The defense began presenting its case in the murder trial of Menachem Stark, H”yd, Tuesday, arguing that a brain injury that defendant Kendel Felix suffered in 2010 left him vulnerable to police questioning and resulted in his giving investigators a coerced confession.
Felix is on trial for the kidnapping, attempted robbery and murder of Menachem Stark, who was abducted outside his Williamsburg office on the night of January 2–3, 2014. His body was found the next day in Great Neck, Long Island.
On April 29, 2014, Felix was brought in to the 77th precinct of the New York Police Department for questioning by detectives. Several hours later, early in the morning of April 30, he gave a videotaped confession to the crime in which he implicated several family members. Felix presented the incident as an attempted robbery gone wrong. If convicted, Felix — the only man thus far charged in the incident — faces a maximum of 25 years to life in prison.
A motorcycle accident in 2010 left Felix hospitalized for two weeks with a brain injury. Felix’s defense, by his lawyer Jack Goldberg, is centered around convincing jurors that the brain injury left Felix with diminished capacity to resist police interrogation. Goldberg argued that after several hours of police questioning, Felix gave a confession that merely repeated information the police had already told him about the crime, in the belief that doing so would allow him to go home.
The first witness Goldberg called Tuesday was Felix’s mother.
“He was not himself” after the accident, she said of her son. “He was like somebody who didn’t remember who he is.”
“We had to teach him again who he is,” she said. She had to teach him again “that this is the house where he sleeps.” She said her son had to even be reminded who his little sister was.
Felix, who was in his early 20s at the time, was unable to take care of basic human needs. Three weeks after he came home, Felix began therapy, but he was still unable to do things such as bathing or using the bathroom without help from his mother, she said on the witness stand.
“Did you notice anything different about his manner?” asked Goldberg?
“Yes,” she said. “Since the accident, my son is not the same person.”
Mrs. Felix said that since the accident, her son has suffered headaches, and “he forgets things.” He has also suffered mood changes.
“When we argue, he would tell me, ‘Mommy, stop,’ his head is hurting; he cannot take the pressure.’ ”
On the night of April 29, detectives came to the Felix home to speak with her son, and asked him to come to the stationhouse. Mrs. Felix said that the officer said Kendel would only be there for 20 minutes. Before he left his home, his mother said, “I told him, if you are under pressure, please don’t say anything — ask for your lawyer.” Her husband offered their son the same advice as well.
During cross-examination, prosecutor Howard Jackson sought to argue that Felix’s condition had improved in the years after his injury.
Additionally, an issue that was the subject of much questioning during cross-examination was ownership of a cellphone that detectives seized from the Felix home when they served a search warrant on the night of Kendel’s arrest. The cellphone tracking and call-log data have been among the biggest pieces of the prosecution’s evidence. Prosecutors have said the phone belonged to Kendel, but his mother insisted that the phone had been lying around the house for quite some time and did not belong to her son.
The second and final witness of the day was Dr. Marc Janoson, a forensic psychologist whom Goldberg hired to examine the defendant. The defense in the case will likely largely hinge on his testimony. Janoson was admitted to the witness stand as an “expert witness” — a person with an area of expertise relevant to a case, who, unlike a lay witness, is permitted to offer his opinion on issues pertinent to the case.
Janoson testified that he was asked by Goldberg to evaluate whether Felix had the known characteristics of a person likely to give a false confession, and whether he has characteristics that make him vulnerable to coercion by police.
According to Janoson, Felix suffers from moderate depression, body malaise, and cognitive issues related to memory and concentration, such that his thinking becomes confused at times, and that he has issues with attention and focus.
Furthermore, Janoson said, while the profile of a criminal psychopath is generally one of an extrovert who does not suffer from anxiety, Felix is not an extrovert and does suffer from anxiety.
But Janoson said that his tests do not indicate that Felix is more suggestible than the average person.
Felix has an IQ of 87, according to Janoson’s test, “below average range,” in the 19th percentile.
In his discussions with Felix, said Janoson, Felix “becomes very upset when he discusses circumstances surrounding his arrest and interrogation.”
Janoson said that police repeatedly told Felix about a “white area, black area and gray area.” Janoson said that Felix was told that “if he goes to the gray area, he will go home.” Janoson said that the “white area” was defined as saying nothing, the “black area” meant saying he had committed the crime, and the gray area meant “minimalization.” However, under cross-examination by Jackson, Janoson admitted that this definition of white/gray/black was his own, and not what Felix told him the police had said.
According to Janoson, after hours of being in the police station — despite being told when he left his home that he would only be there for 20 minutes — and being told he was in big trouble and that he would never see his children again, but that if he goes to the gray area he could go home, Felix delivered the confession, in which “everything he said … was fed to him” by the police.
“I believe he is susceptible to having had the confession fed to him,” said Janoson.
In Janoson’s words, the implication of police to Felix prior to his confession was, “ ‘You didn’t mean to kill him, just to rob him’ — it was understood that if he adopted that gray area, he would go home.”
Janoson maintains that Felix’s depression made him susceptible to intimidation by police, and that his cognitive problems leave him easily confused.
On cross-examination, Jackson pointed out that whereas Felix may have been depressed when Janoson interviewed him — as Felix was facing criminal charges — there was no way for Janoson to know whether Felix was depressed at the time he gave his confession.
Jackson also challenged Janoson’s credibility in the field of forensic psychology. Janoson’s formal schooling was in “school psychology”; it was only later that he began studying forensic psychology. In detailing his qualifications, Janoson had trumpeted the fact that he had been supervised by a Dr. Frumkin, prominent in the field of forensic psychology. However, Jackson produced an email Frumkin had sent Janoson asking that Janoson not use Frumkin’s name as a qualification when testifying in court. The lessons that Frumkin gave Janoson, said Frumkin in the email, “does not constitute a training program or supervisory relationship.”
“Your expertise must stand on its own,” Frumkin had insisted in the email.
On re-direct examination, Goldberg sought to introduce evidence that Frumkin’s email to Janoson was sent only after Dr. Cathy Yates — a doctor who will testify for the prosecution Wednesday to rebut Janoson’s testimony — contacted Frumkin to inform him that Janoson was using Frumkin’s name when detailing his qualifications; and that Yates had an issue with Janoson on another case. However, this line of questioning — that Frumkin’s email to Janoson only resulted from Yates, who perhaps had a personal issue with Janoson, contacted Frumkin — was stricken from the record by Justice Alexander Jeong.
The defense will rest its case Wednesday, and the prosecution will bring rebuttal witnesses.
Closing arguments are set for Thursday.