Crime victim calls it a ‘slap in our faces’ as violent offenders are released from Rikers over COVID-19 concerns

(NEW YORK) — When a Bronx, New York, man was sentenced to 364 days on Rikers Island for causing the death of a father of two with a single punch, the victim’s younger sister, LaTor Scott, thought that was the last her family would have to deal with her brother’s killer.

Now, the man who threw the punch that killed her brother has been released without completing his sentence, as jail officials releases offenders — some of them convicted of violent crimes — in an effort to fight the novel coronavirus, formally known as COVID-19, that was first detected inside the facility on March 18.

The virus entered the walls of Rikers Island, one of the world’s largest correctional facilities, infecting inmates, correction officers and staffers by the dozen. Officials with the Department of Corrections (DOC), the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice (MOCJ), and the city’s prosecutors’ offices worked together to release as many detainees as possible in order to prevent the spread.

The five district attorneys and the special narcotics prosecutor agreed to release individuals because of their age, health conditions, the nature of their charged crime or the length of their remaining sentence.

However, in a March 30 joint letter sent to New York City’s Mayor Bill de Blasio and DOC’s Commissioner Cynthia Braunn on behalf of the city’s prosecutors, they voiced their concerns over what they said was the haphazard selection process and release of inmates over their objections.

“As the crisis rapidly evolved, however, city public health experts scanned the entire jailed population, no matter the reason for incarceration, prioritizing those who meet public health criteria for heightened medical vulnerabilities,” wrote Elizabeth Glazer, the director of MOCJ, in response to the prosecutors.

Glazer responded on behalf of DOC as the supervisor of criminal justice policies across the city. MOCJ also “develops and implements strategies across city agencies and partners to enhance public safety, reduce unnecessary incarceration, and increase fairness,” according to the city’s website.

“At the same time, we want to make clear that the categories of those proposed for release have, in some instances, included individuals who pose a high risk to public safety,” the prosecutors wrote.

One of those inmates was Jimmy Rosario, convicted after a jury trial for the third-degree assault of Troy Scott, the brother of LaTor Scott, on June 22, 2019. Troy Scott, 40 of Alabama, was in town for one of his sisters’ baby shower when he got into an altercation with 36-year-old Rosario.

Rosario punched Scott in the face outside of a chicken restaurant on Prospect Avenue in Morrisiana, Bronx.

Troy Scott fell backward on the pavement, hit his head and died at a nearby hospital, prosecutors said. Rosario was arrested a week later and charged with misdemeanor third-degree assault.

After a jury convicted Rosario, the judge sentenced him on Oct. 28, 2019 to a maximum of 364 days on Rikers Island.

“I just want to say that I’m sorry… I did not mean for this to happen, all right?” said Rosario during his sentencing, to the New York Daily News reported.

Rosario was credited with the time he already served on Rikers Island while awaiting trial, meaning he was expected to serve another six months to complete the judge’s sentence.

Yet, on Mar. 26, Rosario was released by jail officials in an effort to decrease the population as the coronavirus continued to spread. Attempts to reach Rosario for comment were not successful.

Troy Scott’s younger sister, LaTor Scott found out on the news that inmates were getting released due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Nobody contacted us … the prosecutor on my brother’s case didn’t even know he (Rosario) was getting out,” said LaTor Scott, 38.

LaTor Scott said she reached out to other crime victim families, whom she befriended after her brother’s death, and were upset because the inmate on their cases were also released without their knowledge.

“I logged on to the inmate website, plugged his name in and saw that he was released — so that’s how we found out,” said LaTor Scott.

“I think is kind of crazy that they are doing this without notifying families,” said LaTor Scott, a retired Army veteran. “The guy who did this to my brother, he lives a few blocks away so we are bound to possibly run into him. We live in the same neighborhood. My mother was nervous.”

LaTor Scott said her real concern was that Rosario still had three more months of his sentence left and he was released without getting put on probation until his official release date.

“It was like you’re free to go… to let him get out even extra early, that’s just a double slap in our faces,” said LaTor Scott, who says she has to figure out how to tell her brother’s son and daughter that their father’s killer is free. “It goes to show you that the justice system is flawed, it’s real flawed.”

Another offender released early is John Bartee.

Bartee, 45, was arrested for beating the mother of his child on three separate occasions in 2018. One of those attacks in July 2018 resulted in the retina of the woman’s right eye being detached, according to the criminal complaint. He was convicted after a jury trial and sentenced on Nov. 14, 2019 to a year on Rikers Island for misdemeanor third-degree assault and second-degree harassment charges.

Bartee was released Mar. 26.

The Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark objected to inmates like Bartee and Rosario being released before they served their full sentences.

“My duty is to protect the public, and the victims and survivors who remain vulnerable knowing that many of the individuals who were incarcerated are returning to the community,” Clark said in a statement issued on March 30.

“The authority to release city sentenced people rests with the DOC commissioner,” said Colby Hamilton, a spokesman for MOCJ.

ABC News attempted to reach Bartee for comment, but has yet to receive a response. Bartee’s trial attorney told ABC News on Tuesday that his former client is in the process of appealing the conviction.

“We are concerned that the evaluation of eligibility for release appears to give little consideration to the housing, supervision and support-service needs of the individuals who are being returned to their communities: needs that, if not addressed, will only compound the possible health, safety and other risks, both to the communities and to the individuals at issue,” according to the prosecutors’ letter.

As over 1000 people were released from Rikers Island, neither MOCJ nor DOC publicized a plan for them upon release until after the prosecutors spoke out.

Those still serving city sentences — up to a year — will serve the rest of their bid at home and are monitored daily with phone check-ins by the DOC’s Supervised Release program. “Because they are still under the custody of the Department of Corrections even while finishing their sentence at home, they can be required to return to custody at any time,” Glazer wrote.

Before release, inmates are seen by a doctor and if they show “serious” symptoms of COVID-19 they are transferred to the hospital.

As of Friday, the population of Rikers Island shrunk to a little over 4,200 inmates and 239 inmates have contracted the coronavirus since March 18.

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