Donovan Drayton was a 19-year-old New Yorker who was arrested and accused of murder days after a man’s body was found in a doorway in South Jamaica Queens. Drayton had no criminal record and said he was innocent. Given the severity of the charges, he was not granted a bail, a routine practice. He was sent to Rikers Island as a pretrial detainee. Drayton spent five years waiting for his trial where he was acquitted of murder charges. Lately, New York City’s backlog of cases has grown so long that defendants spend an average of 3 months awaiting trial, up 25% from the 90s, even though crime is down. Some defendants, like Drayton, spend a significantly more amount of time. Of the people who spent time in jail during 2012, about 3,200 were behind bars for a year or more awaiting their day in court and presumed innocent.
“It’s contrary to the idea of justice,” said Jonathan Lippman, the Chief Judge of the State of New York.
From 2000 to 2012, the number of felony cases pending more than 180 days doubled even as the number of new filings dropped. Lippman, who oversees the state court system, has succeeded in reducing the backlog of felony cases considerably. But still 55% of felony cases citywide were more than 6 months old.
Ronny Drayton, Donovan’s father, struggled to explain what it’s like as a parent to fight a case for so long.
“You know there’s really no words to describe how you feel when somebody is trying to take your child from you…” he said.
Donovan said that on October 1, 2007, he got a call from a couple of older boys from the neighborhood. They wanted to buy drugs. Donovan said he sold some marijuana from time to time. He went for a ride with the two, thinking he’d make some money. He said he had no idea that the two men, who were gang members, were planning to rob a dealer. The robbery went bad and the dealer grabbed an assault rifle. Bullets were exchanged and Donovan said that one of the guys tossed him a gun. He fired it once in the air and then fled. A friend of the drug dealer’s was found dead, shot five times. Detectives who were investigating quickly zeroed in on Donovan Drayton and came to believe he planned the robbery and was one of the killers. He was arrested 11 days after the incident. Four years later, his lawyers got the chance to tell his side of the story to a jury. His current attorney, Michael Warren, thinks the prosecutor deliberately delayed the case to pressure Donovan into a plea deal.
“Some of the prosecutors feel that if a person is in jail long enough they will, as they say, cop a plea,” Warren said. “That settles the case and that eliminates the burden…”
Prosecutors denied delaying the case purposefully and in fact, blamed the defense for delays. Donovan said the tactic almost worked. After spending three years as a presumed innocent defendant in prison, a judge outlined reality to Donovan: Donovan would face life in prison if he didn’t take the 18-year deal the prosecutors wanted him to take.
“He put the full court press on me,” Drayton said, adding that the judge almost scared him into taking the deal.
But, Donovan had something some defendants don’t, he wasn’t alone. His father, Ronny Drayton, a guitarist put all his energy into saving his son. Ronny sold all of his guitars, fundraised family and friends, and scraped together enough to retain a legal team. The case finally went to trial in 2011 and Donovan was vindicated by a jury and acquitted of murder, manslaughter, and possession of a murder weapon. The jury did hang on other counts, 10 to 12 in favor of acquittal. Prosecutors decided to retry the case.
A judge denied him bail and he went back to jail despite his partial acquittal. Rikers Island, known for its violence, almost broke Donovan, as did the boredom and fear of conviction.
“It’s a possibility this might be it for me,” Donovan said, recalling his feelings that day when he looked out the window. “I might never drive on that highway again. I might never cross this bridge again. I might never get to see this building and stand in front of this building again. I might never get to see Manhattan again. I might never see none of this again.”
But his father fought for him, he tapped local artists and performers to help raise funds for the high cost of defending yourself in court. They created a benefit CD and held two benefit concerts. All the awareness caused Warren, one of the city’s top defense attorneys, and his wife, Evelyn, also a defense attorney, to agree to take the case. Michael Warren is best known for being lead counsel on the efforts to free the Central Park Five.
The first thing Warren did was file a writ of habeas corpus with an appellate court about Donovan’s unconstitutional detention. Four justices heard the argument and agreed. The court set bail at $125,000. Donovan bailed out on October 24, 2012 and was free for the first time in five years and 12 days.
The second trial lasted two weeks and Warren punched holes in every aspect of the prosecutor’s case. It turns out there were a lot. There was very little physical evidence and the police didn’t do a full forensic investigation. Two witnesses, the getaway driver and the drug dealer, got deals for their cooperation. The second jury deliberated for a few hours and acquitted Donovan on all charges, but one. He was convicted of a felony count of weapons possession. Drayton was given less time than he served, not uncommon these days.
He was given 5 years. It isn’t over for Donovan though. The latest in the case is that prosecutors unsatisfied with his time served sentence claimed that Donovan owed the prison 122 days of solitary confinement.