Last year, less than a week after police officer Randolph Holder was fatally shot on a footbridge overlooking the Harlem River Drive, six men were brought into Manhattan Criminal Court on charges of running guns from the Carolinas to East Harlem, where Holder was killed. It was a stern message from the NYPD, reeling over the death of a police officer, that it would aggressively take on gun peddlers. One of the men was Keith Hughes, who says that he wasn’t part of any gun crew, as tabloids described the men. In fact, Hughes contends that the politicized pressure surrounding the Holder shooting fueled his indictment—one that he almost didn’t survive.
Hughes, 62 years old, has had brushes with the law before, including serving time for weapons possession, but says he hasn’t been convicted in over 20 years. Getting older and battling cancer, he began dedicating most of his time to his daughters and mentoring young people in the neighborhood through volunteer music classes and even offering legal help to young men who felt harassed by police. Though he was born and raised in East Harlem’s Johnson Houses, Hughes had been permanently excluded from his family’s home since 2004 when cops raided the apartment and arrested him on suspicion of drug-dealing. No drugs were found and the charges were dropped but New York City’s nuisance abatement laws, the focus of a recent groundbreaking NY Daily News/ProPublica investigation, meant that the city could ban Hughes and raid the apartment at will. He wound up moving across the street where he has been renting a room with disabled, low-income roommates ever since.
Hughes, or Dahu Ala, as he is better known, is also the oldest member of the Welfare Poets, a social justice hip-hop and poetry collective that has produced songs against police brutality and has toured as far away as Europe. In 2012, he and another member of the group, along with four other men, were arrested on the roof of the Johnson Houses as they filmed a music video. The officers, guns drawn, accused some of them of being part of a terrorist network because one of the group’s members had Puerto Rican and African independence symbols stitched into their jacket, according to a Village Voice article. One Welfare Poets member told the Voice that the cops boasted that the group had been under surveillance for some time. The next day, the six men, including Hughes, all took ACD’s on less serious trespassing charges and were released.
Hughes never forgot what the police had told him and the other men: they were being watched. So last October, when cops started banging on his apartment door, Hughes suspected a set up. He was arrested and accused of being part of a gun-running ring. He was taken to the NYPD’s 25th precinct and told that he would be arraigned in the morning. Mayor Bill de Blasio, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance and then Police Commissioner Bill Bratton held a joint press conference the next morning to announce the gun trafficking takedown as they presented a table of firearms to reporters. Hughes and five others had been accused of selling 74 guns and were charged with 147 felony counts, including conspiracy. Vance marked the indictments as a success of his Violent Criminal Enterprises Unit, which he boasted had now taken 1,000 guns off of the streets. “These deadly weapons will no longer be able to shoot, maim, or kill New Yorkers,” he said.
The political winds were also blowing hard after the death of Holder. “We are having this conversation behind a very, very painful backdrop,” Mayor de Blasio said at the time. “We are all feeling the loss of Officer Holder. Everyone I have talked to feels a sense of mourning that we have lost a good man who died protecting us.” Still the moment, at times, seemed even larger than Holder: “But adding to the pain of that loss”, de Blasio continued, “is that these guns are so available and it is a national problem.” Bratton, denouncing the country’s lax gun laws, placed the blame on the US Congress, saying he had “no faith” in them to help stop gun violence.
Meanwhile, Hughes was trying to figure out who most of these other men were who he’d been accused of conspiring with to run guns up and down the east coast. All of them were much younger than him. Using colorful nicknames, the Manhattan DA’s Office described the group as a criminal enterprise. Hughes was given the nickname “OG” (Original Gangsta) in the indictment, though according to him he’d never been called that before in his life. Vance’s office, which declined to comment for this story, citing it as an open case, charged Hughes with possession and the sale of two weapons as well as conspiracy in the fourth degree. Hughes doesn’t deny having owned a gun, a small Rivington rifle, but says an undercover ATF agent had pressed to buy it through an intermediary. He feels he was thrown onto an indictment for serious conspiracy charges with a ‘crew’ he’d never been a part of.
As the most powerful law enforcement officials in the city made his arrest into political fodder about cop killings and national gun control, Hughes was in custody but wasn’t receiving proper medical treatment. He was held in the 25th precinct for almost 24 hours until he was taken straight into the courtroom of Judge Edward McLaughlin, a tough judge who was under new political pressure. McLaughlin had been the judge who sent Holder’s alleged killer, Tyrone Howard, to a drug diversion program instead of jail. After Holder’s death, McLaughlin became the focus of criticism for a criminal justice system that was being presented as too lenient. Mayor de Blasio and Commissioner Bratton had come to essentially blame him for Holder’s death.
However, with a reputation for being one of the city’s toughest judges, the notion of McLaughlin as excessively lenient was odd. As Hughes and the other men were led into Judge McLaughlin’s court, “everything was set up,” Hughes recalls. Reporters were busily snapping pictures of the handcuffed men. Along with Vance, de Blasio and Bratton’s press conference, the arrests were a media-frenzy. It seemed almost certain that McLaughlin would throw the book at Hughes and the other men. At first it was as if McLaughlin “wasn’t a judge, he was a prosecutor,” Hughes says.
Hughes was initially taken to Rikers Island. Bail had been set at $7,000, which his family couldn’t afford. Luckily or unluckily, his health had deteriorated so badly that he was allowed to begin visiting Bellevue Hospital for treatment instead of Rikers, where the medical facilities were lacking. Hughes’ kidneys and liver were failing. In a few weeks, he’d lost a dangerous amount of weight, shrinking down to 115 lbs on a 6 foot 1 frame. For as much as Hughes insisted that he wasn’t part of any gun-running crew, it was bad health, old age and frailty that might have saved him from McLaughlin’s full fury.
Though his health was fading, Hughes was sharp when it came to his legal rights. In 2010, Hughes sued the NYPD and NYCHA after, he says, cops from the nearby PSA 5 precinct were stopping and frisking kids from the Johnson Houses for no apparent reason. Underwhelmed by his court-appointed lawyer, Hughes had already begun typing up legal motions in the Rikers library to prepare for his appearances.
After almost 90 days of being shuttled back and forth between Rikers, Bellevue and the court, Hughes was brought in front of the judge in January. McLaughlin, reading through his medical reports, remarked to him he’d probably be dead in two years, Hughes says. Indeed, Hughes was suffering from a host of problems, including lung cancer. That, he says, appeared to hold back McLaughlin. “He wanted to throw me into the fray, but he couldn’t,” Hughes insists. Sitting in a wheelchair and losing weight by the day, Hughes was prepared to put forward the motions he’d typed up in Rikers.
It wouldn’t be needed. McLaughlin was ready drop the original charges, included the conspiracy count, and release Hughes to his family if he pled down to a less serious attempted possession of a weapon charge. It was still a felony but suggested that the frail and sick Hughes wasn’t a gun-runner after all. Nearly slumping over in his wheelchair and with his daughter crying in the court, Hughes agreed. McLaughlin was seemingly showing some mercy. The agreement, as Hughes understands it, is that though convicted, he was being given a two-year deferred sentence, which meant that although he’d have to regularly check in with the court, he wouldn’t have to immediately go back to Rikers. Whatever McLaughlin’s reasons—inexplicably, Hughes says, the judge spoke from the bench about how “Black Lives Matter” (a theme in his court)—Hughes wasn’t out of the woods just yet. What would happen to him in two years?
Hughes feels as if he is still in some sort of legal limbo 10 months after being released. He has to report periodically to court and is unsure of what will happen to him if he doesn’t die, as he says McLaughlin predicted. One public defender told City Limits that deferred sentences are sometimes given with the understanding that those convicted can still be sentenced at some future date. It’s possible that the court could then sentence him from anywhere to two to seven years. Another possibility, he said, is that the court could keep pushing back sentencing. The fact that Hughes has yet to be officially sentenced keeps his status somewhat up in the air (and why the Manhattan DA still considers it an open case).
While Hughes’ story might raise questions over how gun arrests are made and prosecuted in New York, it is hardly the only one. A Voice story earlier this month shed light on a group of police officers from Brooklyn’s 67th precinct who had produced a questionable gun possession bust and had been accused of “inventing informants” for years. A judge wrote that testimony from the cops was so incredible that she asked the U.S. Attorney’s office to intervene (which never happened). In fact, the same officers had originally been the focus of a New York Times story back in 2014 about a separate incident that elicited similar concerns. What the Voice story revealed, however, was that despite the concerns of judges, promises by the Brooklyn DA to investigate and the fact that gun charges attributable to these cops were continually being dropped, prosecutors were still relying on the same cops for gun cases.
The question is whether the city’s broader anti-gun effort rests on firmer footing.
Earlier this year the NYPD created a 200-cop division dedicated to ensuring more convictions as part of Operation Fast Track, a new initiative by Mayor de Blasio, the state courts and virtually every headlining law enforcement official in New York. With its stated goal of speeding up gun convictions, the move was also partly a response to declining gun conviction rates. Law enforcement officials say the the decline in due to changes in state law that have led to more cases going to trial, resulting in less convictions. Fast Track was announced in the aftermath of the Holder shooting and amid criticism directed at Judge McLaughlin. It was paired with a new push for gun courts dedicated to prosecuting gun possession cases. While hailed by the mayor and his allies for their better efficiency, some have their doubts about the gun courts. Says Steve Zeidman, a professor at CUNY School of Law: “Gun Court was developed, and has as its primary, if not sole, purpose, making sure that anyone charged with possessing a gun gets a jail or prison sentence. Call it the anti due process court.” (Hughes’ case was not handled in a gun court.)
Last month, law enforcement officials announced a new takedown of a gun crew, this time in Brooklyn. Again, like in Harlem last year, authorities pointed to an “Iron Pipeline” from South Carolina up through Interstate-95 to New York that funneled thousands of illegal guns into the city. Two men and one woman were arrested initially on 140 counts. Eventually, 19 people were charges across three indictments. Newly appointed Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez and NYPD commissioner Jimmy O’Neill hosted a joint press conference which featured a table full of guns that the group was alleged to have brought into the city.
When asked about the arrests, which were announced almost exactly one year to the day Officer Holder was killed, Hughes says he believes the treatment from the media and the propensity of the courts to lean towards convictions could unfairly affect people living in communities of color. There are others, he says, perhaps younger than he and not in bad health, that may end up being overcharged or worse.
According to court records, at least four out the five other men arrested alongside Hughes have been convicted, two of whom pled guilty and were sentenced this year to 17 and 15 years in prison, respectively. “For Blacks and Puerto Ricans, when you get in front of that judge, you basically don’t have a chance,” Hughes says. He thinks there will be a conviction backlash in the Bronx after an NYPD Sergeant was shot and killed there recently. A Long Island judge is now being criticized, like McLaughlin was, for not setting a high enough bail for the gunman, who was also killed.
During his most recent court appearance this month, a somewhat routine check-in with the judge that lacked the media attention and photographers from back in January, Hughes was told by court officials that he’d be seeing a new judge. After 33 years, Judge McLaughlin was stepping down from the bench and retiring. Adding to the uncertainty that began last October, Hughes’ future, for better or for worse, will now be in the hands of a new judge.