Death Wish in Harlem: Defendant Sheds Light on Landmark Murder Case

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Fordham Law students had the rare opportunity to hear directly from players in the 2010 People v. Kenneth Minor case, including the defendant, the defendant’s attorneys, and a juror (currently a student at Fordham Law). The discussion, which took place on January 28, 2020, was part of Fordham Law’s Criminal Law Speaker Series, a class which brings together judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and professors with law students to discuss landmark criminal cases and groundbreaking legal research and ideas.

Student Noelle Magrino ’20 said hearing from practicing trial lawyers and the defendant himself was gripping. “I think having the defendant in the case come is really good for us because some law students might have had exposure to the criminal justice system, but a lot of us don’t. For us, to hear the defendant’s side of things and his personal story is really powerful,” she added. 

Deborah Denno, Arthur A. McGivney professor of law and founding director of the Neuroscience and Law Center, organizes the annual speaker series. Because the Minor case is so complicated and multi-faceted, she said it was a great opportunity for students to hear from all the individuals at the same time.

“I remember reading about this case in the newspaper. To actually have a defendant as articulate, introspective, and honest as Kenneth Minor is really invaluable,” Denno said. “I want my students to know about all the moving parts because most students coming into law school think it’s just about a statute, a case and that everything’s going to be right. That’s not what’s happeningfor example, this case was dependent on the quality of a defendant, an amazing juror, and incredible attorneys.”

Professor Deborah Denno

More than 15 seminar students gathered in a hushed mock trial courtroom to hear firsthand from Minor and his lawyers about the story behind the crime. They listened with rapt attention about the defendant’s motives the night of the crime, the defense’s approaches to presenting a unique case of this nature, and the jury’s thought processes when reaching a verdict.

A Grisly Scheme

On July 16, 2009, Long Island motivational speaker Jeffrey Locker was found stabbed to death in his car in East Harlem. Police initially thought he was a victim of a violent robbery, but collected evidence and testimonies showed that Locker, ridden with debt, faked the crime with help from another individual. Kenneth Minor, who was caught after the incident using Locker’s ATM card, was arrested. He told police that Locker asked him to kill him, but that the death had to look like a homicide so that his family could receive $12 million in life insurance. Minor said he held a knife (from Locker’s glove compartment) against the steering wheel while Locker lunged himself forward seven times. When Minor left, Locker was allegedly still alive.

Speaking softly as he remembered the details of meeting Locker, Minor told the class that he and Locker were just “two ships in the night,” interacting with one another for a few hours before Locker’s death. At the time, Minor was under the influence of cocaine and alcohol, which he said lowered his inhibitions. Despite trying to chase Locker away, Minor was impressed that he came back. Minor said that his intention was to take Locker’s money, not be a part of his death later that night. Though he tried dissuading Locker, he changed his mind because he understood where Locker was coming from.

“Somewhere along the line, it seemed like a good idea to help out, and it was not. He was in a bad mental state, and I took advantage of that. And, I know that nobody’s supposed to do that,” Minor said in front of the rows of students, as he sat between his two former attorneys. “You can’t really motivate me to do anything unless I want to. If I did it, I meant it. It just was a poor decisionone of many.”

Daniel Gotlin, a partner at Gotlin & Jaffe who joined Minor for the discussion, was called to represent Minor because he was on an indigent defense panel under County Law Article 18-B, which dealt exclusively with murder cases and trials. The two met and spoke about what had happened that night, with Gotlin noting that it was the most bizarre thing he had heard. Within a matter of days, it became more apparent that Minor was telling the truth based on Locker’s debt records, conversations between family members that suggested a conspiracy, and the fact that this was not Locker’s first attempt trawling East Harlem to find someone to kill him. At that point Gotlin also put his colleague Lawrence Fleischer, of counsel at Gotlin & Jaffe, on the case.

A Juror’s Perspective

Minor was charged with murder in the second degree, robbery in the first degree, and murder in the first degree (the last two eventually being dismissed). Gotlin successfully moved for an order to dismiss the indictment and compelled the prosecution to present the case to a new grand jury focusing on manslaughter in the second degree.

Stein Scholar Olympia Moy ’21, who was a student in Denno’s class last year and returned for the discussion, was a member of the jury in the case in 2011. She and the other jurors agreed that it seemed Locker had arranged his own death and had gone through deliberate actions to follow through in it.

Olympia Moy

Deliberation became complicated when the jurors factored in the testimony of Melvin Fleming, who was solicited by Locker days earlier and received some cashbut did not participate in Locker’s death. Moy explained that questions regarding self-determination cropped up because Locker had gone repeatedly to predominantly African American neighborhoods seeking out low-income men to take part in his plan. “Fleming’s testimony hurt me because it showed that my morals were lower than Fleming’s,” Minor revealed.

However, the central issue became whether or not Minor was entitled to the affirmative defense, which used the words “causes” or “aids” – meaning there is no distinction between active or passive conduct. 

In response to State Supreme Court Justice Carol Berkman’s final instructions, the jury sent out a note, asking for clarification on the word “active.” Moy said Justice Berkman read the definition from a pocket-sized dictionary. But in the jury instruction, she had also inserted a “however.” Justice Berkman said if Minor caused Locker’s death even with Locker’s consent, then that’s not assisted suicide “because the consent of the victim is not a defense to murder.”

“Our position had been that it really didn’t matter at all because if you read the statute, it never says active or passive,” Gotlin said, raising his hands to make a point. “It doesn’t matter if Minor plunged the knife into Locker.” In addition, Fleischer had analyzed the issue in meticulous detail in New York and other states. According to Gotlin, Justice Berkman was not willing to accept the defense’s interpretation of the statute.

Daniel Gotlin

Moy recollected that the question of whether Minor’s participation was “active” or “passive” made it difficult for the jury to reach a verdict. “Among some jurors, there was a lot of fixation on whether or not Locker had impaled himself repeatedly on the knife that was held against the steering wheel versus being stabbed. Some people said, ‘That’s irrelevant now, we’ll never know’ and any participation would necessarily be active,” Moy said. “The way we were given this instruction there was really nothing to really deliberate, and our hands were sort of tied because we weren’t allowed to really consider the affirmative defense.”

The jury deliberated for four hours before they announced their verdict, to which Minor was convicted of murder and sentenced to 20 years to life in prison. “I said, ‘Wow, that was pretty fast,’” Minor said to the class. “I thought they were trying to make it home for dinner.”

The Verdict and Its Aftermath

A day after the conviction, Moy still felt troubled by the lack of logic with the judge’s instruction and spoke with two friends who attended law school. One friend reached out to a law professor, who had responded that there was probably no legal use for Moy to reach out to the defense. Regardless, Moy contacted Gotlin to provide moral support, and he later made a motion to set aside the verdict, in part due to Moy’s affidavit that stated the judge’s direction had caused juror confusion. The Appellate Division later reversed the judge’s decision, five-nothing, due to the improper instruction.

“With the aid of Ms. Moy, [she]affirmed for us that the judge was wrong. It’s very unusual; jurors are not nearly as responsible and heroic as she is,” said Fleischer.

Lawrence Fleischer

Minor, who has not discussed the case since 2012 with CBS’ “48 Hours,” told the students that he recognizes his past mistakes. “I went through 10 very hard years paying for it, but I’ll never finish paying for it. The only way I can move forward is to pay it forward, to make sure that no one else can end up in a situation like that. And the only way to do that is to speak [about it]from time to time.”

Student Sydney Rosenblum ’20who cautiously revealed to the room at the very end that she lived in the same town as the Locker family and went to high school with all of Locker’s childrensaid the day was very moving for her. “For all of you to be here is just more infuriating, honestly, with how his family handled everything and the way it went down,” she said before directing her last comment to Minor. “Though you made yourself believe that you could have caused the death, I don’t believe that. I think Locker was on a mission, and you unfortunately were part of it, a little bitbut you didn’t deserve that.”

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