It was a case that jumpstarted campus activism and conversations about race. But there was one problem: authorities say it wasn’t true. Now, three University at Albany students who claimed to be victims of a racial attack on a CDTA bus in January will be charged Monday with assault after authorities determined they attacked another passenger.
Authorities say 20-year-olds Asha Burwell, Ariel Agudio and Alexis Briggs are to appear for arraignment Monday morning at Albany City Police Court.
Burwell and Agudio are also charged with falsely reporting an incident: that charge stems from evidence showing the initial complaints the pair made during 911 calls from their cell phones early on the morning of Jan. 30th, alleging that they were victimized, were false. According to newspaper accounts, two of the three women were taken to Albany Medical Center with non-life threatening injuries.
Albany County D.A. David Soares says his office says his office handled the incident with extreme care from the very start. "What people don't realize, for example, in a case where there's video footage or video surveillance, is that we have to go frame by frame and take a look at a television screen for very long periods of time, 13, 14 hours a day, to find that little needle in a haystack sometimes. So that's not working on the same timeframe as a reporter for example, who has a deadline, and it's certainly not working at the pace of social media."
The story took off on social media when Burwell, a junior from Long Island and student manager of the women's basketball team, tweeted "I just got jumped on a bus while people hit us and called us the ‘n’ word and NO ONE helped us."
Burwell tweeted that university police “didn't seem concerned" and referred the incident to Albany Police. On social media she stated that when Albany Police showed up at her door to take a report, a female officer remarked that the dorm room smelled of marijuana, quote, "And that's when I knew she didn't even care about us."
Burwell's tweets drove the story to the top of national headlines, even catching presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's attention. The former Secretary of State issued a tweet condemning racism on the UAlbany campus. University president Dr. Robert Jones delivered an initial forceful video sent to the campus community, but later appeared to modify his comments. Some students are calling for a public apology from Jones.
Soares says in the end, the claims didn’t hold up. "The fact that people communicate with one another faster today and there's a dissemination of information faster today, but we have to respect the pace of a thorough investigation and we also have to respect that pace because to not do so would compromise the integrity of that investigation. So while I understand there's always going to be the need to know and the desire to know, sometimes it's just not possible, and quite honestly, as a lawyer, as a prosecutor we are bound by the rules of ethics. And in addition to the fact that you don't want to prejudice a defendant by having a case and information that is sensitive, discussed and tried in the court of public opinion. You want that done in a court of law."
University Police Chief Frank Wiley said in a statement a great deal of time was spent carefully reviewing the audio of video recordings captured aboard the bus in efforts to determine whether any racial slurs were used. Wiley says the only person heard uttering racial vulgarities was one of the defendants.
The assault charges are based on evidence that shows that the three defendants physically assaulted another passenger on the bus, a 19-year-old white woman from Congers, NY. Wiley says the trio relentlessly assaulted the victim despite efforts of several other passengers to stop them.
Wiley, who is black, said "I especially want to point out that what happened on the bus was not a 'hate crime.'"
Ariel Agudio's attorney, Mark Mishler, tells the Times Union that the charges are "unfortunate" and "unwarranted" and that Agudio "will be vindicated."
There has been no word from UAlbany as to whether a white male student who left school after being threatened on Twitter by Burwell's brother Tyreek of the San Diego Chargers football team will be invited back to the campus or if his family will take legal action against the school.
There's no word as to whether the three female students will remain at school, or if Burwell's brother will be disciplined by the NFL. The league has not responded to several emails requesting comment.
Again, D.A. Soares: "We recognize that that threat was made and then immediately pulled down. One of the things we could not do was be distracted by the back and forth on social media because there was a lot of back and forth, and quite honestly, our focus over the last several weeks has been the frame by frame analysis, the deposing of dozens of witnesses, and arriving in a space where we believe we are ready to pursue the next phase of this prosecution."
The trio will be in court Monday at 8:30.