12.30.09

Is She a Killer?

When a New York homeless man was stabbed to death on Christmas Eve, a 16-year-old student seemed like a hero. Then she was charged with manslaughter.

The first version of the Christmas Eve killing of Thomas Winston, a homeless man from Queens, went like this: Cyan Brown, a beautiful, 16-year-old high-school student, was buying a snack at a fried-chicken restaurant. Winston, 29, and several other men began to harass her. Brown fled into the subway. When Winston and some of his friends followed her there and tried to grope her, Brown stabbed Winston in the chest. The New York Daily News portrayed the girl as a plucky urban vigilante; Winston, who would die at a hospital, was a “subway thug.”

“She didn’t even get a chance to open her gifts,” said the mother of a girl who’s charged with a stabbing a man to death on Christmas Eve.

A second version of Winston’s killing emerged three days later, after Cyan Brown had surrendered to the police. “She’s no victim, after all,” the News chirped with the assuredness only a tabloid can muster after fully changing its story. A police source now said it was Brown, the teenager, who was the “main aggressor” in the altercation. Winston never made it to the subway; he died outside of the chicken restaurant. Indeed, it was Brown who fled into the subway, other sources told the News, after she leapt on top of Winston, who was lying on his back in the snow, and sunk a knife into his heart.

Brown was arraigned Wednesday on the charge of first-degree manslaughter, which carries a maximum sentence of 25 years in prison.

I had these two conflicting accounts in mind—the heroic high-school girl vs. the cold-blooded killer—when I arrived at Queens Criminal Courthouse Wednesday morning. Cyan Brown’s attorney, Samuel Gregory, walked in a little after 9:30 a.m. He had been told that Brown’s arraignment hearing was indefinitely delayed. “I got a ticket for a show at 2,” Gregory said. “ The Nutcracker. I was gonna take my kids. But that’s OK, I’ll do this instead.”

Gregory was tall with gray-white hair and a conspiratorial smile. He looked like Gary Busey if Busey had gotten his life together and become a criminal defense attorney. Gregory hadn’t offered quotes to morning papers, which I noted as odd, given that his law-office homepage was full of photos of his many cable TV appearances. “I don’t really drink anymore, but every once in a while I go out and have some fun,” Gregory explained. “Last night was one of those nights.” When the rest of the reporters arrived Wednesday, he would give them the Cyan Brown story.

We sat in a diner across the street from the courthouse, and Gregory explained his version of chicken-restaurant Rashomon. He didn’t dispute that Brown stabbed Winston in the chest—Gregory referred to an “unfortunate circumstance”—but claimed that she was acting in self-defense after Winston groped her, which he said Winston did both inside and outside the restaurant. “No doubt she was manhandled by this guy,” Gregory told me. “And he wasn’t done.”

So if Brown stabbed Winston in self-defense, what happened to her and her friends in the subway? “She was able to escape the seven or eight men with her friends and run for safety to the F Train,” Gregory explained, “where her pursuers attempted to drag her off the train, while telling her they’re going to kill her. She managed to wiggle away [from them], and the train doors shut.” As Gregory would have it, the real story of what happened at the chicken restaurant was somewhere between Versions No. 1 and 2, with Cyan Brown in the role of self-defending hero.

Back at the courthouse, Brown’s mother, Erika, and sister, Lynnea, were in a zombie-like stupor. Their Christmas Eve had come to abrupt end when a boy had arrived at their Queensbridge housing project apartment to deliver the news about Cyan. (In an irony, Brown lived in the same housing project that Winston had grown up in.) Erika Brown said she had been preparing a Christmas feast of turkey and ribs and lasagna—“no side dishes.” The sweater, hat, and gloves she bought for Cyan had already been wrapped and were sitting under the tree. “She didn’t even get a chance to open her gifts,” she said.

Cyan had been gone for 15 minutes—“Fifteen minutes!” her mom exclaimed—when the stabbing occurred. After fleeing on the subway, Brown had avoided the family’s apartment and hadn’t seen her mom for a further five days, until Dec. 29, when she appeared at the police station with Samuel Gregory to surrender. Erika Brown had spent a half hour with Cyan in the station before she was locked away Tuesday. Later that night, Cyan had called from her jail cell after 1 a.m. and talked to her sister for two hours.

About all the papers had offered about Cyan Brown was a photo in which she had the sturdy expression of a girl who could have been class president. I asked her mom what she was really like. Erika Brown said Cyan is the kind of daughter who is almost too forthcoming for her mother. “Too honest for me,” she said. “I’m like, ‘T.M.I., please!’” Erika said Cyan likes to read and dance. Cyan likes the rapper Nicki Minaj and has been known to call Minaj her sister. Cyan had often said that when she grew up she wanted to be an attorney, maybe, or a corrections officer. “My whole Christmas went out the door when they knocked on the door,” Erika Brown said. “Christmas was over for me.”

Thomas Winston’s Christmas Eve, meanwhile, was being pondered on the other end of Queens. The Big New York Fried Chicken & Pizza restaurant, near where the killing occurred, is across the street from Queensbridge projects. Big New York also sits directly on top of the subway station that Brown sprinted into on Christmas Eve. When I arrived at the scene after noon, Winston’s friends had erected a small memorial and poured Hennessy cognac onto the sidewalk. It gave the scene a sweet smell, as if a funeral were being conducted inside of a bar. “He died where the liquor’s poured,” one of Winston’s friends said.

The wake was running out of steam, the mourners had already delivered their eulogies to the press four or five times. Winston’s friends said he was a happy, goofy guy, despite some prior arrests the papers reported. Everyone called him Black Box. Winston had a 10-month-old daughter who was staying with his grandmother. According to a friend, Rasheen Harmon, Winston had been living at a homeless shelter in the Bronx. The specter of poverty hung over everything. When I asked Harmon if I could call him with more questions, he said, “You can call me if there’s a job opening, too.”

Winston’s friends were still flummoxed by the first version of the killing that circulated in the papers. That was the version which had Harmon as a would-be subway attacker or rapist. “When you read that he was a rapist, you think, Good for her. She did what she had to do. She defended herself,” said a friend of Winston’s man who was wearing a Yankees cap and sneakers but wouldn’t give his name. “But when you know the truth, you’re like”—he let out a stream of expletives.

Until the evidence comes out, a case like this was a muddle. I walked down the flight of subway stairs Cyan Brown had run down on Christmas Eve and tried to imagine the scene. Why was Brown fleeing? An 18-year-old woman who gave her name only as Rebekah and said she was a friend of Winston’s followed me. After thinking about the evidence, I asked Rebekah, what if we stipulate that Winston didn’t chase Brown into the subway? What if we’re left with an allegedly nice girl and an allegedly nice guy, and the question of whether the guy might have attacked the girl, or she might have attacked him. What would the neighborhood think of that? The girl paused for a moment and then said, “To be honest, nobody knows what to say or do right now because it happened so fast.”

Bryan Curtis is a senior editor at The Daily Beast. His story about his grandfather’s softball career is in The Best American Sports Writing of 2009.