BROOKLYN — Four of the five teens accused of raping an 18-year-old woman in a Brownsville playground were released by Friday morning under a legal requirement for a speedy trial as prosecutors collect evidence in the increasingly convoluted case.
"Because we are determined to get to the truth about what happened in that park, we need more time to investigate this complex case and gather more evidence. So, therefore, we have consented to the defendants' release," DA Kenneth Thompson said.
As laid out in New York State Criminal Procedure Law Section 18-180, the Brooklyn District Attorney had 120 hours after the teens' arrest to send their case to the grand jury, but didn't make that deadline.
Four of the teens — Travis Beckford, 17, Onandi Brown, 17, Denzel Murray, 14, and Ethan Phillip, 15 — were released, while the fifth suspect, Shaquell Cooper, 15, was held on unrelated charges from another assault, according to lawyers and records.
Cooper was held on $25,000 bond for the other case and due back in court on Feb. 26, officials said.
Experts said Thompson's move shouldn't be interpreted as a lack of confidence in the case.
"It's not that you don't believe your victim. It's just sometimes you don't have a prosecutable case, regardless of how good the prosecutor and their ability to put a case into their minds," said a former investigator with the NYPD's Special Victims Unit.
"It is not cut and dry or clean, especially when you start talking about mental states and alcohol involvement," he added.
Investigators said the teens raped the drunk girl at gunpoint in Osborn Playground about 9:10 p.m. on Jan. 7.
Some of the teens who were interviewed by detectives before their arrest said that they stumbled on the victim and her father having sex in the park. They claim that some members of the group also had sex with the young woman, but it was consensual.
Local politicians held a press conference three days later to say that the NYPD didn't notify them quickly enough about the attack, which ratcheted up attention around the case.
Experts believe this public outcry spurred police to act quickly rather than make arrests after a long and thorough investigation.
"It seems like the NYPD got out in front of their skis," said Andrew Stengel, a former assistant district attorney in Manhattan.
The quick arrests bypassed a normally rigorous investigative process meant to clear up usually murky crimes, police sources said.
"When people are unstable and when there are a wide range of stories and you can't establish a defined timeline or fact pattern, the tendency is to wait for more information and lab testing to come through before making an arrest," a former investigator with the NYPD's Special Victims Unit.
The teens' defense attorneys have insisted that the case against them has "gotten weaker and weaker," as Beckford's attorney, Lisa Nugent, put it.
The victim hasn't been able to identify any of the suspects in lineups, but NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton said that is to be expected in cases of trauma.
But without that, the case depends heavily on DNA evidence, which investigators expect to complete some time next week, they said.
"That takes time to develop DNA profiles, [fingerprints] as well crime scene, which we’re doing now. We expect that to come back sometime next week. Unsure when. We don’t want to rush science, never do," said NYPD Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce.
He did not directly shoot down the incest claim, but said the father is not currently under investigation.
Detectives also have yet to recover a gun, officials said.
And defense attorneys insist that cellphone video recorded immediately before the attack shows that the young woman consented to have sex with the teenagers.
The 12-second clip shows the smiling young woman in a green tank top sitting on the ground in a pool of light with her pants partially off, while young men stand around her in the dark laughing.
"If you saying, 'Yeah, it's lit,' I could tell you a freak," a boy can be heard saying off camera.
The video does not show the young woman saying anything.
Thompson could have kept the teens in jail by bringing an indictment before the deadline, or held a preliminary hearing to prove to a judge that there's "good cause" to hold them.
"It would've been cruel to keep them locked up with these conflicting accounts that are coming out now," Stengel said.
Thompson also likely believed the young men weren't going to flee if they were released and didn't want to rush into a murky case that wasn't going to stand up to scrutiny in court, experts said.
"Why would he cause further harm to these young men if they're innocent? Why would he endanger the case against them if they’re guilty?" said Ron Kuby, a prominent defense attorney who is not working on the case.
"So, instead of what other District Attorneys offices are known to do and grab the headline and posit yourself as the protector of teenage womanhood, Ken Thompson is making sure there's a real and thorough investigation conducted to see what did happen," Kuby added.
Thompson was famously involved in a similar case when he represented the woman who accused Dominique Strauss-Kahn of raping her in 2011. Strauss-Kahn was arrested on the day he allegedly attacked the woman, but prosecutors eventually dropped the criminal case.
"Indict in haste and repent in leisure," Kuby said.