A 61-year-old New York City bodega worker recently found himself on Rikers Island—one of the most notorious jails in the U.S., known for its pervasive violence and its drumbeat of death.
The man's alleged crime: defending himself against an irate customer who had attacked him behind the cashier's counter.
Around 11 p.m. on July 1, 35-year-old Austin Simon entered the convenience store to confront the clerk, Jose Alba, after Simon's partner's payment declined to go through for a bag of chips. Simon then came around the counter to Alba's workstation, at which point he shoved him, hovered over him, and appeared to try to drag him out from behind the cash register. As the latter took place, security footage shows Alba grabbing a knife and stabbing Simon, who was out on parole after assaulting a police officer. Simon later died from his injuries.
Alba has since been charged with second-degree murder and criminal possession of a weapon.
Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg ran on a platform centered around criminal justice reform and ending mass incarceration. A self-described progressive prosecutor, he says he has "a lifetime of experience fighting for justice, equality and fairness." It appears that ethos may have been temporarily suspended in this less politically expedient case.
Consider that one of the core prongs of Bragg's roadmap for D.A. is "reforming pretrial detention"—the notion that how much money a defendant has should not keep him languishing behind bars before he has a chance to prove his innocence. And yet Bragg's office initially sought a $500,000 bond for Alba. This would have all but ensured that he stay locked up before trial, despite a very strong chance that a jury will see his actions as self-defense. (He was eventually released on $50,000 bail after prosecutors brokered a deal with Alba's defense attorney requiring that he wear an electronic monitor and surrender his passport.)
Bragg's course may conflict with what he claims are his lodestars. But it should not come as a surprise. Following his election win last year, he elicited some raised eyebrows for his proposed lenience toward certain offenses. Yet a big part of that plan flew under the radar: Bragg simultaneously announced a harsher approach—to white collar crimes. The program was less about the spirit of reform and more about applying that spirit to the right people. But principles don't mean much if they aren't applied consistently.
How does that apply to this case? Left-leaning prosecutors are often suspicious of self-defense claims when the person killed is someone they'd often reflexively sympathize with. Simon was black, poor, and caught up in the criminal justice system. And so now Alba—himself neither white nor well-off—is caught up in the criminal justice system too.
The prosecution has drawn pushback from Mayor Eric Adams, a Democrat, and Councilmember Shawn Abreu (D–Manhattan), who represents the area in question and who said that the evidence "strongly indicate[s] self-defense." It has also attracted the ire of a bipartisan coalition of local lawmakers. "The fact that you are even prosecuting Mr. Alba reveals how your perverse sense of justice not only protects violent criminals, but actively seeks to destroy the lives of crime victims," wrote Councilmembers Joann Ariola (R–Queens), Joe Borelli (R–Staten Island), David Carr (R–Staten Island), Robert Holden (D–Queens), Vickie Paladino (R–Queens), Inna Vernikov (R–Brooklyn), and Kalman Yeger (D–Brooklyn).
"You are simply rewarding the guilty and punishing the innocent," the letter continues. When you take into account that Bragg's office declined to charge Simon's partner—who took a knife from her purse and proceeded to stab Alba—it appears that, in this case, that's true.