Shantay Corley and her daughter, Zinya Corley, have not been accused of any crime. Yet they inspired a manhunt across New York State, were arrested in Manhattan, and hauled back to Syracuse to sit in jail. Zinya, 17, was held in solitary confinement, according to her lawyer, for weeks before she was bailed out. Her mother is still sitting in jail on a $150,000 bond.
The mother and daughter were tracked down and arrested solely because prosecutors want to force them to testify as witnesses in a trial.
According to the police reports, on the morning of June 10, 2017, in Syracuse, Samuel Dixon was shot multiple times in his blue Toyota Solara. Police found him sitting in the driver’s seat, slumped over the passenger’s side. Within just a day or two, after canvassing some neighbors, detectives began to form a narrative about the shooting: Vernon Brockington, 35, had shot Dixon when Dixon had pulled up in front of Brockington’s home. There was neighborhood chatter that the two had been in a fight the night before.
Witnesses could not identify the shooter, but Shantay Corley, Brockington’s partner, and Zinya, then 16, were in the home at the time. Police and prosecutors quickly zeroed in on them to pump for information.
Things escalated quickly thanks to a legal practice known as material witness warrants. Material witness warrants are meant to be used to arrest and detain people in unusual cases where prosecutors can prove that their testimony is essential to a case and that there’s reason to think the witness will not appear in court. The practice has recently come under fire in many places for enabling the detention of innocent people. These material witnesses aren’t always entitled to counsel (although the Corleys were assigned counsel in this case by the judge because they faced jail time). While the warrants are supposed to be rare, they represent an abuse of power that is often overused by certain prosecutors to force reluctant witnesses to testify.
In the Corleys’ case, police had already interrogated the mother and daughter several times. Police came across Shantay Corley the day of the shooting as she carried shopping bags into her home, but she refused to talk extensively to them, giving “one word answers,” and muttering “fuck you,” according to the police reports obtained by The Appeal.
Shortly after the shooting, police and the Onondaga County district attorney’s office interviewed Zinya and Shantay about Brockington’s behavior that day. According to the police report, Zinya was picked up at her high school and taken to the police station to be questioned alone, without a parent. She told detectives that she had seen Brockington the morning of the shooting and had watched him change clothes after the gunshots were fired, which led investigators to think that her mother knew something more.
Shantay, eight months pregnant with Brockington’s child, was interviewed multiple times by police detectives both before and after being read her Miranda rights. At one point, the detectives, who were executing a search warrant, climbed into Shantay’s home through an open window and then called her to come home for an interview, according to a police report. When she resisted answering the detectives’ questions, according to the official report on that interview, the detectives began to fill out the paperwork to arrest Shantay and asked her for people they could contact to take custody of her children. The police then told her she could “help her situation” if she corroborated her daughter’s narrative. Detectives’ notes indicate that they left her alone for about two hours in an interrogation room before she complied with a statement that matched her daughter’s. She also allowed detectives to look through her cell phone history and search her car. Notes describe her as “uncooperative” and “deceitful.”
The trial was expected to begin April 9, but on that date, the Corleys were nowhere to be found. This began a manhunt, which, by late May, led investigators to Manhattan, where mother and daughter were found living with relatives. There were conflicting accounts of what happened: The local news initially made the incident appear as though the two were in hiding, but Shantay’s lawyer told the court they were staying with her mother after they were evicted in April.
An assistant prosecutor told the local news that they had expended “a significant amount of resources” to find them. They were arrested and taken before Judge Matthew Doran, who allowed them to be held in jail.
According to Shantay’s lawyer, Tylyn Bozeman, her client was never served with a valid subpoena. There was no certificate of service. She told The Appeal that she still had not even received documents like Shantay’s grand jury testimony, which could shed light on why the prosecutor thinks that her testimony is essential to the case.
Just last month, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held that misusing material witness warrants was unconstitutional. The case involved Alexina Simon, who was arrested and detained by the Queens DA’s office for over two days for questioning as a potential witness in a case involving police misconduct.
Police said they tried to talk to Simon over the phone and at her home. Investigators then went to Simon’s place of work—a Manhattan hotel where she was a housekeeper—and threatened to cuff her in public. It turned out that Alexina Simon was the wrong person; officials actually wanted to talk to her daughter, Alexandra. Even then, police still took Simon to the DA’s office for questioning. She sued.
This wasn’t the first time New York district attorneys have used questionable tactics. Brooklyn investigators used to routinely detain witnesses in hotel rooms before they capitulated. And in 2006, Russell Hernandez was incarcerated on Rikers Island for two years because the Bronx DA’s office wanted him to testify against two men who had allegedly robbed him in 2004. Hernandez, a native of Trinidad, was a green-card holder who was confined to immigration detention in 2006 based on a prior arrest. He was then transferred to Rikers and told that he should testify against the two accused men—who had threatened to hurt Hernandez—because he “would be deported anyway.” Hernandez did not testify and in 2008 he was summarily transferred back to immigration detention where he made bail.
The practice of arresting material witnesses stretches far beyond New York. In April of this year, the prosecutor in Salt Lake County, Utah jailed a teenager to ensure her testimony against a person accused of shooting someone. Alexus Irizarry, 18, was in a truck with friends when her companion was shot in the head. She later missed a court date because she was recovering from surgery. Despite her mother’s frantic calls, it took over a month before she was assigned counsel and released from jail.
When Irizarry finally testified, she was fully shackled. She later told the Salt Lake Tribune that she did not receive medical care for her post-surgical recovery in jail and that the incident triggered anxiety and depression over her friend’s death.
And a lawsuit by Civil Rights Corps and the ACLU has alleged that New Orleans DA Leon Cannizzaro has been jailing witnesses or threatening them with jail as a way to force them to meet with prosecutors. The complaint asserts that the DA’s office has requested at least 150 material witness warrants in the past five years, many of which were based on false reasons or omissions. As a result, innocent witnesses and victims of crimes have spent days and even weeks in jail. Many had bond amounts higher than the person accused of the crime.
Prosecutors argue that material witness warrants and other coercive measures are necessary because the “no snitch” culture means that witnesses and victims are reluctant to report crimes, much less testify in court against people who are their friends and relatives. Perhaps unsurprisingly, getting witnesses to show up is an exercise in patience and skill.
Onondaga County DA William Fitzpatrick, whose office requested the Corleys’ warrants, claimed that his office had witness cooperation issues in 14 cases in 2014 and 2015. A Syracuse police spokesperson told the Post-Standard that 70 percent of victims refuse to cooperate with police. And Fitzpatrick added that material witness warrants were on the rise, even though his office doesn’t count them.
“Witness cooperation continues to be the number one challenge in every case that I handle,” Onondaga County Assistant District Attorney Rob Moran, the prosecutor on the Brockington case, told The Appeal. “Material witness warrants are a last resort. I do everything I can to avoid asking for one.”
But the strong-arming of witnesses and victims with threats of jail time and separation from children carries its own risks of false imprisonment and retraumatization. Coercing witnesses can also lead to false testimony and wrongful convictions, as the ACLU and National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers explained in a brief supporting Simon’s claim against the city. Arresting innocent people also erodes trust in government, especially when the state itself seems to presuppose dishonesty.
It’s unclear if Onondaga County law enforcement has tried to address the root causes of the cooperation problem, or offer other incentives to testify beyond the threat of arrest. One Syracuse mother refused to allow her teenage son to testify against an alleged shooter, telling the Post-Standard the DA’s office “[treats] everybody like you’re a gang member.” She said the office offered no witness protection or other measures to ensure her son’s safety.
Even if witnesses still don’t want to cooperate with the prosecution, that’s not a good enough reason to incarcerate them, Cody Wofsy, a staff attorney with the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project, and one of the lead attorneys in the Simon case, said in a phone interview. “The fact that the police or prosecutor is unhappy with the witness’s unwillingness to answer questions in private, or unhappy with the answers they do provide, is not enough to lock up innocent people,” he said.