Brooklyn rapper Tekashi69 has been released early from lockup after he was deemed to be at a high risk of contracting coronavirus, which has rapidly spread through New York’s prison system.
Manhattan federal Judge Paul Engelmayer granted the 23-year-old rainbow-haired rapper, whose real name is Daniel Hernandez, a release from Queens Detention Facility into home confinement after his legal team argued he suffered from asthma, which puts him at high risk for contracting the coronavirus. Prosecutors did not oppose his release.
“[T]he circumstances presented here are extraordinary and compelling so as to justify compassionate release in Mr. Hernandez's case,” the Thursday motion signed by Engelmayer states. “The COVID-19 pandemic is extraordinary and unprecedented in modern times in this nation. It presents and clear and present danger to free society that needs no elaboration.”
The motion says Tekashi “does not pose a danger to the community” and he will serve the first four months of his five-year term of supervised release in home confinement with a GPS monitor.
Tekashi is among several high-profile inmates who have requested an early release amid the ongoing pandemic, including former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, infamous scammer Bernard Madoff, lawyer Michael Avenatti, and disgraced rapper R. Kelly. Tekashi69, however, is the only high-profile inmate to date who has been successful in his request.
In December, Tekashi69 was sentenced to 24 months in prison after being convicted of nine federal charges of racketeering and drug-related offenses. The charges came after a cooperation deal with Manhattan prosecutors that forced Tekashi69 to testify against his former associates in the notorious New York City street gang Nine Trey Gangsta Bloods. He was expected to complete his sentence on July 31.
Defense attorney Lance Lazzaro first made the appeal for Tekashi’s release to home confinement in a March 22 letter to Engelmayer, in which he stated the rapper had been complaining of “shortness of breath,” one of the symptoms of COVID-19. The letter also noted that Tekashi had bronchitis and sinusitis on Oct. 31, 2019, and his asthma had forced him to be hospitalized “regularly due to serious asthma attacks.”
“It seems like just a matter of time before all prisons in the area are hit with this virus, both inmates and guards,” Lazzaro said in the letter obtained by The Daily Beast. “Mr. Hernandez has been complaining to prison officials this week of shortness of breath, but apparently the warden of his facility will not allow Mr. Hernandez to go to the hospital despite the recommendation of the facility’s medical director that Mr. Hernandez is treated by a doctor at a hospital.”
Three days later, Engelmayer reluctantly rejected Tekashi’s bid to be released four months early, stating that the law did not allow him to intervene and that the inmate's plight would have to be brought up with the Bureau of Prisons.
“At the time of sentencing, however, the Court did not know and could not have known that the final four months of Mr. Hernandez’s sentence would be served at a time of a worldwide pandemic to which persons with asthma, like Mr. Hernandez, have heightened vulnerability,” Engelmayer wrote in a March 25 letter obtained by The Daily Beast. “Had the Court known [this], the Court would have directed that these four months be served instead in home confinement.”
In a flurry of court filings on Wednesday, however, Tekashi’s team re-appealed to the federal judge to release the rapper. The motions said that, while Lazzaro and his team filed pleas for release to the Bureau of Prisons, the Brooklyn rapper is actually being held at a private prison—a decision made out of fear of retaliation due to Tekashi’s testimony against his former gang—and therefore the judge has the authority to release him.
Lazzaro added that the rapper had exhausted all possible remedies with the federal government, prompting Engelmayer to seek the input of federal prosecutors on whether they were opposed to home confinement.
The three Manhattan Assistant U.S. Attorneys who handled Tekashi’s case did not oppose the rapper’s motion for “compassionate release.” In a letter to Engelmayer, the prosecutors stated there were enough “extraordinary and compelling reasons” presented by the defendant’s medical conditions, placing him at high risk during the COVID-19 outbreak” to fuel their decision.
Engelmayer was expected to release his decision on Wednesday but delayed it until Thursday afternoon. In the motion, it said that “for persuasive reasons relating to security,” the court delayed publicly filing the order granting the rapper’s release until he was transported safely from the Queens facility to his home.
Engelmayer agreed with prosecutors and the rapper’s lawyer that Tekashi was at risk of contracting COVID-19 in jail.
“The crowded nature of municipal jails such as the facility in which Mr. Hernandez is housed presents an outsized risk that the COVID-19 contagion, once it gains entry, will spread,” the judge said, citing the CDC guidelines that state that people with “asthma are at high risk of series illness if they contract the disease.” “And, realistically, a high-risk inmate who contacts the virus while in prison will face challenges in caring for himself.”
As the government’s star witness in September, Tekashi69 controversially testified for three days against two alleged fellow gang members, linking them to several crimes while admitting his own role in the notorious street gang. Both men were later convicted of racketeering conspiracy charges.
The 23-year-old also gave a behind-the-scenes look into the symbiotic relationship he had with the Nine Trey Bloods that jump-started his career. He stated that the gang gave him protection and the street credibility, and in exchange, he funded their illicit activities with his music career.
The rapper first became a social media star in 2014 with extreme music videos on Instagram and YouTube that featured guns, drugs, and various allusions to the Bloods. After several years as a SoundCloud rapper, Tekashi69 entered the mainstream music scene with his first hit single, “FEFE,” that he co-wrote with Nicki Minaj in 2018.