Murder of Tessa Majors

The murder of Tessa Majors occurred near Morningside Park in Morningside Heights, Manhattan, on December 11, 2019. Majors, an eighteen-year-old student at Barnard College, was attacked and stabbed by three teenagers as part of a robbery. Majors was discovered collapsed and bleeding on a staircase exiting Morningside Park and transported to a nearby hospital, ultimately succumbing to the injuries.

Murder of Tessa Majors
Tessa Majors.jpeg
Undated photo of Tessa Majors
LocationMorningside Park, New York City, New York, U.S.
Coordinates40°48′21″N 73°57′34″W / 40.8057°N 73.9594°W / 40.8057; -73.9594Coordinates: 40°48′21″N 73°57′34″W / 40.8057°N 73.9594°W / 40.8057; -73.9594
DateDecember 11, 2019
c. 5:30 p.m. (EST)
Attack type
Murder by stabbing, robbery
WeaponKnife
VictimTessa Rane Majors
PerpetratorsLuchiano Lewis
Rashaun Weaver
Unnamed 13-year-old
MotiveRobbery
VerdictAll pleaded guilty
ConvictionsLewis and Weaver:

Lewis, Weaver, and 13-year old:

Weaver:

  • Second-degree robbery

SentenceLewis:
Life imprisonment with the possibility of parole after 9 years
Weaver:
Life imprisonment with the possibility of parole after 14 years
13-year old:
18 months in juvenile detention

One of the suspects, a thirteen-year-old, was arrested the following day and charged with felony murder. Two months later, two fourteen-year-old suspects, Luchiano Lewis and Rashaun Weaver,[1] were also charged with murder.[2][3] On June 3, 2020, the 13-year-old (since turned 14) pleaded guilty in family court to robbery in the first degree. On September 21, 2021, Lewis pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and first-degree robbery. In December 2021, Weaver pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, first-degree robbery, and second-degree robbery. The 13-year-old was sentenced to 18 months of detention while Lewis was sentenced to nine years to life in prison, and Weaver was sentenced to 14 years to life in prison.[4][5][6][7][8][9][10]

BackgroundEdit

Morningside Park experienced seventeen robberies in the spring of 2019 compared to seven robberies the year before. The suspects in these robberies were mostly younger juveniles between the ages of twelve and fourteen. The robberies usually involved “the same kids over and over.”[11] According to a report, Barnard College was absent from the local crime briefings in the months leading up to Majors’s killing[12] though Barnard did receive regular briefings from the NYPD and a safety briefing was part of freshman orientation.[11]

MurderEdit

 
The staircase at 116th Street, near where Majors was found[13]

On December 11, 2019, Majors was walking in Morningside Park, several blocks from Barnard College. Shortly before 7:00 p.m., three people attacked Majors on a staircase[14] near 116th Street and Morningside Drive.[13] Police speculated that the attack was a "robbery gone wrong".[15] At a 2021 sentencing hearing for Lewis, Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos characterized the attack as long, intentional, and pre-meditated.[8]

According to the thirteen-year-old offender's confession, around dinnertime, the three suspects went to the park to rob people. They considered several potential victims but finally settled on attacking Majors.[11] The offender told police that his two accomplices had grabbed Majors, and used a choke-hold as a restraint while searching for items to take.[4] Majors struggled and refused to hand over a mobile phone.[11] The offender also told police that one of the robbers stabbed Majors with a knife.[4] According to a witness, a male yelled at Majors to give him the phone. Majors then screamed for help, yelling, “Help me! I’m being robbed!”[2]

According to the thirteen-year-old offender, Majors bit one of the attacker's fingers hard, causing it to bleed.[11] The suspect admitted in his confession that the alleged attacker stabbed Majors after being bitten.[11] The attacker stabbed Majors several times in the chest, with one stab wound piercing the heart.[2]

In a statement read in court during Lewis' guilty plea, Lewis said it was Weaver's idea to commit park robberies but that they did not plan on using a knife. He further stated that Majors was using the phone as he and his co-defendants passed and that Weaver was the first to attack from behind. According to Lewis, Weaver went on to threaten Majors, trying to force Majors to give him money.[16]

After the altercation, the attackers went through Majors' pockets and fled.[11] According to Lewis, after the trio fled, Weaver told him that Majors had hit him.[16] Majors then attempted to climb up the steep stairs found at the park's entrance nearest to the university.[17] Majors staggered up the stairs and collapsed at the corner of Morningside Drive and 116th Street,[18][2] before being found by a security guard at the top of the staircase.[14] While still conscious, Majors told a witness of the events at the park.[19] Police responded to the attack after a 911 call, finding Majors with multiple stab wounds. Majors was pronounced dead at Mount Sinai Morningside Hospital.[4]

Investigation and suspectsEdit

The day after the incident, the police arrested a thirteen-year-old male and charged him with felony murder and felony robbery.[4] The suspect was arrested after being caught trespassing while wearing clothes[20][21] and sneakers[11] that matched the description given of the suspects.[20][21]

Judge Carol Goldstein set the suspect's trial date for March 16. She also denied requests by his lawyers for him to be released into his aunt and uncle’s custody, due to the seriousness of the charges against him.[22] In order to avoid the missteps that occurred during the Central Park Five case 30 years prior, police called in prosecutors early on in the case. Additionally, all questioning of the thirteen-year-old was video recorded.[14]

A second suspect, who was fourteen, was arrested and released on December 12.[23] Police were unable to locate the third suspect, a fourteen-year-old, for two weeks, but apprehended him on December 26 after publicly releasing his photograph.[24][23] According to The New York Times, detectives believe that some members of the fourteen-year-old’s family were hiding him until the bite mark on his hand had time to heal.[25][23] After being questioned, the boy was released into the custody of his attorneys pending further investigation.[24]

In January 2020, it was announced that the case against the two fourteen-year-old suspects would go before a grand jury.[26] On February 14, 2020, one of the fourteen-year-olds who had been arrested on December 26, was indicted by a grand jury.[27] The New York City Police Department re-arrested him and charged him as an adult with two counts of second-degree murder, one count of first-degree robbery and three counts of second-degree robbery.[28] According to a criminal complaint, DNA belonging to this suspect was found under Majors' fingernails.[29] The suspect allegedly confessed to his incarcerated father during a recorded phone conversation. According to court papers, the suspect stated that he tried to get Majors' phone coercively.[30][better source needed]

In February, another suspect, aged fourteen, was arrested.[31][29] He was charged as an adult with a count of second degree murder,[32] two counts of first-degree robbery and one count of second-degree robbery. Both fourteen-year-old suspects were arraigned on February 19 and pleaded not guilty.[33]

On June 3, 2020, the 13-year-old male arrested the day after the incident, and who had since turned 14, pleaded guilty in family court to robbery in the first degree.[34] Police investigation of surveillance footage had shown that this juvenile, the youngest of the three in the group, had not touched Majors during the crime, which the prosecutor said had contributed, along with his young age and clean record, to their decision to drop the murder charge if the boy pleaded guilty to the robbery.[35] On June 15 he was sentenced to eighteen months in detention. Though Majors's parents were not present at the sentencing, they submitted a victim impact statement which was read in court. In the statement, they criticized the deal that led to the offender's guilty plea and argued that he “has shown a complete lack of remorse or contrition for his role in the killing of Tess Majors.” They also criticized the offender's choice to pick up the knife and handing it to the person who stabbed Majors with it.[5][36]

On September 21, 2021, Lewis pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and first-degree robbery. The news was welcomed by Majors' family who thanked the authorities for their work in this case.[6] On October 14, 2021, Lewis was sentenced to the maximum of nine years to life in prison. The judge sentenced Lewis to an additional three-plus years for the robbery. During his time in custody, Lewis has been involved in multiple fights and had contraband that could have been used as weapons. He was also re-arrested for felony assault after a violent slashing with another inmate over a blanket.[7]

On December 16, 2021, Weaver pleaded guilty to one count of second-degree murder, one count of first-degree robbery, and one count of second-degree robbery. At the plea hearing, Weaver acknowledged that he "intentionally caused the death of Tessa Majors by stabbing her with a knife." He was sentenced to 14 years to life in prison on January 19, 2022.[8][9][10]

VictimEdit

Tessa Rane Majors (May 11, 2001 – December 11, 2019), also known as Tess,[37] was from Charlottesville, Virginia. Majors graduated from St. Anne's-Belfield School in May 2019, and was a first-semester freshman at Barnard College, a private all-women's school in Manhattan.[4] Majors sang and played bass in a band, Patient 0,[38] which had recently released an album.[4] The band had played its first gig in New York City that fall[18] and was scheduled to play two more shows in Charlottesville during winter break.[39] Majors also led the creative writing club in high school, ran cross-country, and volunteered on political campaigns.[40] An intern at the Augusta Free Press during the spring of 2019,[41] Majors had an interest in journalism[4] and planned to study journalism in college.[42] Majors' father is an English professor at James Madison University, and the author of six books.[4]

AftermathEdit

 
Memorial along a park fence on Morningside Drive in May 2021

The attack prompted new security measures at Morningside Park, including 24-hour guard booths outside the park. The operation hours of the evening safety shuttle bus have also been extended.[43] Additional funding was promised for security measures at Morningside Park, as well as fixing the outdoor lighting. NYPD committed additional officers for patrolling the park, and Columbia University pledged more security guards.[44] New York City Council member Mark D. Levine announced he was attempting to get funds to add security cameras that could be monitored in real time by police officers.[45]

ReactionEdit

The murder of Majors garnered considerable news coverage and was referred to as a political football,[46] in part because violent crime had fallen significantly in New York City in preceding years.[47]

The case was particularly notable due to the young ages of the suspects;[18] juveniles under the age of fifteen account for only a small fraction (significantly less than 1%) of those arrested for murder each year.[48] In addition, due to the suspects being black and the victim of the killing being white, the murder is reported to have "resurfaced the longstanding racial and class tensions between Columbia University and the fast-gentrifying neighborhood of Harlem".[49][50]

The New York Times has compared the case to the 1989 Central Park jogger case, which occurred nearby in the North Woods of Central Park; both cases involved a young female victim and alleged young male perpetrators, although the suspects of the 1989 case were later cleared of all charges.[14] This comparison to the jogger case was echoed by Time[4] and the Star Tribune.[51] Gale Brewer, the borough president of Manhattan, urged detectives to proceed with caution to avoid an outcome similar to the jogger case.[52] In an effort to avoid the mistakes made by police 30 years prior, all questioning of the suspects in the Tessa Majors case was video recorded.[14] New York magazine called it a defining, once-in-a-generation crime for New Yorkers.[11]

In 2021, the press remarked that the Morningside Park area continued to raise safety concerns similar to the murder of Majors; this time the killing of Davide Giri;[53][54] the New York Times called it "an eerie reprise."[55]

ReferencesEdit

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  54. ^ NANCY WARTIK (10 December 2021). "Morningside Park and its two cities: Davide Giri, Tessa Majors and the surrounding community". New York Daily News. Retrieved 11 December 2021. thinking of Tessa. Then last week: another terrible thing. Davide Giri, a 30-year-old Columbia grad student from Italy, was knifed on the edge of the park, coming home from soccer practice
  55. ^ Ginia Bellafante (10 December 2021). "Have Urban Universities Done Enough for the Neighborhoods Around Them?". The New York Times. Retrieved 11 December 2021. Tessa Majors was murdered during a robbery in Morningside Park [...] in an eerie reprise, another student from the Columbia community — Davide Giri, who had been working toward his doctorate in computer science — was fatally stabbed just outside the northern tip of the park