On September 2, 1990, a murder took place in the New York subway. It was random and senseless — the type of crime that had come to define New York in this era.
It was a little over a year after the infamous Central Park jogger rape case, a time when much of the South Bronx was still a series of burned-out buildings filled with crack addicts. They said people would walk over your body to catch a cab in New York, and there were many people who wouldn’t have visited the city for anything in the world.
The Watkins family, however, did come to New York that year. Avid tennis fans, they made their yearly trek from Provo, Utah, to watch the US Open. After the match, they stood on the Seventh Avenue subway platform, on their way to dinner downtown. Perhaps they discussed their favorite players of the day, Martina Navratilova or Pete Sampras.
At the same time, a large group of about fifty teenagers were on their way to a big dance at Roseland Ballroom, just a block away.
The train doors opened and some of the group filed out onto the platform and headed up the stairs to attend the concert. Among them was eighteen-year-old Pascual Carpenter, who lived in a modest home in Queens with his family and mother Marlene, a transplant from Haiti.
During the ride, Carpenter says he had been chatting with a girl, but when he got upstairs, he didn’t see her. Fatefully, he went back downstairs to find her, which is when a young man named Kevin Mouton—who Carpenter says he knew, although not well — motioned to him.
“Kevin indicated to me that we about to get paid,” recalls Carpenter.
Carpenter knew this meant that the teens were going to rob someone on the platform, and says he went back up the stairs to the token booth level to check out who was there. Seeing no police officers, he peered back down onto the subway platform.
Suddenly, there was a commotion. From his vantage point, Carpenter says he could see people were scrambling. Some people were on the floor. Others began running towards him up the stairs, so he ran along with them. Once outside, as planned, he continued on to the club.
What Carpenter claims he didn’t know as he ran was that twenty-two-year-old Brian Watkins had just been stabbed in the heart by Yull Gary Morales, who had taken a concealed knife out of his pocket. The teens pushed Brian’s father Sherwin Watkins to the ground, slashing his pants and buttocks with a box cutter and taking $200, and pushed Brian’s mother Karen down as well, kicking her in the chest and face. Brian Watkins then struggled with Morales, who stabbed him. Not realizing the extent of his injuries, Brian Watkins chased the teens, collapsing on the stairs. He died later that night at St. Vincent’s hospital.
Carpenter danced and partied at the club, allegedly unaware of the severity of the crime that had just taken place. Later that night, after interviewing witnesses, police had Roseland Ballroom funnel everyone out one door and witnesses picked out several defendants. Carpenter was put into handcuffs and questioned — which is, he says, the first time he learned there had been a murder.
The case was a PR disaster for Mayor David Dinkins, the first African-American mayor of New York City, who was already facing blame for out-of-control crime. “Dave, Do Something!” screamed the glaring headline in the New York Post. “Crime-ravaged city cries out for help!” “New York’s streets are awash in blood!” The paper quoted tourists who said they would never come back to the city again.
The judge who oversaw the case was Edwin Torres, author of the crime drama “Carlito’s Way,” which was then in the process of being made into a movie starring Al Pacino. Torres was known for giving harsh sentences, earning him the nickname “The Time Machine.” In an unusual move, Torres was handpicked by the office of the court of administration, despite the fact that a grand jury murder trial would normally go into a lottery.
Seven of the eight teens in the Watkins case were sentenced to life in prison, largely based on confessions made following the murder.
Jurors saw a videotaped confession Carpenter gave shortly after the crime, in which he states that he stood on the platform and held back a member of the Watkins family who was calling for help — but Carpenter claims this confession was false and coerced, and that detectives led him to believe if he offered the confession, he would not be charged with murder.
The eighth defendant, the only one who had never signed his statement, went home.
While Carpenter’s version of what went down that evening differs sharply from the theories put forth by prosecutors in the trial, no one disputed the fact that he was unarmed. Yet Carpenter was given the same sentence as everyone else involved: twenty-five years to life in prison.
He has now been in prison for twenty-four years.
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I met Carpenter earlier this year in a sterile, brick-walled common room at Sing Sing Correctional Facility. We sat at a long table and talked while guards periodically checked in on us.
Carpenter speaks deliberately, eloquently, softly. He writes screenplays and is finishing a degree in theology. When he gets out of prison, he wants to work with disadvantaged youth and continue to write. He says he sees Brian Watkins as a hero and wishes he could shake his hand. He stresses that he understands he had a part in what took place that night and takes responsibility for the horrible event that occurred.
Carpenter’s verdict was based on New York’s controversial felony murder rule, which states that anyone who is peripherally involved in a violent felony that results in death can be charged with murder.
“There was a point where I had accepted that I am a murderer,” Carpenter told me. “At that time, I was still young and didn’t have the type of independent thinking to be able to see beyond other people’s perception of me. That was my way of coping with this situation of spending the next twenty-five years to life in prison.”
Originally stemming from British common law, the felony murder rule has been abolished in all other democratic countries except for the United States. The rule can be used even if the defendant wasn’t in the room at the time or was otherwise unaware of the crime.
“Starting about five or six years ago, I came across a number of articles regarding felony murder convictions,” says Carpenter. “These articles said that legal scholars have criticized this particular rule since its inception. That made me realize: Maybe I shouldn’t look at myself as someone who deserves to be labeled with the term ‘murderer.’
“From that point on, I developed a philosophy of how to deal with this situation…I came up with a technical term to describe myself. It’s ‘non-lethal defendant convicted of murder.’”
Carpenter started his own clemency campaign, sending out more than 500 letters to organizations and individuals who are involved in the prison reform movement and elected officials over about nine months. The response, he said, was very disappointing — about six percent.
“I would get these form letters: ‘Sorry we can’t help you at this time but contact this organization.’ I contact them and then they send me a form letter telling me to contact the first place. It was like a circle.”
Deirdre Sinnott grew up in Utica, New York, and moved to Manhattan when she was twenty-three years old. Initially, she worked in the theater — the dream she moved to New York to pursue. In 1992, she became a full-time political organizer with former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark’s activism organization, the International Action Center. Together, she and Clark traveled with delegations to Iraq three times to document the effect of the U.S./UN sanctions. She has spoken abroad in Britain, Japan and Greece, and demonstrated against both Gulf Wars and the war in Afghanistan.
“I learned a whole lot about different areas, different issues…We did some organizing around Mumia Abu Jamal and I just learned, learned, learned,” Sinnott told me at a Manhattan diner. “I was working with people but also dealing with a lot of my own internalized issues, like growing up white and semi-privileged in the 1960s. Plus, trying to fulfill a lifelong desire to write.”
Sinnott left organizing in 2004 and since then has worked as a memoirist, essayist and book reviewer. Little did she know, it would be the theater that would bring her back to activism again.
In the spring of 2012, one of her old theater friends, a director named Richard Hoehler, called Sinnott to tell her he was putting on a show written by various playwrights at Otisville Correctional Facility, a medium-security prison. The show, which would focus on male interpersonal relationships, was called “Tuff Love.”
“I was like, ‘Absolutely, I want to go!’” recalls Sinnott. “Because of my activism, I have been arrested three times during political organizing, but that’s jail, for four hours to thirty-six hours. There is a huge part of our population in prison, so to get a chance to go inside just seemed like the right thing to do.”
Sinnott loved the play, and after the performance she began talking to one of the actors: Pascual Carpenter.
Carpenter recalls seeing Sinnott looking a little bit lost and “just standing there” after the play, so he decided to go over and say hello. “I asked, ‘What do you do?’ and she said she was a writer. I said ‘Really? So am I!’”
“I said, ‘What type of writing?’ She said ‘I write screenplays.’ I said, ‘Really? Well, so do I!’”
“This was the first time I was introduced to someone on the outside who actually does that, so I was hoping to keep a connection with her,” he says.
A week later, Carpenter got Sinnott’s contact info from Hoehler. “I wrote to her and said, ‘Hey, remember me? I’m the guy you met at the show!’” says Carpenter, who hoped that she might be interested in discussing screenplays.
So one day, Sinnott suddenly received a letter from a prisoner. “Sure, I had moments of concern about that,” she says. “All I knew was that he was in this show and Richard trusted him enough to give him my address.”
The two writers began to exchange their work with each other for critique.
“I told Pascual, look — I used to work at a publishing house. My job was to send rejection letters to the slush pile. They had two rejection letters: one for prisoners and one for everybody else. And the one for prisoners was slightly nicer…
“I told him, ‘I’m not going to give you the prisoner’s letter. I’m going to treat you like you’re in my writing group.’ And he was all for that. I gave him my screenplay and…” she laughs. “Well, he did not spare me in the same way that I did not spare him.”
The two wrote back and forth like this for months, giving each other critiques on their pieces.
“I had no intentions of telling her about my case,” Carpenter told me. “I really wanted to keep our relationship based on our mutual interest in writing. She never asked. But we reached a point where it was like: it’s obvious I’m here for a reason, I’m almost certain you’re curious…so I felt comfortable enough to explain.”
Sinnott, having lived in New York at the time of the murder, thought the crime sounded familiar.
“I Googled it — ‘Oh, it’s that crime!’ At the time it had really scared me,” she says. “So when Pascual told me he was unarmed, I thought, ‘Really?’ Because they had all been very demonized [back then]…
“I didn’t just do a little research, I did a lot of research. I went to the library. I went right back into the headlines that I saw on the streets in 1990 — David Dinkins being attacked over it; the judge calling them a ‘wolfpack’ and saying, ‘It doesn’t matter what you did, if you ran with the pack, you’re still partaking of the spoils.’ I mean, it was all very dramatic.”
“In a way, the felony murder rule sounds right, because you think it’s going to be applied in a fair way,” Sinnott continues. “For example, if you hire somebody to kill your spouse or something like that. It never occurred to me that you could be outside of the area, far away and still be charged with felony murder. That I learned from Pascual.”
It took about two months before she wrote back, simply because she wasn’t sure what to say.
“I crafted a letter that said this: I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life. There are multiple ways that — when I was younger — my life was not headed in the right direction. My actions could have had fatal consequences but they didn’t. I’m not excusing what happened, but there are things we would never do when we are older…You know, I thought I was a GREAT drunk driver. So, there but for the randomness of life go I.”
“They come up with a spur-of-the-moment plan, but don’t consider any resistance, like, maybe the people being robbed might not just acquiesce that easily.”
Sinnott didn’t think there was anything she could do to help. Still, she kept asking about his situation. She wondered if he would be up for parole, if anyone was doing anything.
“I told Deirdre about my website and how I’m trying to get this campaign of support started but it’s really hard to get it off the ground,” says Carpenter. “I had someone who made what I think was a very crude form of a website with a petition for me.”
Carpenter has never seen his online petition. He has never used the Internet. He has never seen or held a cell phone. If he wants to talk to someone on the phone, they have to prepay for the call and their number must be on a designated list.
“I remember I tried to sign the petition but I couldn’t because too many people had signed it and it was closed,” Sinnott says. “So, I thought, well maybe I can put together a really short video, just three to five minutes.”
Carpenter gave Sinnott a list of important people to interview, and her project mushroomed from there. Carpenter’s family was working on a “23 Years is Enough” campaign, which gave Sinnott the idea to frame the film around twenty-three reasons why Carpenter should be released. The resulting documentary film, “23 Reasons,” lists all of them:
1. Didn’t anticipate
2. Unarmed lookout
3. Didn’t kill anyone
4. Someone else did the killing
5. Pressured confession
6. Overmatched defense
7. Flawed Miranda
8. Long jail sentence
9. Reactionary political climate
10. Media frenzy
11. Prosecution-friendly judge
12. Sensational trial
13. Controversial felony murder rule
14. No presumption of innocence
15. No mental culpability
16. Liable for another man’s defense
17. Changed man
19. Has earned two bachelor’s degrees
20. Does peer and youth counseling
21. Accomplished writer
22. Has support of family and friends
23. Up for clemency
“I blundered right into it,” Sinnott says of suddenly finding herself in the midst of writing, filming, and editing a movie for the first time in her life. She bought camera equipment and taught herself how to edit and remix sound. She spent countless hours at the library and the subway platform where the crime took place.
“I thought, ‘No, it’s too much, I can’t.’ But it just kept ballooning and ballooning. So, I ended up with probably about twenty hours of video.”
Now, the pair speaks on the phone twice a week, with calls that Sinnott pays for out of her own pocket. While the two consider themselves professional collaborators as well as friends, this trust didn’t happen overnight.
“I was a bit skeptical at first, because you can’t imagine someone would really be that altruistic,” Carpenter says. “In the back of my mind, I’ve been there before. There’s been people who took interest in my case — because it’s a national case that they could turn into something.” But for Sinnott, “It was about the case, not me. So that fear did linger in the back of my mind, but she proved me wrong.”
Sensing that her involvement could be perceived as unusual, Sinnott went out of her way to reassure Carpenter and his family that she didn’t want any money from them.
In December of 2013, Sinnott held a press conference along with Carpenter’s mother, Marlene Smith. They hand-delivered a petition with one thousand signatures to Governor Andrew Cuomo, asking for clemency for Pascual Carpenter.
Cuomo did not issue any clemencies that year, disappointing Carpenter. “It’s very difficult to ignore my case because of the work that Deirdre has done,” he says. “We submitted a petition with over a thousand signatures. All this was hand-delivered to his office. I thought he would be forced to say something. I was surprised. No reply.”
(A second defendant, Johnny Hincapie, who also claims he was not on the platform at the time of the murder but that a detective coerced him into confession, was denied another trial last week.)
Carpenter says his stay in prison feels like a long series of denials. When he met Sinnott, he’d been transferred to a medium security prison. He is now back in Sing Sing because it’s the only place he can take the classes to finish his degree.
Sinnott’s movie has been screened multiple times in New York City, including at Fordham University and Lehman College; upstate in Rhinebeck, Albany and Utica; and in Jamaica, Vermont. It has also been viewed more than 18,000 times on YouTube. Ramsey Clark was a special guest speaker on opening night in Manhattan. Recently, it won an Award of Merit from the Best Shorts Competition.
Sinnott is careful to note that “23 Reasons” is a partisan documentary, created as a piece of activism so people can be made aware of how the felony murder rule has affected families, overwhelmingly poor and minority families.
For her next film, tentatively titled, “But I Didn’t Kill Anybody,” she will be interviewing people who believe that their application of the felony murder rule is right. She says this is partially so she can understand their side better.
“That’s one of Pascual’s dreams,” she says. “To have a documentary on felony murder that brings it into the forefront of public consciousness.”
“I probably know a handful of guys personally that are in the same situation I’m in [in prison because of a felony murder rule conviction],” Carpenter says. “The thing with felony murder is, because it doesn’t make a distinction between a lethal defendant and a non-lethal defendant, it’s difficult to know who’s who. A person may get a felony murder conviction but he was the actual triggerman. Now, another person may have a conviction and he may have been the lookout, like I was.
“But I am rare in terms of how much time I’m doing. There are people who have actually killed someone who have done significantly less time than I have.”
Carpenter and his family filed an appeal in 1993. They were very optimistic at the time, but his appeal was denied three times. He has an early parole hearing scheduled for November 2014. When serving a life sentence, a prisoner will almost never make parole on their first, second or even third hearing. And with each denial, there is a twenty-four-month waiting period before the next hearing. Still, Carpenter doesn’t give up hope.
“If you give up, then the war becomes very real,” he says, likening the struggle to someone fighting an illness like cancer and needing to keep a positive attitude. “Your only chance of surviving this is that you have to continue fighting within yourself. You have to maintain a very strong will. If you give in, this disease will take over and put you out.”
Because Carpenter is up for parole, he is no longer eligible for clemency. Sinnott has personally taken on the task of raising money to pay for a lawyer who is an expert in parole to get Carpenter ready to go before the board, and has started a new online petition calling for a favorable decision.
“I have a nickname for Deirdre,” Carpenter says. “I call her my Lady Wonderful. I always remind her: Stay wonderful because that’s exactly who you are. I have a tremendous amount of appreciation for her courage and commitment. I think she’s a very rare breed. That’s very uncommon to come across, especially behind the wall — where a complete stranger someday becomes your most ardent advocate.”
“I’ve never seen the video by the way,” he adds. “I’m totally dependent on feedback from others who have seen it.”