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Broken locks may leave NYC liable on housing project murders

The case blames public housing authorities for two murders that occurred in buildings where anyone could get in.

ALBANY, N.Y. (CN) — New York state's highest court appeared poised Wednesday to revive a pair of negligence lawsuits that say the failure of public officials to properly secure the housing projects led to two tragic murders.

Bridget Crushshon is the victim in the first case, killed in 2007 by her ex-boyfriend, Walter Boney, after he had stalked and threatened her for more than a year. Crushshon lived in public housing run, and her family says Boney was able to wait in the hall outside her apartment because the door to the building did not have a working lock. After he choked Crushshon, Boney doused her body and his with flammable liquid, which he then set on fire. The attack left one of Crushshon's sons hospitalized for 15 months. Boney died from his injuries.

In the second case, two gang members shot and killed Tayshana Murphy in 2011 after a skirmish with a rival gang in which her brother was a member. When her killers approached, Murphy had been standing with rival gang members outside a building operated by the New York City Housing Authority. Murphy's survivors say the gang members followed her in after she entered the building through a side door with a broken lock.

Crushshon’s estate prevailed in their case. The trial court emphasized not only that the longstanding broken lock in Crushshon's building “made it foreseeable that some form of criminal conduct could occur," but that the city did not have immunity against in case like this where the victim was targeted.

The New York Court of Appeals consolidated the city's appeal with that of Murphy’s survivors, who lost their case based on lower court rulings that the rival gang gunmen were “bent on revenge” and that the broken lock likely would not have stopped them.

During Wednesday’s arguments, attorneys representing the New York City Housing Authority tried to keep the cases focused on the fact that both murders were targeted and not random killings. Even so, most of the judges couldn’t seem to get past the fact that the perpetrators were essentially allowed to breeze into the housing developments to commit their crimes.

“If you had a locked door, would we have a case here at all?” asked Chief Judge Rowan Wilson, who noted that, “it seems to me as a general matter that crimes of opportunity are in some ways less foreseeable than a crime perpetrated by an ex-romantic partner in a domestic violence situation.”

John Watkins of Watkins and Watkins, one of the two attorneys representing NYCHA at the hearing, kept stressing that targeted attackers — as in the case of Boney, who had repeatedly harassed Crushshon, assaulted her at her workplace and stole her car — were difficult to stop with minimal security.

“The targeting itself … is sufficient to overcome minimal security measures because minimal security measures are easy to overcome,” Watkins said, noting that Boney had lay in wait for his ex-girlfriend and had not given chase when randomly seeing her.

Brian Shoot with the firm Sullivan Papain, an attorney for Murphy’s son, echoed that the NYCHA failed to provide even basic security at the housing projects. “Their burden, your honors, is so small,” he said. “Provide a working lock. Provide minimal security. Just do that. If you do that, there are no hypothetical questions.”

Despite this, Judge Michael Garcia later posed hypothetical situations about a random person with a battering ram entering the NYCHA buildings versus a targeted attack proceeding through unlocked doors. “So why isn’t the issue really just does the door make a difference?” he asked, noting that in both situations a determined perpetrator seeking random or targeted violence could breach the minimal security of a locked door.

The issue of targeted versus random attacks seemed to irk Judge Madeline Singas, also. “Fundamentally my question is why are targeted victims not afforded the same rights and protections as nontargeted victims?” she asked.

Judge Jenny Rivera repeatedly suggested the cases should proceed to trial. “That sounds like an excellent argument to give to the jury,” she said after attorneys for NYCHA argued that a city handyman had ensured the door in the Murphy case was working during the daytime.  

Rivera also hammered home that “common sense” shows that a locked door could have at a minimum slowed down a perpetrator. “It does seem obvious that, if they can’t get through the door, at a minimum they would have been slowed down,” she said. “And those precious seconds might have made a difference.”

When Watkins argued there was no evidence that was the case, Rivera again said the case seemed ripe for a jury. “That’s for the jury, right? That’s the argumentation for the jury.”

This was Wilson’s first case as chief judge, being confirmed by the state Senate hours before the hearing. He is the first Black chief judge for the Court of Appeals.

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Categories / Appeals, Government, Regional

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