The Banality of Tessa Majors’ Death

As a freshman at Barnard, New York City was all new and cool. And it was, and is, even if nobody talks anymore about the other side of New York City, where bad things happen and people should be careful, or stay away.

Bad things happen. Terrible, terrible things that never should happen, happen. And these terrible things are done by people who shouldn’t do terrible things. Yet they do. Some Ph.D. student might write a dissertation on why society is to blame for Majors’ death, both because her killers wouldn’t have killed her if they were happily ensconced at Choate or she could roam Morningside Park at will in the middle of the night because it’s her right to do so. Someone will free-ride her Ph.D. on Tessa Major’s death.

And right on schedule, Jennifer Finney Boylan of Barnard and the NYT used Majors’ death as a vehicle for her suffering. But for all the rhetoric, excuses, rationales and rationalizations, there are two points that don’t seem worthy of recognition these days. Not all black people are criminals, but some are. Just random criminals committing random crimes while people far more intelligent than me explain why in sociological and social justice jargon, but if you happen to run into them in Morningside Park at night, they will kill you for your cellphone and whatever cash you happen to be carrying.

Defendant Luchiano Lewis pleaded guilty to Second Degree Murder and Robbery. His fellow 14-year-old Rashaun Weaver, may go to trial, even though his two classmates have already copped pleas. That’s his right, and he remains presumed innocent. But Lewis admitted his guilt.

In a Manhattan courtroom on Tuesday, Judge Robert Mandelbaum asked Mr. Lewis if he was in fact guilty.

The teenager paused, then said yes.

This could be a “plea of convenience,” to get a deal that got him out now rather than spend a couple years in jail awaiting trial, as happens with some frequency in misdemeanor cases. But this was no misdemeanor and he wasn’t going home that day.

In court on Tuesday, Mr. Lewis read a lengthy statement, his muffled voice trembling at times. He said that he had known that Mr. Weaver was in the habit of committing robberies and that Mr. Weaver had several times encouraged him to come along to Morningside Park, along with another of their classmates, to find people to rob.

It wasn’t about hating anyone. It was just about finding people to rob. Just random people these 14-year-old black kids could rob.

Mr. Lewis said that he had gone along several times before the encounter with Ms. Majors, only to back out, but that he, Mr. Weaver and their friend had attacked a man two or three weeks before the murder.

According to Lewis, Weaver was the really bad kid. But then, he wasn’t a whole lot better really.

He then described the encounter with Ms. Majors in detail, saying that Mr. Weaver had kicked Ms. Majors in the back and yelled at her to give him her phone and money. He said that Mr. Weaver and Ms. Majors had wrestled in two separate locations before Mr. Lewis saw a witness and urged his classmates to flee, adding that he did not know exactly where he was when Mr. Weaver stabbed Ms. Majors.

Lewis didn’t urge his classmates to stop kicking Majors, but to flee for their own benefit, so as not to get caught.

Mr. Lewis said Tuesday that using a knife had not been part of the classmates’ plan. He added that he did not know that Ms. Majors had been stabbed, let alone killed, until he looked up a news story on his phone the next day and saw a picture of the woman that they had robbed.

They just wanted to rob someone. As Tessa Majors was stabbed numerous time in the chest, and wounds bleed, it’s hard to imagine Lewis didn’t know she was stabbed. But then, it’s possible, as he wasn’t there out of concern for Majors, but to be part of the group robbing her. Maybe he didn’t look at the blood, or the body first kicked and then stabbed, because she wasn’t a person but just someone to be robbed by middle-school black kids, as they had done before.

The details of the robbery, and the murder, are sadly banal. Had this happened to someone other than Tessa Majors, would she have cried for the victim or explained why these three boys, ages 13-14, were the victims of systemic racism that drove them to spend nights in Morningside Park in search of people to rob. And kill, if need be. Would she be filled with empathy? For whom?

In the narrative of criminal law reform, these black kids don’t exist. There are no bad dudes who do bad things to other people without the slightest sense of guilt or concern for anyone but themselves. I’m sure Lewis has a mother who loves him, a school photo where he’s smiling and looks like an angel. He may have loved puppies and helped an old woman across St. Nicholas Avenue once. And he joined his classmates in search of people to rob at night.

The fantasy that there are no bad dudes, only victims, doesn’t do much to help a freshman at Barnard who was stabbed to death. Believing that bad people don’t exist doesn’t mean a Barnard co-ed can walk through Morningside Park at night and come back to her dorm alive.

It was determined that Mr. Lewis and Mr. Weaver could be tried as adults — a matter of prosecutors’ discretion for teenage defendants who are accused of certain violent crimes. Cyrus R. Vance Jr., the Manhattan district attorney, said after Mr. Weaver was charged that his office would take special care to safeguard the teenagers’ rights.

The crime occurred as the Central Park Five saga returned to our memory in its fictional form. Much as the five kids arrested may not have been the rapists of Trisha Meili, it seems to have escaped attention that Meili was still raped, still left for dead, in Central Park.

We focus on the innocent, who deserve our attention, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t the guilty as well, for whom Tessa Majors was just someone to rob. If the narrative can’t recognize that there are bad dudes who do bad things as well as all the other evils of the criminal law system, then nothing will be fixed. Tessa Majors didn’t die from racism. She died from a knife rammed into her chest. No excuse will bring Tessa Majors back.

10 thoughts on “The Banality of Tessa Majors’ Death

  1. Mike V.

    “…she wasn’t a person but just someone to be robbed.”
    In my experience, that is how most criminals see their victims.

    And I’m especially touched that the DA “took special care to safeguard the teenagers rights.” There was a time when the DA spoke the victim who could no longer speak and the defense safeguarded the defendant’s rights. I guess that is passé.

    1. SHG Post author

      There’s nothing wrong with Cy safeguarding the rights of 14-year-old defendants, though it shouldn’t need to be said. That’s not in conflict with the DA doing his job.

      1. Jeffrey Gamso

        And the DA isn’t supposed to represent or speak for the “victim” person. The DA represents the body politic, the “People” who are victimized by the criminal act against the person. Tort lawyers are the ones who represent/speak for that person.

        1. B. McLeod

          And the Lorax is the one who speaks for the trees. The trees of Central Park have probably been traumatized by a great many regrettable occurrences.

    2. B. McLeod

      Had Ms. Majors been better briefed in the writings of Roxane Gay, she would have perhaps better understood how to assert her personhood in this dire circumstance.

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