about clocks altogether.

The defense said Mr. Hooks was an innocent man who had been tormented to the point of ruin by his wait for justice. The prosecution suggested he was a wily killer using the passage of time to silence the witnesses against him.

In other parts of the country, this case might be old enough to raise questions about whether the Constitution’s promise of a speedy trial had any meaning at all. But this was far from the oldest case in the Bronx, where court delays have compounded for decades, mounting a crisis severe enough to challenge the basic notion of justice.

But now, finally, in that courtroom on 161st Street, the assistant district attorney, April Cohen, rose. There was an expectant rustle in the mostly empty courtroom.

Chad Hooks’s mother listened on one side. Jevon Lawyer’s mother on the other.

The prosecutor’s first words, however, were not about the killing of Mr. Lawyer. They were a request for days off. She had three scheduled. And then she would need a day when her nephew was born and then a day to celebrate the birth.

The judge said he was confused about why a trial had to be put off because someone else was having a baby. “Maybe I’m missing something?” he asked, though eventually the prosecutor ended up getting the time off.

That first day of the trial was the 1,311th day of waiting for Mr. Hooks’s day in court. 

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