Feb 27, 2020
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Tessa Majors’s Murder: Police Bluff Led to Teen’s Confession

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The grainy video shows a hesitant 13-year-old leaning over a table in a windowless interrogation room. Two detectives are questioning him about the fatal stabbing of Tessa Majors in Morningside Park.

The boy’s voice quivers: “I don’t know about the stabbing. I don’t know about the stabbing.”

Then Detective Wilfredo Acevedo leans over and says the police have video footage and other evidence that puts the boy and two middle school friends at the park when Ms. Majors was killed.

“I’m going to be asking questions,” Detective Acevedo says. “I already know the answers.”

Over the next few minutes, the boy described in chilling detail the last moments of Ms. Majors’s life as a video camera recorded his remarks at the 26th Precinct station house a day after the killing.

Ms. Majors, a Barnard College freshman, was walking through the park near 116th Street in Manhattan on Dec. 11 when three teenagers tried to mug her, prosecutors say. One teenager prevented her from running away and a second stabbed her after she refused to hand over her cellphone.

The detective’s tactics during the interrogation were the focus of a hearing in Family Court for the youngest of three teenagers charged in Ms. Majors’s murder. Judge Carol Goldstein must decide if the video can be used as evidence at the boy’s trial next month.

Public defenders representing the 13-year-old argued the interrogation should be thrown out because Detective Acevedo had used intimidation and deception to get the confession, falsely suggesting he had seen evidence placing the boy in the park.

“When you said that, it is your understanding that that is not actually true?” Hannah Kaplan of the Legal Aid Society asked the detective.

“That’s correct,” Detective Acevedo responded. “I just wanted him to tell me what occurred in the park. That’s all. We can lie, yes.”

Bluffing is a common tactic to elicit information from people arrested during an interrogation, police officials said.

The teenager has been charged with second-degree felony murder as a juvenile. He is not accused of taking part in the stabbing, but in the robbery that preceded it, the authorities said.

During the questioning, he identified his two 14-year-old accomplices, who were initially questioned and released after they refused to answer questions on the advice of their lawyers.

Two months later, the Manhattan district attorney charged the other two boys, Rashaun Weaver and Luchiano Lewis, with second-degree murder and robbery. Mr. Weaver is accused of stabbing Ms. Majors and Mr. Lewis of holding her when she tried to flee, the authorities said. They are being tried as adults.

Ms. Majors’s murder rattled the city and evoked comparisons to the 1989 April attack on a jogger in Central Park. In that case, the police and prosecutors relied on tough interrogation techniques to obtain confessions from five teenagers, who were convicted in the brutal assault and rape of the jogger. The confessions were later proven to be false and the convictions were overturned.

The authorities say they took extra steps in Ms. Majors’s case to ensure that the teenagers were questioned in the presence of a lawyer or a legal guardian. The 13-year-old boy’s uncle was present when he was questioned.

But on Wednesday, Ms. Kaplan, a public defender, argued that the uncle, Roosevelt Davis, was no substitute for an attorney. Ms. Kaplan said that Mr. Davis did not possess the training to know Detective Acevedo could lie during the interview. Neither was Mr. Davis aware he could have stopped the questioning at any time.

Detective Acevedo told the judge that Mr. Davis told him, “I don’t have any issues talking with you guys” about his nephew’s arrest.

During one portion of the video shown during Wednesday’s hearing, the teenager described part of the attack on Ms. Majors, an aspiring musician and journalist who had come from Virginia to study at Barnard.

The teenager said Mr. Weaver and Mr. Lewis became irate when Ms. Majors refused to hand over her cellphone on a set of stairs in the park.

“So they got mad. And then, and then, she was probably refusing to give it to them,” the boy said on the video. “And they got mad. They probably took it from her.”

The 13-year-old, wearing a black jacket, dark blue sweatpants and Nike sneakers, bit his lip nervously as parts of his interview were played in the courtroom. His aunt, Shaquoya Carr, sat in a row behind him taking notes quietly.

Ms. Kaplan has also sought to undermine Detective Acevedo’s credibility, pointing out he been accused of misconduct in lawsuits and other complaints, including false arrest, making false accusations and withholding evidence helpful to a defendant.

The police department said in a statement that Detective Acevedo had never been found by a judge or by the city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board to have made a single false statement or false arrest.

“The calculated, personal attacks against a member of the investigative team working to solve the murder of Tessa Majors is an obvious and unethical effort to make prejudicial statements outside the courtroom to affect a jury pool,” the police commissioner, Dermot F. Shea, said in an earlier statement.

At an earlier hearing in Criminal Court, prosecutors had said they had a recording in which Mr. Weaver implicated himself in the murder, saying he had attacked Ms. Majors because “she was hanging on to her phone.” A witness also told police Ms. Majors was heard yelling “Help me! I’m being robbed!”

Moments later, she was stabbed four times, the blade piercing her heart once, court records show.

As he talked to the 13-year-old suspect, Detective Acevedo tried to earn the youngster’s trust by telling him, “You’re not a bad kid” and asking him whether his uncle taught him right from wrong.

“I’m telling you there’s video inside the whole park,” Detective Acevedo told the boy. “The reason I’m talking to you is because I know you were there.”

“If you are lying,” he added, “you would get in a lot, a lot of trouble.”

Eventually the teenager turned to his uncle, Mr. Davis, said that he and his friends had gone to the park looking for someone to rob and began to describe what happened, the detective said. “His response was to his uncle, not to me,” Detective Acevedo said. “I felt it was more forthcoming, more truthful.”

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