A man accused of robbing banks in New York City had been released under a January 1 law that ended bail for most nonviolent charges.
A man walked into a Chase Bank in Brooklyn wearing a Chicago Bulls baseball cap just as the 9-to-5 crowd was leaving work on a recent Friday. He passed a note written in red ink to a teller. "THIS IS A ROBBERY BIG BILLS ONLY NO DYE PACKS," it read.
He left the bank that day, January 10, with about $1,000.
Less than four hours earlier, the man, Gerod Woodberry, had been released from custody under a new state law that abolished bail for most nonviolent offenses, federal prosecutors said. He had been charged with stealing or attempting to steal from four other New York City banks.
"I can't believe they let me out," he told a detective as he gathered his belongings, according to a federal complaint.
By 5:35 that night, he was at the Chase Bank on Flatbush Avenue pocketing the $1,000, prosecutors said. The Brooklyn heist was the fifth time in 12 days that he had either robbed or attempted to rob a bank, prosecutors said. Four days after the Brooklyn robbery, he struck a sixth time, authorities said.
Some law enforcement officials are pointing to the sequence of events involving Woodberry, 42, as the latest example of the risk inherent in the new state bail law, which took effect on New Year's Day. Woodberry's case was shifted to federal court Friday after he turned himself in to police in Manhattan.
New Jersey, California, Illinois and other states have limited the use of bail. But New York is one of the few states to abolish bail for many crimes without also giving state judges the discretion to consider whether a person poses a threat to public safety in deciding whether to hold them.
Even before the law took effect, district attorneys, judges, county legislators and law enforcement officials had warned that it could put dangerous criminals back on the street.
"No sound, rational and fair criminal justice system requires the pretrial release of criminal defendants who demonstrate such determination to continuously commit serious crimes," Richard P. Donoghue, the US attorney for the Eastern District of New York, said in a statement Friday.
He added, "Preventing judges from considering the danger a charged defendant poses to the public when making a pretrial confinement decision defies common sense and endangers all New Yorkers."
Woodberry, who is from Walterboro, South Carolina, appeared in handcuffs Sunday in federal court, and was ordered held pending a bail hearing. If convicted of bank robbery, a federal crime, he faces 20 years in prison.
His lawyer, Samuel I. Jacobson, said the argument that Woodberry's initial release was an example of flaws in the new law was not only unfounded, but also constituted "egregious ethical violations" by federal prosecutors that were grounds for the case to be dismissed.
"The United States attorney has said that no sane or rational system would release Mr. Woodberry, but that's not the question," Jacobson, of the Federal Defenders of New York, said in a statement after court.
"The question is whether a sane or rational system locks people presumed innocent in cages simply because they are too poor to post bail."
Lisa Schreibersdorf, executive director of Brooklyn Defender Services, said that under the newly adopted law, if Woodberry had been rearrested on a state felony charge related to bank robbery, the judge would have had full authority to set bail to keep him in custody.
"The assertion that bail cannot be set is a lie," Schreibersdorf said in an interview. "They're going out of their way to interpret it in a way to scare the public."
Woodberry is accused of a six-bank crime spree that began on December 30. All six incidents involved passing notes to tellers at Chase or Citibank branches, and none involved a weapon.
New York Police Department officers arrested Woodberry on Jan. 8 after they said tellers picked him out of a lineup, and he was released without bail two days later.
Woodberry had been living with a friend in Brooklyn for the past six months. He had been convicted five times for strong-arm robbery in South Carolina, including one charge that resulted in a 15-year prison sentence, federal prosecutors said.
Woodberry's lawyer said the 15-year sentence included seven years of time already served and eight years of probation.
"I don't know how he was convicted in South Carolina in 2018 and he's in Brooklyn in 2019," Jack Dennehy, an assistant US attorney, told the judge.
State Sen. Michael Gianaris of Queens, a Democrat and a longtime champion of ending cash bail in New York, said that given the nonviolent nature of the charges, Woodberry might have been released from custody even if the new law had never been adopted.
"There is a tremendous amount of manipulation and demagoguery going on by those who don't want to see the days of mass incarceration come to an end," Gianaris said.
"There is at best a misunderstanding, and at worst an intentional misrepresentation, of what the new law requires."
Woodberry's arrest is the latest of several recent cases that critics of the bail reform statute have said illustrated a dangerous loophole in state law.
On January 10, a homeless man was released without bail after being charged with striking two women in unprovoked attacks in Manhattan. On Long Island, opponents of the new law have cited a case involving a man charged January 12 with a fatal drunken driving crash who had been released from custody two days earlier. Newsday has reported, however, that the judge in that case released the man because paperwork linked to a plea agreement had not been finalised.
Khalil Cumberbatch, of New Yorkers United for Justice, said most people charged with crimes and freed without bail peacefully await their day in court.
"There have always been, and will always be, cases and events that can be exploited to scare people about new legislation and criminal justice reform generally," Cumberbatch said.
"However, for every exception like this, there are thousands of defendants who are at home awaiting their day in court, abiding by the law and participating in the pretrial process, instead of in jail while their employment, housing and families' welfare hangs in the balance."
Written by: Tracey Tully and Sean Piccoli
© 2020 THE NEW YORK TIMES