Mineola, NY

Praying While Black: Jury reaches verdict in Mineola trial of Baldwin mourners


It took less than 3 hours for a Mineola jury to acquit two Baldwin residents arrested by First Precinct Police at a prayer vigil three years ago.

"Not Guilty." Twice yesterday, the Jury acquited retired U.S. Marine Furnie Oden IV and Jaquan Oden of all criminal charges in the 2020 sweep of mourners on a relative's front lawn.

Jaquan Oden, whose despondent meltdown at the unexpected loss of an adored young relative during COVID got him arrested, was convicted of a single violation: disorderly conduct. Disorderly conduct -- like parking tickets -- is not a crime.

Shell Street and Dean Drive in this quiet Baldwin neighborhood.Photo byC.J. Teevan

It's been a tough three years.

Retired Marine Furnie Oden IV was charged with Obstructing Governmental Administration, a Misdemeanor. Nassau Police arrested him on the lawn outside a Baldwin house as he implored them to explain: "What are you doing to my son?" Police officers testified that a Nassau cop was standing on his son's neck; other officers were holding him down to immobilize the young man -- so they could put handcuffs on him.

10 people were arrested that night. Police claimed they heard bottles shattering all over the road, screaming and yelling. They smelled Marijuana, they said -- drugs and criminal activity by a mob of black Baldwin thugs that required Tasers, Mace and firearms as they pursued and arrested people.

But the charge that stuck against Jaquan Oden was a single count of disorderly conduct -- a dramatic verdict because Oden was hit with serious Felony charges when he was arrested the night of May 17, 2020, overwhelmed with grief over a young relative's unexpected death. Jaquan Oden could have spent years in prison upstate, had the jury convicted him. He has no criminal history.

It was an expensive loss for prosecutors -- and the taxpayers who footed the bill. The verdict is the final page in a three-year legal mission to convict 10 people who gathered to mourn the death of a 24-year-old relative after he was taken off life support. No expense was spared by the District Attorney's Office seeking to convict the family members for what Newsday described as "an assortment of crimes ranging from assault and resisting arrest to rioting", facts lifted from a Nassau County Police Department press release.

Jaquan Oden was 26 back then. Today, he appeared discouraged at that single conviction. But "disorderly conduct" -- like a parking ticket -- is a violation, not a crime. When a Grand Jury indicted him in November 2020, the 9 counts included 3 serious Felonies for Assaulting Police, Rioting, and Assault While Commiting a Crime.

Judge Howard Sturim threw out the Felony charges after the Nassau County District Attorney's office failed to present a single piece of evidence to support those serious charges.

But six other charges went to trial, accusing Jaquan Oden of Resisting Arrest, Obstructing Government Administration, and various "Disorderly Conduct" counts for public swearing, fighting, creating a danger to others, and non-compliance with an order by police to leave the front lawn that night.

Running his courtroom by the book right to the end, Today at closing arguments, Judge Sturim cut off the prosecutor after she told the jury the grieving Oden family members on trial "are not entitled to have a party in a public street," casting the prayer vigil as rowdy, loud and violent. But then she told jurors the defense had not proven their case.

Judge Sturim had had enough.

"No!" he snapped from his bench, "The defense has no burden here!"

Defense Attorney John Healy had played video recordings for jurors that were made that night. The soundtrack captured screams as police shoved, kicked and wrestled mourners to the ground before arresting them. At least one officer used a nightstick; another police officer used a Taser; another sprayed MACE to subdue people so he could arrest them.

Talking over the video in his final argument, Healy said, "The police aren't afraid of them. It's the other way around!"

Nassau Police took 10 members of the Oden family into custody that night, hauling them off in handcuffs to the First Precinct for booking. Their mug shots were broadcast the next day on television and published in newspaper accounts from the Police Department. Articles listed names, ages and the criminal charges of each person who was arrested that night. The Newsday version used actual photos taken by a freelance photographer that showed candles glowing in the dark, with the silhouettes of police lurking in the background: Praying While Black: Arrested at a Baldwin Prayer Vigil, a U.S. Marine and his son go to trial.

Defense Attorney Lloyd Nadel ran conflicting police testimony into the ground in his summation. Although police had testified they heard glass breaking in the street and bottles were being thrown at them by an angry mob, Nadel pointed to the only evidence introduced by the prosecutor: photos of 6 intact glass bottles collected by Crime Scene investigators and introduced at trial. No glass shards were found by Crime Scene Investigators. One bottle they found had "a nick at the top." "That's it for glass," Nadel said.

The prosecutor argued that conflicting police testimony proved police were not lying.

Lawyers finished closing arguments today just before breaking for lunch. The jury had one request: the video recordings as police moved in.

In the end, 12 people unanimously agreed there was only one conviction to be found: Penal Law 240.20: Disorderly Conduct. In liberal New York, swearing in public is not allowed. To some, that law is unconstitutional.

"I understand why you did that," the sympathetic Judge Sturim said to Jaquan Oden, preparing to read his sentence: Conditional discharge. "No jail. No fine. A mandatory $95 surcharge" and just be good.

Only one criminal case is left from that sad night in Baldwin. How much it will cost taxpayers to take that to trial, given conflicting police accounts that are now written in stone on a transcript, is up to the District Attorney's Office.

A Nassau County Police Car keeps watch in Baldwin.Photo byC.J. Teevan

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Civil rights activist and investigative journalist C.J. Teevan has covered L.I. news for the New York Times, computerized consumer products for Gannett Newspapers, and retail trends for business magazines. She lives in Roslyn, N.Y. with 3 dogs.

Roslyn Heights, NY

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