A woman who was charged with murdering her husband in 2020 sued the New York City Police Department, alleging that police officers fabricated the confession that was the basis of the case against her. The federal civil rights lawsuit also alleges that the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office obtained a search warrant for an email account she created to draw attention to her case — and never disclosed it, as required by law.
Prosecutors dropped their case against Tracy McCarter last December, citing insufficient evidence. In the lawsuit, which was filed on November 2 in the Southern District of New York, McCarter said she had “sustained serious physical and psychological harm as a result of being wrongfully arrested, charged, imprisoned, searched, and prosecuted.”
The lawsuit names four NYPD officers who were involved with the arrest and one investigator from the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office who worked on the case. All four of the police officers have previously faced civilian complaints of misconduct, though such allegations are famously hard to prove. A spokesperson for the NYPD declined to comment on whether any of the officers are being investigated in relation to McCarter’s case, citing the pending litigation. The district attorney’s office declined to comment on the allegation involving the undisclosed search warrant.
According to the NYPD’s disciplinary guidelines, making false, misleading, and inaccurate statements is cause for termination. There’s no data showing how often that happens, however.
Still, New York City taxpayers end up footing the bill when officers are accused of abusing their authority. The majority of lawsuits against the NYPD are settled, according to Jennvine Wong, a staff attorney with the Cop Accountability Project at the Legal Aid Society, a public defense organization in New York City.
“It seems like unless the story makes it to the press, somehow, cops are not actually paying the price for their perjury or for their false statements that are made in investigations.”
Those settlements are paid out from the city, not NYPD coffers, and New York City is on track to pay more than $100 million for such lawsuits this year alone, according to an analysis by the Legal Aid Society. As The Intercept previously reported, that figure is separate from the $30 million the city paid to settle lawsuits ahead of litigation, while 16 of the 20 officers named in the lawsuits with the highest payouts have been promoted.
“It seems like unless the story makes it to the press, somehow, cops are not actually paying the price for their perjury or for their false statements that are made in investigations,” said Wong. “It’s obscured in a way that they’ve always been obscured, with DA’s offices pleading out a case to a lesser charge or dismissing cases, or avoiding calling that particular officer to the stand and calling a different officer instead.”
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance speaks on stage during National Night Out Against Crime in New York on Aug. 3, 2021.
Photo: Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images
Police arrested McCarter, a nurse at New York-Presbyterian, after the death of her estranged husband, James Murray, in March 2020. The lawsuit provides the following account of their relationship and Murray’s death: Murray struggled with alcoholism and abused McCarter when he was drinking, including choking her. On the night of his death, he drunkenly went to McCarter’s apartment demanding money. After she refused, Murray put her into a chokehold. McCarter held out a kitchen knife in an attempt to ward him off, but Murray tripped and fell into the kitchen knife, piercing him in the chest. (This account was later confirmed by forensic experts hired by both McCarter’s team and the prosecution, according to the lawsuit.) McCarter said she immediately called for help and applied pressure to Murray’s wound.
A transcript of body camera footage reviewed by The Intercept shows McCarter in distress and pleading for officers to help Murray. “Jim. Please stay with us,” she screamed, according to the transcript. “Oh god. Oh god. Why [unintelligible] did you do this Jim? Why did you do this? Why did you do this? He tried to take my money. Why did he do this? Oh my god.”
Shortly after, Officer Shahel Miah handcuffed McCarter. Another officer, Samantha Cortez, stated, “She said he tried to take her money and she stabbed him in the chest.” The transcript of the body camera footage does not show McCarter making the second part of that statement, but Cortez memorialized it in her report nonetheless, according to the lawsuit.
Former Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance’s office cited the alleged confession to charge McCarter with second-degree murder, an offense that carries a possible sentence of 25 years to life. McCarter’s lawyers later tried to refute the claim with body camera footage, but the judge overseeing the case ruled against them.
At the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, McCarter was jailed on Rikers Island; she was ultimately released on house arrest in September 2020. Meanwhile, the prosecution used Cortez’s account as probable cause to obtain search warrants on McCarter’s phone and computer, including for dating apps that she shared with Murray. District Attorney Alvin Bragg, who entered office in January 2022, dismissed the charge against McCarter in December of that year after determining there was insufficient evidence to prosecute her.
Months after the charge was dropped, McCarter learned that the district attorney’s office had withheld information about its surveillance activities. In August 2023, Google notified McCarter that it had given prosecutors access to information about an email account she used to communicate with people who were advocating on her behalf. Google, in its email, wrote that a court order had previously prohibited the company from notifying her about the request.
McCarter’s lawyers later obtained the warrant from the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. It shows that prosecutors got a search warrant for the account, StandWithTracy, in December 2021, during Vance’s last month in office, on the grounds that it was being used to “commit or conceal the commission of a crime.” Prosecutors were seeking access to the emails, addresses, and calendars associated with the account, according to the warrant.
New York law requires prosecutors to turn over all documents related to the case. The district attorney’s office provided McCarter’s legal team with documents related to other search warrants, but those records did not mention the activism account.
In the lawsuit, McCarter alleges that the warrant was based on “false information from members of the NYPD.” Her lawyers asked the district attorney’s office — now run by Bragg — about the basis for searching the account, but prosecutors refused to turn over that documentation without a court order, the lawyers said.
“We don’t know what could possibly have been used to justify searching an account that was created to advocate on Tracy’s behalf as a survivor of domestic violence who was criminalized,” said Tess Cohen, one of McCarter’s lawyers. “We didn’t even know the search happened or what the result of that search was.”
For McCarter, the surveillance of the account was “beyond terrifying.”
“That is Orwellian,” she said.
People gather at Foley Square to demand that the mayor of New York take action to shut down Rikers Island, on Aug. 10, 2023, in New York.
Photo: Leonardo Munoz/Corbis via Getty Images
New Yorkers have previously complained about the conduct of all of the police officers named in McCarter’s lawsuit, according to The Intercept’s review of the public database for the Civilian Complaint Review Board, an independent agency that investigates police misconduct.
One detective, Carlos Pagan, has faced six CCRB complaints for offenses such as use of force and abuse of authority dating back to 2011. None of those complaints have ever been substantiated, an outcome that means the CCRB found enough evidence of wrongdoing to recommend discipline. The majority of CCRB complaints are found to be unsubstantiated, but that doesn’t always mean it’s because there was no misconduct — the process for proving a case is difficult and burdensome.
Miah, the officer who handcuffed McCarter, has been the subject of three complaints. One of them, for abuse of authority, was substantiated, though the CCRB does not publicly provide details of the basis for the complaint. Miah did not face disciplinary action from the NYPD, according to a department database.
Cortez, the officer who said that McCarter confessed to stabbing Murray, faced a complaint for abuse of authority in September 2021, yet the investigation has been closed pending the outcome of the criminal case.
And Alexander Cruz, a detective who signed off on search warrants and the criminal complaint against McCarter, was the subject of a CCRB complaint in 2008 for abuse of authority. He was exonerated during those proceedings but was named in a lawsuit the following year alleging he filed false police reports and gave false testimony. The suit resulted in a $27,000 settlement that did not include an admission of wrongdoing. The NYPD later disciplined Cruz for knowingly filing “ inaccurate, and factually incorrect departmental reports” on 19 occasions and making “incomplete and inaccurate entries into the department memobook.” (His penalty was losing 15 vacation days.) The CCRB database lists Cruz as inactive.
Miah referred questions to the NYPD press office, which responded with a link to the department’s discipline database. Cortez did not respond, and Pagan and Cruz could not be reached for comment.
Emily Tuttle, a spokesperson for Bragg, told The Intercept that the district attorney’s office takes into consideration police officers’ records. The office maintains “records with any information that could negatively impact a testifying officer’s credibility and proactively disclose it in any prosecution where they may be called as a witness,” Tuttle wrote in an email.
McCarter is seeking an unspecified amount in damages related to her loss of income and the trauma she said she endured as part of her arrest. According to her lawsuit, the experience left her with post-traumatic stress disorder, suicidal ideations, and medical bills for in-patient counseling she sought for her PTSD. She was suspended from both her job and her master’s program during the case, and she opted for a hysterectomy instead of a simpler medical procedure out of fear she’d be incarcerated and not receive adequate medical care for her condition.
In an interview, she said she hopes lawmakers in Albany, New York, will take note of the alleged misconduct in her case and review laws that protect police, prosecutors, and judges. She said, “The legislature actually prevents the accountability necessary in a just society to stop these abuses of power.”
The post NYPD Accused of Fabricating Domestic Violence Survivor’s Murder Confession appeared first on The Intercept.