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Family, Former Attorney of Queens Woman Who Fell to Her Death in Vice Sting Say She Was Sexually Assaulted, Pressured to Become an Informant

Hai Song shares a photo of his sister Yang, who leapt to her death during an NYPD vice operation late last month. Posted in May, Yang captioned the photo “Have been feeling blue for a long time. Let’s get some sunshine.”
Scott Heins for The Appeal

Family, Former Attorney of Queens Woman Who Fell to Her Death in Vice Sting Say She Was Sexually Assaulted, Pressured to Become an Informant

Yang Song fell four stories onto a sidewalk in Flushing, Queens on the night of November 25th. An officer with the New York City Police Department accompanied her, unconscious, to New York Presbyterian Hospital where doctors placed her on a respirator. They worked for hours: the 35 units of blood they transfused did not take, given the severity of her injuries from the thirty foot fall. NYPD later said that Yang fell from an apartment building on 40th Road while police were attempting to arrest her for allegedly engaging in sex work. These were among the sparse details they released after Yang’s death the following morning. She was 38. The NYPD’s Force Investigation Division, assigned to deaths in custody, would investigate.

Hai Song, Yang’s younger brother, who lives in Shenyang, China, missed two calls from his sister around 6:45 p.m. that night, less than an hour before the fall, according to his WeChat history. Yang had been planning to travel to China to see him on December 15th, and Hai was looking forward to introducing his sister to his four-year-old son. “It feels so painful,” Hai, 35, told The Appeal this week, in Chinese and speaking through a translator. “I missed the last chance to talk to my sister.”

When they heard about Yang’s death, Hai and his 65-year-old mother, Yumei Shi, bought plane tickets. They arrived in New York on December 5th — their first trip to the United States. A taxi dropped them on 40th Road in Flushing, where they knew Yang had worked. Both speak little English. They intend to plan a funeral, seek out a lawyer, and piece together the circumstances of Yang’s death. “Many things are unclear,” Hai said. “The police haven’t provided us a fair explanation.”

Yang’s brother and mother are haunted by details she shared with them over the phone this year. Yang described being sexually assaulted by a man who flashed a badge and gun and claimed to be an undercover cop, they say. Yang also told them that the police urged her to become a confidential informant this fall.

Yang Song’s mother, Yumei Shi, is comforted by her son Hai inside Chu’s Flushing office. Yang’s family flew from China to New York in early December, hoping to learn more about Song’s death.
Scott Heins for The Appeal

“I hope to know the truth,” Shi told The Appeal, also through a translator. “We want to know whether this was a retaliation from the police and they forced her to die.”

This week, outside the apartment where Yang worked, there were still four bouquets of flowers on the threshold. Yang’s confidences have left her mother and brother wary and defensive. While the police maintain that they were not in the room when Yang jumped off the building, both Hai and Shi insist that she would not kill herself. In the absence of a thorough explanation from the NYPD, they are left with the stories Yang shared with them about her life in Flushing — and of the police she said she felt harassed and intimidated by.

Michael Chu, founder of the Flushing Neighborhood Watch Team, has an office on 40th Road across the street from where Yang fell. The walls are papered over with layers of clippings from local Chinese-American newspapers. He’s worked there since 1987, offering everything from immigration and attorney referrals to marital dispute mediation. He’s also friendly with the women who work in the massage business on the block and engage in sex work — he calls them the “sisters” — and defends them against taunting teenagers.

“When they are in this type of business, then nobody care,” Chu told The Appeal. “So some police just take advantage and make situation worse and make the circumstances tough.”

Locals referred Yang’s family to Chu as soon as they arrived in New York last week, and he’s been helping them facilitate media requests ever since. On Tuesday, Chu hosted Shi and Hai over sweet coffee in styrofoam cups. He ringed chairs around a folding table stacked with front-page articles about Yang’s death from the Chinese-American press featuring her social media selfies.

Hai thumbed through his Chinese mobile phone, bringing up photos of the room where his sister worked, which he had taken just days before. Hai held up one image: on her balcony, there was still a carton of eggs and two apples in a red plastic bag, now resting in the fresh snow. “When we came here, my mother and I found many facts that are inconsistent with the media reports,” he said. “And many facts are buried under the surface.”

“My sister indeed was a kind girl. She was not like what people might think she was,” Hai added. “She even sent back milk formula from the U.S. for my son. And chocolates, presents as well. She often called my parents to talk to them even when she was busy because she knew this would make them happy.”

A hard worker, Yang “never had a vacation, even for the New Year, even the holiday time,” according to Hai. “She worked for her dream. She was not someone who likes to give up.”

Yang moved to Flushing in 2013, according to Hai, along with her 78-year-old husband Zhang Zhou. Before that, the couple ran two Vietnamese restaurants on the island of Saipan — a U.S. Commonwealth in the western Pacific Ocean, about three-and-a-half hours south of Japan by plane. “My sister worked with the staff in the dining hall and her husband worked inside the kitchen as the cook,” Hai said. Yang and Zhou married there in the early 2000s, to the frustration of Yang’s parents, who did not approve “because her husband is so much older than her,” according to Shi. The couple had economic success until the Tohoku earthquake and Tsunami in 2011. Tourism took a massive hit, and Zhou had American citizenship, so the couple moved to Flushing, where Yang acquired temporary green card status and hoped to eventually open her own spa. But work in the city was tough: she provided home health care to her ailing husband for a about year, her mother said. She also worked as a waiter, and eventually told her mother that she was working “for a foot spa.” Zhou also didn’t know about Yang engaging in sex work, according to Hai, until he “learned it from a friend.”

The door to the room where Yang Song’s final interaction with an NYPD officer allegedly took place. Since her death, the door has been secured with a cable lock and mourners have brought bouquets of flowers.
Scott Heins for The Appeal

Vice stings targeting so-called “massage parlors” exploded in recent years, primarily in Chinese immigrant neighborhoods in Queens and Brooklyn. According to a 2017 report from the Urban Institute and the Legal Aid Society, arrests of Asian-identified people in New York City charged with both unlicensed massage and prostitution increased by 2,700 percent between 2012 and 2016. Yang herself was arrested and charged with prostitution on September 27th, two months before her death, during a vice operation in the same building. That case was open when she fell, the next court date scheduled for December 1st.

“She worked for her dream. She was not someone who likes to give up.”

At the same time, other anxieties were brewing. Yang and her mother spoke often enough that when she didn’t call for six days in September, Shi was distraught. When they did make contact, what she learned concerned her more.

Shi recalled the conversation in Chu’s office Tuesday, her brown tweed coat pulled closed over her chest. “She said, ‘Mom, I was … was… was harassed by the police,’” Shi recalled. Yang told her mother that a man claimed he was a police officer and flashed a badge at her, then made sexual demands. “I asked her whether she satisfied his demand. She said ‘I didn’t dare to not to. He pulls out a gun.’”

“She also told me [that] when he got what he wanted, the police officer said, ‘If you report this to the police, I would…’ [and] he threatened her. And, ‘If you don’t report it, I’ll protect you.’”

Yang confided in her mother about reporting the assault to the police, Shi said. Yang also described the assault to attorney Mingli Chen, her immigration lawyer and informal legal consult, and told him that she filed a complaint against the man with the NYPD. “She was asked to go to precinct to point out a person in the lineup,” Chen told The Appeal. “She told me immediately she was able to point out the guy. Seemingly she never received any follow-up.” The NYPD denied the existence of a formal complaint filed by Yang.

Before the fatal sting this November, Shi said, Yang also confided that police had asked her to become a confidential informant: to “report on other masseuses.” According to Yang, a follow-up meeting with NYPD was scheduled for early this month.

“They said: ‘We can pay you. But you have to sign a contract with us,’” Shi recalled. Shi discouraged her daughter from agreeing to be an informant. Yang was also hesitant. According to her mother, she told police, “I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to snitch.”

Chen, the immigration lawyer, told The Appeal that Yang confided in him as well about the informant request. “She told me the precinct asked her whether she wanted to be an informant,” he recalled this week. “She was [feeling] pressure [and wondered] does she have any risk? Any danger?”

The NYPD did not comment to The Appeal about whether Yang was being recruited as a confidential informant.

Setting aside the unknowns in Yang’s case, Chu of Flushing Community Neighborhood Watch acknowledges the systemic pressure Yang and other masseuses deal with on a daily basis. “There’s social, economic, police — many factor which create this kind of pressure,” he said.

Predatory encounters like the ones Yang’s family described are not uncommon. One NYPD officer, Michael Golden, was suspended after a department trial in June after being accused of groping and having sex with six women, including Chinese immigrants, during undercover prostitution stings.

Police “engage in inappropriate sexual contact with clients,” Leigh Latimer, a supervising attorney with the Legal Aid Society who represents clients charged with prostitution, told The Appeal. In any given case, though, it is hard to know whether an assailant who claims to be a police officer is actually part of NYPD. In 2016, a traffic agent posing as an NYPD officer assaulted two sex workers after flashing a badge, and was charged in 2016 with sexual abuse and criminal impersonation.

“We certainly have clients who have reported to us that someone had identified themselves as a police officer, but we don’t really know if they were police officers or they weren’t,” Latimer said. Either way, “This creates fear and mistrust.”

Informant recruitment is also common, Latimer added. “Vice teams do try to recruit women they have arrested to work as informants for them in a variety of contexts.”

Alexandra Natapoff, a professor at UC Irvine School of Law, testified before the House of Representatives in 2007 about the prevalence of confidential informants in domestic policing.

“Police rely especially heavily on confidential informants to get warrants in inner city zip codes,” Natapoff said. “As a result, many individuals are likely to be informing or trying to inform at any given time. In these communities, therefore, ‘snitching’ is a fact of life.”

For 30 years, Michael Chu has worked as an advocate and neighborhood watch leader in the Flushing immigrant community. His office sits directly across 40th road from the massage parlor where Yang Song worked, and he has become a resource for her family since her death.

Activists have planned a rally for Yang on Sunday, December 17th outside of the 109th Precinct in Flushing to coincide with the international Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. The Queens event is organized by several groups working in New York and nationally to provide assistance and support for sex workers who are incarcerated. Yang’s mother and brother say they plan to attend as well.

Yang’s death “confirmed yet again our worst fears,” Red, an organizer with the NYC contingent of Support Ho(s)e, told In Justice Today. “These police raids are deadly…. the tactics being used by law enforcement only serve to intimidate, incarcerate, deport, criminalize sex working people and in Yang’s case kill.”

“From what we can see, this is murder,” Red added. “Whether indirectly or directly, her death is on the NYPD. We had to do something.”

Since Yang’s death, women who work in the parlors on 40th Road are less visible. “The parlors are open, but no more girls stand outside,” Chu told The Appeal. “Not like previously, soliciting on the street.” Yang’s family has spoken with a few lawyers this week, and they’re eager to pursue legal action. Chu, who is facilitating the meetings, is hopeful that Yang’s death will compel the NYPD to stop massage parlor raids altogether.

“From what we can see, this is murder…. Whether indirectly or directly, her death is on the NYPD. We had to do something.”

“In the past three, five, seven years, all over Flushing and other ethnic communities, there was a dramatic increase in [sexual] services,” he said. “And yes, it did create a degenerate environment. Like, young kids and students passing by and you see them soliciting the men in the street.”

But that’s only half of the story, he continued. “It’s a life, okay? And you cannot just — ” Chu made a sharp snapping sound with his fingers.

“No matter what kind of profession or service you provide, a life is the most important thing to respect,” Chu added. “There’s a lot we need to do to improve. We want the truth, the real truth… we all have to learn something from this.”

On Staten Island, a Lawsuit Claims Collaboration Between Judges and Prosecutors

Richmond County District Attorney Michael McMahon

On Staten Island, a Lawsuit Claims Collaboration Between Judges and Prosecutors

A lawsuit filed in federal court in Manhattan alleges that one of the borough’s top judges only symbolically stepped aside from criminal cases when her husband, Michael McMahon, was elected the borough’s District Attorney in 2015. The plaintiff, a former chief clerk for Staten Island Supreme Court, claims that the judge worked behind the scenes to put cases in front of less lenient judges in order to benefit prosecutors.

In the lawsuit, former chief clerk Michael Pulizotto says that he secretly recorded hundreds of hours of conversations shortly after he began the job in 2015 — conversations that he claims show Justice Judith McMahon steering cases away from judges she deemed “defense-oriented.” After her husband announced his plans to run for district attorney, Justice McMahon formally relinquished her duties over criminal matters, which she had overseen in her capacity as an administrative judge, so as to avoid a conflict of interest. But a recording taken by Pulizotto, which was included in the lawsuit brief, captures Justice Stephen Rooney, who was put in charge of criminal court following McMahon’s reassignment, saying that McMahon was “in the criminal lane” and was making decisions about criminal cases in the courthouse.

In 2016, Justice McMahon’s husband Michael McMahon created a new section of criminal court, Part N, to focus on narcotics cases following a rise in opioid-related deaths in Staten Island. Justice McMahon found that the judge presiding over Part N offered the prosecution more favorable trials, Pulizotto’s lawsuit alleges — so she purposefully sent cases there by making drug offenses the top charge in many criminal cases. For example, the lawsuit claims that Justice McMahon sent a violent crime to the narcotics court because a joint was found in the defendant’s pocket.

In March, Pulizotto filed a complaint with the state Office of Court Administration (OCA), which oversees the state’s judges. The lawsuit alleges that OCA told Justice McMahon that Pulizotto had made the recordings, leading to retaliation from both Justice McMahon and the New York State Court Officers’ Association. He was reassigned from his position this September, following what he claims was a concerted harassment effort by the association. According to the lawsuit, association members took issue with Pulizotto’s secret recordings, and threatened Pulizotto and physically intimidated him on multiple occasions.

Members of the Court Officers Association even went so far as to put a giant inflatable rat outside of the Staten Island Supreme Court. The rat had Pulizotto’s name written on the stomach. The harassment allegations against OCA were confirmed by OCA itself, which claimed responsibility for the inflatable rat in a statement to the Staten Island Advance. “We put it up so everybody understood what he did,” Dennis Quirk, president of the New York State Court Officers Association, told the paper.

In the lawsuit, Pulizotto also claims to have observed an intoxicated white court officer calling a black court officer the “n-word” in December 2013.

The legal complaint questions whether the court truly protects constitutional rights “if countless criminal defendants have been unwittingly ‘scammed’ out of their right to a fair and impartial trial by an Administrative Judge — District Attorney team (who are also husband and wife) to avoid ‘defense-oriented judges.’”

In a statement to The Appeal, John Connors, attorney for Justice McMahon, said that his client “denies the baseless allegations contained in Mr. Pulizotto’s frivolous complaint,” and that McMahon looks forward to the complaint’s dismissal.

Many of the allegations against McMahon remain unconfirmed. But the recordings mentioned in the lawsuit, and the excerpts included in the lawsuit and reviewed by The Appeal, do show concern on the part of Justice Rooney about Justice McMahon’s involvement with criminal cases. Justice McMahon was swiftly transferred to Manhattan following the public disclosure of the allegations in September.

Pulizotto’s lawsuit calls for financial compensation for damages, reinstatement as chief clerk, and the installation of a federal monitor of the Staten Island courts system.

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Jail Policies Restrict Legal Representation in North Carolina

Public defenders in Charlotte say restrictions on communication hinder their ability to help jailed clients.

John Moore / Getty

Jail Policies Restrict Legal Representation in North Carolina

Public defenders in Charlotte say restrictions on communication hinder their ability to help jailed clients.

Public defenders in North Carolina’s most populous county say recent jail reforms have serious effects on legal representation. They say formal policy changes to phone calls and in-person visitation have rendered communication with incarcerated clients — the majority of whom have not been convicted of a crime — more difficult, and impeded relatives and attorneys’ ability to build the strongest cases possible.

The trend began unexpectedly in October 2016, when the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office put heavy restrictions on who could enter the two jails it oversees. While attorneys were exempt from the change, the office banned jail visitation for family members and friends, replacing in-person family meetings with video conferencing facilitated by Global Tel-Link. The visitation policy was spun as a way for defendants to experience life outside jail walls while unburdening staff. But several public defenders who spoke to In Justice Today say the policy hurts case-building as well.

According to Chief Public Defender Kevin Tully, attorneys with multiple clients are unable to meet with the same client every day, so relatives often filled that void. In the past, family members could pass messages between defendants and lawyers, walk through the facts of a case, and strategize about pending charges — all of which helped defendants to feel more comfortable with their cases and confident in their legal representation. Video visitation has undermined some defendants’ ability to speak “safely” and “confidentially” with family members about their cases, says Tully. Some people behind bars feel as though they have less privacy when talking to a screen in a room full of people. This new form of communicating makes it hard for clients to be forthcoming with information, he says.

To make matters worse, a $12.50-per-chat price tag has made video visitation cost-prohibitive for poor detainees. If people in jail can’t afford a video call, they can’t afford to have critical conversations about their cases with their loved ones. The technology is also shoddy and unreliable, a former detainee reported to local news site Creative Loafing Charlotte. If equipment doesn’t work or a connection is lost, relatives can’t be a lifeline. (A community organizer, who’s allowed to enter the jail in her capacity as a volunteer, also told In Justice Today that the videos don’t always work, calling the ban on in-person visits “cruel and unusual.”)

Attorneys have trouble establishing trust with their clients without the assistance of relatives to pass messages back and forth. “It has a real impact on clients’ relationship with us,” said Catherine Hoffman, public defender who works on misdemeanor cases in the county. “It makes [defendants] feel that much more isolated and frustrated.”

Thanks to a recent policy shift, attorneys’ direct access to defendants has been limited as well. In late August, local public defenders were informed that they can no longer call defendants at the jail housing women and juveniles. Now, they can only talk to clients who call them. The freedom to call defendants served as a convenient form of communication for attorneys. The facility, Jail North, is approximately 25 miles away from the public defender office, and attorneys often have to wait more than half an hour for jail officials to bring out clients, says Hoffman. Visiting hours also coincide with court hours, which makes it even more difficult to meet in person.

Phone calls allowed for a fast, consistent way for attorneys to provide case updates, check in regularly, and establish trust with clients. All they had to do was schedule a phone call through the sheriff’s department, and the client would be available at the designated time. With the option for incoming calls off the table, it’s harder to relay critical information and ensure consistent communication, says Hoffman.

Another public defender, Christine Nelson, quickly learned how damaging the new phone call policy could be — especially for young people. Both the video visitation and phone policies apply to 16 and 17-year-olds who are automatically charged as adults under state law. (North Carolina will stop charging people under 18 as adults in December 2019.) Before scheduled attorney calls were eliminated, Nelson developed a strong rapport with a defendant who has been detained on several felony charges since April and celebrated his 17th birthday behind bars. Although the teenager has some contact with family members, he was homeless and under the custody of the Department of Social Services at the time of arrest. His lawyer was the only person he had regular contact with. With this in mind, Nelson had been scheduling weekly check-ins, even when there were no case updates. She wanted the teenager to know she was invested in his well-being.

Then, the phone policy changed and Nelson was unable to call the teenager as scheduled. After she missed their appointment, the defendant tried to call her for a week, leaving multiple voicemail messages each day. But Nelson was never able to answer those calls. She was also busy, due to her packed court schedule. A week passed before she had enough time to drive to the jail to explain the new phone policy. She had to assure the teenager that she had not abandoned him — that she wanted to talk to him and wasn’t ignoring his calls. Since then, Nelson has visited a handful of times, but the two don’t talk nearly as much as they used to.

Last week, after months of waiting, the teenager accepted a plea deal. He’s preparing to be transferred to a state prison, where he’ll be detained until March. The silver lining: He will now be able to see his family in person. “[He] lit up when he learned he may have the chance to touch his dad,” Nelson said.

Beyond the formal changes to visitation and phone call policies, some public defenders say they have also been turned away from the jails for random, seemingly-innocuous reasons. Despite her frequent jail visits, Hoffman says she was prevented from entering Jail North because a photo on one of her ID cards was faded. The photo was still visible, and she was carrying her bar card and public defender ID, but jail staff wouldn’t budge. Hoffman has subsequently begun to compile stories about colleagues who were turned away in similar fashion. Some colleagues have allegedly been turned away for wearing black jeans on the weekend — accused of wearing leggings, a banned item of clothing. Nelson also says attorneys have been instructed to leave before visiting hours are officially over.

The sheriff’s office did not provide comment by the time of publication.

Mecklenburg is far from the only county establishing jail communication policies that complicate the process of building a case. According to David Fathi, director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, some barriers to communication between incarcerated clients and attorneys are to be expected due to the nature of detention. Nevertheless, jails around the country have implemented policies that make it all but impossible for lawyers to offer the effective representation guaranteed by the Constitution.

Jail officials have recorded phone calls and shared the recordings with law enforcement officers, who then used information shared during those calls against defendants. Attorneys have been prohibited from sending mail to their clients. In-person visitation can also be less than ideal, because defendants and visitors are often separated by Plexiglas barriers and forced to talk over the phone. But the phones don’t always work, and it is difficult for lawyers to share and explain legal documents when the glass is in the way, Fathi says.

“Our entire legal system is based on the right to legal representation for people who are charged with crime,” Fathi said. “There’s really no benefit to anyone to making it more difficult, more onerous, more expensive for lawyers to represent their clients.”

Nevertheless, lawyers in Mecklenburg County are struggling for these very reasons — and defendants are paying the price.

“People who are in jail obviously shouldn’t have less communication from their attorneys than people who are out of jail,” Hoffman said. “But I think in a lot of cases, that’s what they get.”

Thanks to Burke Butler.

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