A Staten Island man says he spent nearly a year locked up on Rikers Island before his acquittal on two robbery cases because an NYPD detective withheld crucial evidence of his innocence.
“What happened to me was not right,” Victor Abraham, 26, told the Daily News. “I didn’t rob no one. What if I was convicted and went to prison for a crime I did not commit?”
Abraham, an immigrant from Ghana who is engaged and has two children, had no criminal record before his two arrests. His mother was able to finally bail him out for $15,000 in September 2017, after he’d been incarcerated nearly a year.
He refused a plea deal and went on to beat all the charges after a week-long Staten Island Supreme Court trial in November 2018.
The months in jail sent him down a spiral from which he has not been able to recover, he says.
Before his arrests he lived alone and was working toward a high-school equivalency diploma with an eye on eventually joining the Air Force. But while behind bars, he says, he missed the deadline to apply for government funding he needed to renew his lease and after his acquittal wound up living in an abandoned house.
After he met his fiancee, the couple bounced around to different residences, including a homeless shelter, and now live in Elizabeth, N.J. They are trying to stave off eviction while both struggle to find work and Abraham grapples with his schizophrenia.
“It’s not like now that I was acquitted people said, ‘Oh, Victor Abraham, we realize we done you wrong, let us help you pick up the pieces,’” Abraham said. “That didn’t happen. And I haven’t been able to provide for my family. I want to do good things.”
Now he is suing the city and the cops who busted him for wrongful arrest and civil rights violations.
“It’s really an injustice,” Abraham said. “Police officers are supposed to protect and serve — but that didn’t happen with me.”
Abraham’s first arrest was Oct. 17, 2016, on charges he robbed a 33-year-old man on Heberton Ave. in Port Richmond eight days earlier. He was released on $10,000 bail a few days after his arrest.
The crook in that case brandished a gun, telling the victim to “remember his face,” as an accomplice looked on.
Four days later, the victim was on an S44 bus in Staten Island when he took a picture of a fellow rider he thought might be the gunman.
The victim gave the photo to Det. Steven Lutz of the NYPD Central Robbery Division, telling him the bus rider looked “similar” to the gunman though he “wasn’t 100% sure,” according to the trial transcript.
The picture of the bus rider, which The News has seen, shows a teen or young man who clearly does not resemble Abraham.
Nonetheless, Abraham, then 19, was arrested after the victim picked his picture in a photo array prepared by police, his federal court complaint says.
It still isn’t entirely clear how Lutz came to consider Abraham a suspect in the crime — though law enforcement sources said Abraham was being eyed as a possible suspect in a robbery pattern for which two other men were ultimately charged by the feds.
Abraham’s lawyer, Robert Walters, learned of the photo taken on the S44 bus, which was mentioned in a police report prepared by Lutz and turned over to Walters at the start of Abraham’s trial.
But the actual photo was never entered into the case file — as is required for evidence that could clear the accused. Lutz said it wasn’t necessary to put the picture in the file because the victim wasn’t certain the photo was of the right person.
“Based on what he said to me … that it [the photograph] did resemble him, but he doesn’t think it was him. I didn’t think it would be pertinent to produce it into my case,” Lutz testified at Abraham’s trial.
“That was a bald-faced lie,” Walters told the Daily News. “The detective said the opposite when the photo was taken.”
In a police report, Lutz wrote that Abraham “appears to be the same male black as in the photo the victim provided.”
Abraham is Black, as is the man in the photo.
“Does he think all Black people look alike?” Walters asked. “Because that photo looks nothing like Victor Abraham.”
In his federal lawsuit, Abraham accuses two other cops of framing him for the second crime, an attempted robbery, by misleading a 15-year-old victim into wrongly identifying him as the attacker.
The Oct. 27, 2016, attempted robbery of the boy involved three men in hoodies on another Port Richmond street on the day Abraham was released from Rikers Island on bail for the earlier crime. He was arrested for the second robbery four days later.
Sgt. Steven Zielinski showed the young victim one mug shot — that of Abraham, according to the suit.
Det. Jennifer Hamilton, then an officer, later showed the victim in that case a photo array that included a number of mug shots. Two of the photos in the array were of Abraham, says the federal court lawsuit.
Though the victim said he was robbed by three men, only Abraham was arrested in the case.
Staten Island Supreme Court Judge William Garnett tossed both of the victim’s identifications of pictures of Abraham.
Garnett said the photo array that the first victim viewed was “unduly suggestive” because Abraham was the only one pictured in a white shirt. The same thing happened in the photo array viewed by the second victim, Garnett said.
The judge said the case could proceed to trial, giving the DA’s office the opportunity to have both victims testify. The ruling was a full year before Abraham’s trial. Garnett was not yet aware of the photo of the bus rider that wasn’t revealed until the trial.
The trial covered both of the robberies of which Abraham was accused.
On the witness stand, Lutz admitted to the jury he didn’t include the picture taken of a possible suspect on the S44 bus by the adult victim in the Oct. 9, 2016, robbery.
Because of Judge Garnett’s pretrial ruling, prosecutors were not able to tell the jury about the teen victim’s identifications in the Oct. 27, 2016 robbery.
It took the jury less than two hours to acquit Abraham of both crimes, said a report in the Staten Island Advance.
The suit over Abraham’s arrests remains pending. Settlement talks have been held but the two sides have not gotten close to an agreement, court papers show.
Lutz retired in July 2022. He did not respond to requests for comment. The NYPD, asked if Lutz was ever disciplined, told The News to file a freedom of information law request, a process that typically takes months.
Zielinski and Hamilton did not respond to requests for comment.
Andrew Crawford, a spokesman for the Staten Island District Attorney’s Office, wouldn’t say why prosecutors didn’t press Lutz for the photo taken on the bus when they turned over discovery evidence to Abraham’s criminal defense lawyer.
Crawford also wouldn’t say if prosecutors reported the matter to NYPD brass. Such a notification could have led to disciplinary charges against the three officers for their missteps in Abraham’s prosecution. A source familiar with the case, however, said supervisors for the three officers were in fact notified.
Lutz and Zielinski do not appear in the database in which prosecutors detail cops accused of misconduct, such as withholding evidence or conducting unfair photo lineups, according to a source familiar with the database.
Hamilton does appear, with a notation that mentions that she is a defendant in Abraham’s suit but does not mention Judge Garnett’s ruling excluding the photo lineup she prepared.
The notation also mentions a letter of instruction placed in her personnel file in 2014 for failing to notify the Internal Affairs Bureau about some matter. No details about that matter are listed.
“Having this critical information helps to further fairness in the criminal legal system,” said Chris Pisciotta, a Legal Aid supervisor on Staten Island. “We call on District Attorney Michael McMahon to improve his disclosure practices to strengthen due process and help ensure our clients’ access to justice.”
Abraham noted to The News that he had contact with police when officers responded to an argument he had with his mother on the street. He said he was not charged in that incident but that police may have him in their records before he was charged with the robbery.
However police came to focus on him, Abraham said, they got the wrong guy.
His civil lawyer, Joel Wertheimer, said even if Abraham wins his case the damage has been done.
“He lives every day with the days he spent on Rikers’ Island, itself a city-created hellscape, and with the memory that he might have spent decades in New York prisons because of the actions of New York City officers,” Wertheimer said.
“His civil suit will never give him that time back or erase those memories. But at the very least he deserves accountability for what he endured.”
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