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Stolen youth 

How Durham's criminal justice system sent Erick Daniels to prison for 10 years based on the shape of his eyebrows

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Erick Daniels was born on a U.S. Navy base in Portugal in 1986. His parents separated shortly after they returned to the States in 1990, and Daniels' mother, Karen Daniel (who dropped the "s" from her last name), moved to Durham to take on the task of raising three kids on her own. But it was not long before her troubles began, says Gwen Ettson, Karen Daniel's mother and Erick's grandmother. "At that point, Karen became unstable," Ettson says.

"Since 1991, she lived in 20 different places. She would get an apartment, she would be evicted, and she would find someplace else to live. She always had people and associates that were shady."

Daniel insists she did her best to provide for her children. "I wasn't ready to be broke," she says. "I reached back into my past and found the man with the most drug money. That was the only way I could live like I was living. My kids were used to having lots of things."

For several years, Karen Daniel and Ettson wrangled over custody of Erick and his brother and sister, and Erick moved back and forth between his mother's and grandmother's homes. The family feud reached a terrible climax on Easter 1996: A stranger walked into the condo Daniel shared with her partner, a neighborhood drug dealer, and shot and murdered the man in the living room. The children were not home at the time, but the Department of Social Services explored removing them from Daniel's custody. That did not happen.

A short time later, Daniel moved her kids in with a woman named Betty Green, who lived in a small house near the projects. "And that was how Erick got to Few Gardens," Ettson says.

"His mother wasn't doing too good and my grandma took them in," says Brandon Green, Erick's best friend, who is now serving time for drug trafficking in a Virginia prison. "I took Erick under my wing," Green says. "From there we called each other family."

"Erick would take a bicycle and ride over to Few Gardens," Ettson says. "He called Betty Green 'grandma.'"

Brandon Green, four-and-a-half years Daniels' senior, had already found trouble, and Daniels was not far behind him. "I was caught up in the streets," Daniels says. "I was rebelling. My mother was not really that strict ...

"Marijuana smoking, music—I wanted to live that lifestyle," he says. "I wanted to sell drugs. It was mostly what the kids my age went through. [Rap] music came first, though. It gave me the concept of the life I wanted to live."

Karen Daniel made arrangements with the housing officers in Few Gardens to keep her children off the complex property; the officers agreed to kick the kids out whenever they ventured inside those iron gates. "I was one of those worrisome mothers," Daniel says.

But enforcing the arrangement was a constant struggle. That's how Erick and his sister got to know Darrell Brown, the housing officer who would connect the nickname "E" with Erick Daniels. "I had a couple of run-ins with Erick," Brown says. "I saw him one day during school hours and he took off running. When I caught him he had some marijuana on him. I turned him over to his momma."

The next time, Daniels was not so lucky. In March 1999, at 12 years old, Daniels was arrested for marijuana possession. A juvenile court judge sentenced him to one year of probation that required him to cooperate with community-based juvenile resources, take substance abuse and anger management counseling, and stay away from the Greens' residence.

But Daniels violated his probation several times. He missed meetings with his counselors, stayed out past his curfew, slept over with the Greens, and repeatedly tested positive for marijuana. The courts pursued several disciplinary options, including psychological testing, wilderness camp, a 30-day electronic home arrest and placement in a foster home. But nothing seemed to work.

In May 2000, Daniels got caught in the crossfire of a Few Gardens gun battle: a stray bullet ricocheted off a building and struck him in the ankle. Daniels fully recovered, but he couldn't help but slow his pursuit of the street life. "For the most part after that, he did fairly well," Karmen Hurley, his juvenile court counselor, would later say. But a few months later, to everyone's dismay, police would connect Daniels with Ruth Brown's robbery.

Those who know Daniels call him an unlikely robber—a kind-hearted boy with a taste for marijuana who wasn't capable of jabbing a gun in anyone's face.

"I don't think it's something he could do," says Darrell Brown, the former housing officer, "but I don't want to put anything past the kids who wanted to come down there and hang."

Daniels' family is more certain. "Erick's granddaddy had guns and Erick never liked them," Ettson says. "For Erick to be accused of committing a crime with a gun—it just didn't fit."

"Erick and I were so close that if he did it, I would have known that he did it," says Erika Daniels, Erick's older sister. "If he would have gotten $25 from that, he would have come to me and said, 'Here, sis, here's $10.' We didn't keep anything from each other—wrong or right."

Al Singer, former director of the Child Advocacy Commission of Durham, represented Daniels in juvenile court. - PHOTO BY DEREK ANDERSON
  • Photo by Derek Anderson
  • Al Singer, former director of the Child Advocacy Commission of Durham, represented Daniels in juvenile court.

At Erick Daniels' Oct. 30, 2000, juvenile hearing, prosecutor Amy Guy laid out a simple case for probable cause and the continued prosecution of Erick Daniels. She called just three witnesses. Ruth Brown testified about the robbery and pointed out Daniels in the courtroom. Delois West described her investigation. And Karmen Hurley, the juvenile court counselor, reviewed Daniels' juvenile history.

Al Singer, former director of the Child Advocacy Commission of Durham, represented Daniels (another attorney, Robert Harris, represented Daniels in Superior Court). Singer called on Erika Daniels to present her brother's alibi—that he had been watching a basketball game at the YMCA. But her testimony was inconsistent with earlier statements and proved easy to dismantle under cross-examination.

The presiding judge, Richard Chaney, considered all the testimony and decided that Daniels had exhausted the resources of juvenile court.

"I think that short of murder, the worst offense that can be committed against an individual is to violate the sanctity of that individual's home and place that individual in fear of death or serious injury," Chaney said. "I take into account the nature of the offense, Erick's prior dealings with juvenile court [and] his failure to respond to rehabilitative efforts. It is my decision that the balance must fall in this case in favor of transfer to Superior Court."

Daniels was one of the first juvenile defendants in to be tried as an adult the Juvenile Justice Reform Act—which formalized guidelines for transfer—went into effect in July 1999. Singer calls Daniels a guinea pig for the new law.

"Innocent or guilty, it was a great miscarriage to carry it up," says Singer. "Erick was the kid whose problems were still within the purview of the juvenile system.... Between '95 and 2000, I must have done a thousand cases, and his was the only one that got kicked upstairs....

"A lot of kids I worked with, I was scared of," Singer says. "Erick was affectionate. It was hard for me to imagine him doing this. I didn't get fooled by many kids."

It took more than a year to bring Erick Daniels to trial. The state assigned the case to Freda Black, a hard-nosed prosecutor who was friendly with investigator West and the victim, Ruth Brown. When Daniels turned down a five-year sentence in exchange for a guilty plea, Black built her case. She acknowledges that her relationship with Brown played a role in her trial preparation.

"I'd known the victim for several years," Black says. "Because of that I was able to talk to her on a different level. I knew the defense was going to be misidentification. With that in mind, I wanted to make sure Ruth was certain. That was enough for me....

"She didn't know Erick to want to ruin the life of a stranger," Black says. "Nobody had anything bad to say about Ruth that would have made me not believe her."

The problems with the investigation had no real impact at trial, of course, because the prosecution's case was simple: Erick Daniels, a bad kid gone worse, pointed a gun at Brown's head and stole thousands of dollars in cash, and even though the evidence is lacking, the good word of two cops counts for more than anything a hood dweller might say.

Black called just three witnesses in the state's case: Ruth Brown, Delois West and later, Daryl Macaluso, the patrolman who wrote the incident report for Brown's robbery.

Brown told the courtroom that the two gunmen walked into her house as she was braiding her daughter's hair. She described how she closed her eyes and awaited death each time the first suspect, lying on top of her, jabbed his silver revolver at her temple. She said she had come face to face with the first gunman—that their noses almost touched—and she would never forget his face, Daniels' face.

West glossed over the fine points in her investigation, omitting the dates in her reports. She said she had explored Kam Russell's possible involvement in the robbery but was not able to gather enough information to charge him. She talked about receiving information that pointed toward "Little E," (a change from her notes, which say simply "E"). And West described how she assembled the photo lineup and later interviewed Daniels without Karen Daniel being present because, West claimed, the boy had not asked that his mother be there.

When the state rested its case, Black had presented no physical evidence—no gun, no cash, no black purse, no blue bandana, no signs of prodigal spending, no fingerprints tying Daniels to the scene. She produced no witnesses to corroborate Brown's testimony. She did not even probe Daniels' juvenile history. But no matter. Daniels' defender, Robert Harris, gave her everything she needed.

"He placed Erick on the stand and his family members on the stand and allowed them to be hit with mountains of inadmissible evidence," says appellate attorney Carlos Mahoney, who now represents Daniels.

When Karen Daniel took the stand, Black cross-examined her about her son's curfew violations, marijuana use, school absences and gunshot injury, information that Mahoney says should never have been entered into evidence. When Erick Daniels testified, Harris asked his own client about his prior convictions under direct-examination, effectively impeaching him before the jurors, Mahoney says. In her cross-examination, Black completely discredited Daniels: She probed about his juvenile history, connected him to gang activity, and tied him to Few Gardens, a "high crime area." Harris failed to make any objections.

"Erick didn't make a very good witness," Black says. "After he left the stand, I knew I was probably going to prevail."

Mahoney says that much of the information Black gleaned during her cross-examination should not have been admissible as evidence. "When the opposing attorney is not doing his job—how much should [the district attorney] take advantage of that lack of knowledge of evidentiary rules?" Mahoney asks. "Black's history is that she's someone who is more willing to push the envelope and see what she can get away with."

Black might not disagree. "Obviously, I was going to do as much as I could within the bounds of the law," Black says. "Judge Smith did a very good job. I do think that if I had done something outrageous, he would have stopped me."

For his part, Harris says the case was fast-tracked and he didn't have time to prepare. But he took over the case in February 2001 and Daniels' trial was not until December. Harris did not file any motions in Daniels' case. Shannon Tucker, the assistant public defender who represented Khalid Abdallah, Daniels' co-defendant who was tried separately, filed almost 20.

Still, Harris believes there were forces operating beyond his control. "Obviously there were people with political connections involved in this case," he says. "There are cases that can just blow up on you. This is one of those cases."

Robert Harris, Daniels' trial attorney in Superior Court - PHOTO BY DEREK ANDERSON

In the next few weeks, Mahoney says he plans to file a motion arguing that Harris did not provide Daniels with effective assistance of counsel. The motion includes an affidavit by C. Scott Holmes, a local defense attorney who reviewed the court records in Daniels' case. Holmes held out Khalid Abdallah's defense as the standard that Harris should have met. Abdallah faced the same charges as Daniels. There was no physical evidence in his case, either. And Brown had also picked him out of a lineup. Tucker settled on a more effective strategy, Mahoney says. "In the case of Khalid Abdallah, his attorney chose not to put his client on the stand and instead poke holes in the state's case," Mahoney says. With no evidence or corroborating testimony, a jury acquitted Abdallah in 2003.

None of the jurors in Erick Daniels' case could be reached for comment, but court records indicate they recognized weaknesses in the state's case but may have given in to their own anxieties. In a note to the judge, the jury forewoman wrote: "Judge, we would like clarification on how we should weigh/consider circumstantial evidence as opposed, or in conjunction, with direct concrete evidence." Judge Smith informed the jurors that they must decide on their own how to weigh each piece of evidence.

After the jurors returned guilty verdicts on both charges, they opened up to the judge about fears for their personal safety. "They've heard evidence of matters that go on in Durham, and they're just concerned that they should not have to be the target of anything," Smith told the court. But no threats had been made.

Mahoney attributes the reaction to the way in which prosecutor Black chose to drive reasonable doubt from the minds of the jurors. "She got Erick to talk about blue and red flags, and Crips and Bloods, and drugs and guns, and being shot in Few Gardens," Mahoney says. "It can create hysteria in the minds of people who don't know the individual."

Daniels could see his life falling apart before his eyes. "I felt in my heart for some reason I was going to be incarcerated for this," Daniels says. "The way stuff was playing out, I could tell."

Before it was torn down in 2003, the Few Gardens housing project was synonymous with violent crime in Durham. Just southeast of downtown, the 240-unit, red-brick apartment complex housed hundreds of people, most of them marginally employed, many of them criminally involved. "It was definitely gang infested," says Darrell Brown, once a housing officer there. "There were Bloods on one side and Crips on the other. Every once in a while they would cross paths and there would be a shootout." In 1994, a 2-year-old was murdered. In 1998, a 5-year-old was shot and paralyzed. An elderly couple was shot and killed in 2000. By the time Daniels was tried in December 2001, the decision had been made to demolish the complex, but its lore still lingered in the minds of the city's citizens.

Brown was one of just two officers who patrolled inside the complex's iron gates. With so much going on, the cops could not help but turn a blind eye to certain low-level crime; they didn't have the manpower to catch everyone. But there were certain people they kept close tabs on—people like Kam Russell. "He called a lot of shots for people under him," Brown says.

"They thought I was running it—the officers, the housing managers," Russell says. "It wasn't really like that. I was well-liked around there."

In that type of environment, almost everyone has a piece of the action, and as the suspects in the robbery are quick to point out, everyone means everyone—cops, working-class folks, are susceptible, too.

But a code of silence prohibits divulging a neighbor's dirt. Little is worse than being deemed a snitch. "It ain't nothing you want to be labeled as," says Kam Russell. "Around the people I deal with, nine times out of 10, you'll get killed."

To a certain extent, the suspects, witnesses and players involved in Erick Daniels' case are bending the rules of the streets. They have come forward with information to show that Daniels did not rob Ruth Brown, and that Brown was not as removed from this underworld as jurors likely believed.

Brown's family used to live in Few Gardens. Her siblings—Chris, David and Rosetta Lynch—have criminal records that date back well before she was robbed. Brown does not have a criminal record herself, but the suspects in the robbery corroborate court records that say she was playing on the wrong side of the law.

In the 15 months between the robbery and Daniels' Superior Court trial, Brown gave inconsistent accounts of the thousands of dollars in cash she said she'd lost to the gunmen. And in her trial testimony, Brown gave an intricate explanation of how she came to suspect Kam Russell.

She said she hid a gray pouch stuffed with $6,000 cash in her sock drawer, not in the bank, so her husband would not have access to it. But one day when she was at her mother's house, her husband called to say that he was looking for something and about to search the sock drawer, Brown testified, so she rushed home to retrieve the pouch. Brown said she then took the money back to her mother's house. "I was getting in the process of counting it, and then all of a sudden I heard these two voices," Brown testified. "That's when I realized that my brother Chris and this guy he knows by the name of Kam Russell had actually entered the kitchen."

Russell remembers it differently. "I met her through her brother," Russell says. "They had card games." He says there were usually five or six people around the table and the house won a cut of every hand. He lost as much as $1,500 in a night, he says. "They have games Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays ... I played at her house a couple times and at her mother's house." He says most of the other gamblers were "working folks," including city and police department employees.

Russell says he was gambling in the home of Brown's mother the night he saw the cash. "We were just playing cards. People lose money. They go in their pocketbook and count out more money. I think [Brown] counted out $10,000 and put it on the table. She was showing it to me and her brother...

"She was telling us that's why she plays cards," Russell says. "That's why she doesn't have to go to the bank. That's how much money she keeps in her purse."

Other suspects in the robbery corroborate Russell's account. "Kam and her brother helped her count the money," says Khalid Abdallah. "She has card games. It could have been anybody that was playing that robbed her."

Russell and Abdallah say that Brown was robbed of $10,000, not the $6,000 she reported. Brandon Green, Daniels' best friend and a one-time suspect who was quickly cleared, says the same. "I heard it was more than $6,000. I heard it was like 10 or 11 Gs or something like that," he says.

Doreal Henderson, once the suspected getaway driver, says that many people knew about the robbery plans. "The advance was put out to any and everybody who knew about what was going on," he says.

Henderson acknowledges that he himself was the subject of some of those rumors. "It was around the neighborhood, and everybody was looking at it as 'D' got a car—we'll just tell him to drop us off there," says Henderson, who goes by the nickname "D." "They approached me with the situation. I let them know I wouldn't do it." He would not specify who approached him but, when pressed, he later admitted to driving people to Brown's house a few days before the robbery.

Henderson, whose mother works for the Durham sheriff's office, was brought in and questioned but later released when Ruth Brown could not pick him from a photo lineup.

Almost seven years after the robbery, the suspects will only say so much about who was involved and how they got caught up in the investigation.

"If you want to know the honest to God's truth, they wanted Kam Russell," says Abdallah. "He is really known. He was staying in the Few Gardens projects. I think officer Brown looked at Kam and thought about who Kam dealt with." Abdallah blames Henderson for implicating him. Last October, Abdallah met with Carlos Mahoney and signed an affidavit stating that Henderson was involved with the robbery.

Brandon Green points to Russell. "Kam knew her from running the card house," he says. "He used to go over there and he schemed on her."

And Russell points to Christopher Lynch, Ruth Brown's brother. He says Lynch had an argument with Brown after she showed him the money because he had asked for a loan. "I've done a lot of shit, but that's just something I didn't do," Russell says.

The one thing everyone agrees on is Daniels' innocence.

"If Erick was involved, he would have told me," Green says. "I know everything that goes on with that boy."

Abdallah's affidavit states, "Based upon what I know about the robbery at 628 North Hoover Road on September 21, 2000, I can say that Erick Daniels was not involved and that he was wrongly convicted."

Russell says, "I swear on my kids—he smoked weed with me but I would never ever have him do dirt with me. For one, if he gets caught, he's gonna tell it. Two, he's a kid."

Henderson expresses a similar sentiment: "Ain't no grown men gonna take this 15-year-old dude with them. We're not gonna split the money with this little-bitty-ass boy. That's common sense."

Karen Daniel, Erick's mother, has pressed local officials to continue investigating his case. - PHOTO BY DEREK ANDERSON
  • Photo by Derek Anderson
  • Karen Daniel, Erick's mother, has pressed local officials to continue investigating his case.

Daniels' prison cell has a bed, a sink, a toilet and two tall windows, 6 or 7 inches wide. From his side of Foothills Correctional Institution, he can see the prison yard, the edge of the mountains, some trees and a church. But he says he doesn't spend much time pondering the view. "I don't usually like to be miserable or sad or irritated," he says. "I hate to say I got the hang of it, but I do."

The little things about prison bother him most. "You can only have a certain amount of hygiene items. You can only take showers at certain times. You can only have a certain amount of clothes."

Some mornings he knows what kind of day he is going to have by the way the guards knock on his door. "The mood of the officers determines the mood the inmates are in," he says.

On his good days, he spends time in the day room where he can play cards, watch television or play chess. "It's where you can interact like a normal person," he says.

"I do a lot to educate myself. I read. I go to vocational classes. I don't really just play around," Daniels says. He passed the test to earn his GED this spring. "My mother and them get to come up here and watch a fake graduation," he says.

On his bad days he thinks about the momentous occasions and milestones he has missed—celebrating his 16th and 18th birthdays with friends and family, high school. Family members have died and new ones have been born. "He yearns for those years that he's lost, but I think he's done OK—as well as one could hope to do," Carlos Mahoney says.

"I'm going to take this to my grave. It made me who I am today. I don't believe I would have the state of mind that I got now if I didn't go through this situation right here," he says of how he has matured since being locked up. "It's been so long. I made it this far. I can do five more years. I don't think I'm coming home."

He knows the odds are stacked against him. "I used to look forward to my appeal, but right now I just look forward to my release date," Daniels says. When he turns 21 this coming July, he plans to request a prison transfer, so at least he can be closer to home.

Daniels' prison time stands in stark contrast to the lives the other suspects are leading. Russell and Henderson were never charged and Abdallah was acquitted. With Few Gardens no more than a memory, they have spread across town and, for the most part, lost touch.

Russell says he still hangs out with Brown's brothers and the family still runs card games. He says he plays from time to time, but at $500 a month, his disability check isn't much to gamble with. He played most recently in an apartment off of N.C. 98, but those games are on hold, he says. On the third Saturday in April, someone tried to rob the game. Russell says the robber did not get in the apartment and the family did not call police.

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