Undocumented Man’s Yearlong Rikers Island Stay Over Bagel Robbery Sparks Legal Challenge

The price of a plain bagel in New York City is about $2 – a dozen, $24. But one man has paid a much higher price: a year in jail on Rikers Island. And New York taxpayers paid well over a half million dollars to keep him there, before he was even tried.

In closing arguments in September in Manhattan Criminal Court, a lawyer for Juan Jimenez, 44, said that her client didn’t commit a crime; he was just houseless, hungry and made an honest mistake. Judge Frank Nervo set his bail at $30,000, because Jimenez was deemed a flight risk due to his undocumented status.

In May of 2022, Randolph Chung, in his mid-80s, sat on a bench on Central Park West with a black plastic bag beside him that contained bagels. Jimenez saw the bag, took it and tried to walk off with it. But Chung pushed Jimenez to the ground from behind and when police arrived, they had to pull him off Jimenez. Police returned the bagels to Chung. Jimenez was arrested and charged with robbery and possession of stolen property.

According to Jimenez’s attorney, he came to the U.S. from Mexico by himself around 20 years ago. With no friends or family in New York, he was unable to pay his bail. For the next year, he sat in jail awaiting trial which began and ended in five days.

The jury deliberated for three and a half hours and reached a guilty verdict. One juror held his head in his hands as the verdict was read. “It was a hard one,” juror Joanne O’Neill said later. “I want to go home and cry.”

In the hallway outside the courtroom, Jimenez’s attorney Mariah Martinez was on the phone, crying. In closing arguments, Martinez argued that her client was down on his luck and hungry, that a felony charge was too harsh given the circumstances and that the incident didn’t need to go as far as it did. “It was Mr. Chung who escalated this,” she said.

Prosecutor Nicole Elin-Hoehle said force happened only when items were not given back. In his cross examination, Chung had a hard time recalling details from the incident that occurred more than a year ago, even pushing Jimenez to the ground and being pulled off by police.

In police body camera footage shown during the trial, Chung is heard telling police he pushed Jimenez and that he himself was not hurt. Martinez said the cops were unsure who to arrest when they got there because Chung was on top of Jimenez.

Jimenez had no weapons on him, just a subway card and a jalapeño pepper, which cops giggled about in the body camera footage shown during the trial. Police spoke with an eyewitness at the scene but didn’t add their contact information or statements to the paperwork filed about the incident.

Martinez argued that Chung had other valuables like his phone, bike and watch, but Jimenez wasn’t trying to steal from anyone and just wanted to eat. The prosecutor downplayed that argument saying the value of the item he did take was “completely irrelevant” in this case.

Jimenez gave no reaction when the guilty verdict was read, nor when the judge scheduled his sentencing.

Jimenez headed back to Rikers, now a convicted felon.

“When we heard what the case was about, I think the whole room rolled their eyes,” juror Ariana Ammons said. “No one liked the decision we came to.”

The jury foreperson, Leyda Jimenez shook her head. “It’s over bagels, it’s ridiculous,” she said.

Martinez had hoped the jurors would vote with their “morality” and acquit her client despite the law. In jury nullification, jurors can vote not guilty regardless of evidence if they feel a guilty decision would be morally wrong. But the law does not allow a jury to be advised of this option.

“This case has affected me in more ways than others have,” Martinez said, who has been a lawyer for six years. Because Jimenez is undocumented, Jimenez is also now subject to deportation.

Sentencing was set for Oct. 19 but was postponed until January 11 because the defense is challenging the verdict. Judge April Newbauer will review trial transcripts and decide if the jury “made a mistake” on the grounds that they didn’t understand that no force was initiated or used by Jimenez towards Chung. While it’s uncommon for judges to reverse jury decisions, this would remove the third-degree robbery charge from Jimenez’s record, a felony, but not the possession of stolen property, a misdemeanor.

The daily cost of incarceration on Rikers Island is $1,414, or $516,110 per year, according to New York City Comptroller Brad Lander’s website. This nearly quadrupled since 2011.

According to immigrant criminal defense attorney Benjamin Simpson, a case like Jimenez’s is a rarity these days. Simpson said that undocumented immigrants also reap the benefits of the city’s 2019 bail reforms to stop setting bail for people that wouldn’t be able to pay, depending on the crime committed. He said that several years ago, before the bail reform was in place, it was common for undocumented immigrants to be waiting in Rikers for their trial to begin, but that isn’t so much the case anymore- Simpson was shocked to hear the facts about this case.

“You’re talking about someone who’s undocumented, but also homeless and who’s relying on public defense, you know…the deck is most stacked against them just from an institutional standpoint,” he said.

About the author(s)

Allison Williams is a masters student at Columbia Journalism School.