Guilty Until Proven Innocent

The story of a 19-year-old who spent five years on Rikers Island as a pretrial detainee

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Ronny Drayton spent six years trying to save his son, Donovan, who was accused of murder. Donovan spent five years on Rikers Island as a pretrial detainee. He was ultimately acquitted of murder. (Photo courtesy Earl Douglas)

Donovan Drayton was arrested and accused of murder days after a 30-year-old man’s bullet-riddled body was found in the doorway of a single-family home in South Jamaica Queens.

Drayton, a 19-year-old with no criminal record, said he was innocent. But given the severity of the charges, a judge refused to grant bail. So he was sent to Rikers Island pending trial. And there he waited.

And waited.

Drayton spent five years behind bars as a pretrial detainee. In July he was acquitted of murder. His case is the story of a court system so plagued by delays that the notion of innocent until proven guilty has been turned on its head.

Over the past decade, as New York City’s backlog of felony cases has grown, so too has the time defendants are spending behind bars before trial. The average pretrial detention in a felony case was 95 days in 2012 — up 25 percent from a decade earlier, despite a drop in new felony cases, according to a recent report from City University of New York researchers. And some defendants spend significantly longer behind bars. Of the people who spent time in jail during 2012, about 3,200 were behind bars for a year or more awaiting their day in court, according to city data.

“It’s contrary to the idea of justice,” said Jonathan Lippman, the Chief Judge of the State of New York. “Delay in trial is bad. We have to find ways — particularly when you have these issues of whether people are incarcerated or not — to resolve these cases more quickly.”

From 2000 to 2012, the number of felony cases pending more than 180 days doubled even as the number of new filings dropped by a quarter, according to the city’s most recent Criminal Justice Indicator Report. The New York Times spent a year investigating delays in the Bronx courts – the slowest of the slow.

Lippman, who oversees the state court system, has succeeded in reducing the backlog of felony cases considerably. But still, as of mid-June, 55 percent of felony cases citywide were more than half a year old. Currently, there are about 1,500 people who have been in jail for at least a year awaiting trial, according to corrections data.

Ronny Drayton, Donovan’s father, struggled to explain what it’s like as a parent to fight a case for so long.

“You know there’s really no words to describe how you feel when somebody is trying to take your child from you, man,” he said in July on his way to the Queens Supreme Court, a building he’s been coming to for almost six years.

Donovan’s story

Donovan Drayton, now 25, says that on Oct. 1, 2007, he got a call from a couple of older boys he knew casually from his Queens neighborhood. They wanted to buy marijuana. Donovan admits that he sold a little from time to time.

He said went for a ride with the two, thinking he’d make a little money and smoke a little on the way. In an interview, he said he had no idea the two men, both in a gang, planned to rob a drug dealer.

That robbery went bad when the dealer grabbed an assault rifle. Bullets flew. Donovan said one of the guys he was with tossed him a gun. He said he fired once in the air and fled from the scene. In the chaos, a friend of the drug dealer’s was shot five times and killed.

Detectives investigating the case quickly came to believe Donovan helped plan the robbery and was one of the gunmen. He was arrested Oct. 12, less than two weeks after the killing.

It would be almost four years before Donovan’s lawyers got a chance to argue his case before a jury. He spent that entire time locked up on Rikers Island.

His current attorney, Michael Warren, thinks the prosecutor deliberately delayed the case to get Donovan to take a plea deal.

“Some of the prosecutors feel that if a person is in jail long enough they will, as they say, cop a plea,” Warren said. “That settles the case and that eliminates the burden of the prosecutor having to prove beyond a reasonable doubt in some situations very difficult facts.”

The Queens District Attorney’s Office declined multiple interview requests. In a Village Voice article about the case, a DA's spokesman was quoted defending his office's handling of the case and blaming the defense for more recent lags.

If delay was the prosecutors' strategy, Donovan said it almost worked. After he'd spent three years behind bars, a judge outlined the stark reality: Donovan could face life in prison if he didn’t take the 18-year deal prosecutors then were offering.

“He put the full court press on me,” Drayton said, adding that the judge almost scared him into taking the deal.

But he wasn’t fighting alone. His father Ronny is a guitarist who has played with the likes of the Chambers Brothers. The elder Drayton put the same sweat-pouring energy he has on stage into saving his son.

“Almost all my waking moments are focused on this,” he said in an interview.

Ronny sold his guitars, hit up friends for money and scraped together enough to fund a legal team. The case went to trial in June 2011, and Donovan was acquitted of a murder count, manslaughter and possession of the murder weapon.

But the jury was hung on several other counts, with 10 of 12 in favor of acquittal, according to Donovan’s attorneys.

The DA’s office decided to retry Donovan on the outstanding charges. A judge once again refused to grant bail, despite the partial acquittal, Donovan’s clean record and the fact he had a strong community of supporters. So he went back to Rikers awaiting a second trial.

Back to jail

Rikers Island almost broke Donovan. The daily violence. The boredom. The fear that he might spend the rest of his life in jail. One day, he was about to call his dad when he looked out the window over the East River at the city and it hit home.

“It’s a possibility this might be it for me,” Donovan said, recalling his feelings that day. “I might never drive on that highway again. I might never cross this bridge again. I might never get to see this building and stand in front of this building again. I might never get to see Manhattan again. I might never see none of this again.”

But his dad wasn’t about to give up. Ronny Drayton fought even harder, tapping into a community of artists and performers to help raise funds for the mounting legal bills. They put out a benefit CD and held two benefit concerts at the Highline Ballroom featuring Living Colour and other bands.

They got a break last fall when Warren, one of the city’s top defense attorneys, and his wife Evelyn, also a defense lawyer, agreed to take the case and handle the second trial. Michael Warren was lead counsel on efforts to free the Central Park Five. He’s represented the likes of rapper Tupac Shakur. And he’s sat on international tribunals.

The first thing Warren did was file a writ of habeas corpus with the appellate court calling Donovan’s detention unconstitutional. Four justices heard his argument and ultimately agreed.

The court set bail at $125,000. Donovan bailed out on October 24, 2012 — five years and 12 days after his arrest.

With Donovan free, Warren went to work. During a two-week trial he punched through all the weak spots in the DA’s case. It turned out there were a lot. There was little physical evidence. Police didn’t do a full forensic investigation. And the two witnesses who testified against Donovan — the getaway driver and the drug dealer — got sweetheart deals for their cooperation and came off as liars.

In late July the second jury started deliberations. They were back in a matter of hours.

Donovan was acquitted of all but one count of weapons possession.

It’s not nothing. It’s a felony and could carry more time behind bars. But given his clean record, there’s a good chance he’ll get off with time served.

Donovan is scheduled to be sentenced Wednesday on the weapons count.


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Comments [29]

The criminal Justice system is about as screwed up as it can possibly be. Anyone with any knowledge of the system knows this. (Except, of course, the numerous boneheads in the system that a big part of the problem.) For the case of a truly innocent person railroaded by the system to become public knowledge is often extremely helpful towards any productive changes. (Plus, everyone loves to see true justice, as rare as it may be.)

This particular case, however, does not fit this criteria. He did not know his friends were gang members? When the robbery went bad, they threw him a gun, which he fired, then ran away?
I think that those of you that believe this version, (provided by none other than the accused, himself) have rallied around the wrong case.
Don't piss on my leg and tell me it is raining. I am not that naive.

There are at least a thousand cases better than this one, where the innocence of the accused is far more clear, but the little detail that the accused does not have money for a high profile defense, keeps these stories in the dark.

Dec. 18 2013 01:12 PM
Richard from Brooklyn

Mr. Drayton was always in his sons life "John from office", for you to insinuate that you have any knowledge whatsoever what is in a fathers heart regarding their child's life is both insulting and absurd.
The fact is this...MR. Drayton is showing his son every minute of every day that he loves him and is there for him, if there was any time they weren't together is none of your business and irrelevant now due to MR. Dayton's indefatigable defense and support of his son.
I don't know the facts of this case, but I do know that a father loving and supporting their child when they need them most shows me all I need to know about his character and strength. Your personal attacks on Mr.Drayton display a lack of compassion and human dignity,.Ronny Drayton doesn't need me to defend him, I just wanted to tell you that your words and vitriol are wasted, Ronny's a strong man...your words prove you are not.
And to call his son a criminal, whether its true or not has no bearing on how he feels about his son or the love he feels and shows everyday.

Sep. 30 2013 10:18 PM
Jeneba from Brooklyn

Your listeners may be shocked to know that as of this morning Donovan Drayton is once again back in custody even though the 5 years he already served were supposed to have been counted toward the weapons charges. Does anyone know - how can a corrupt, vindictive DA be removed from office?

Sep. 20 2013 09:20 AM
Craig from New york

Dont worry about " John from office" he is a troll - In Internet slang, a troll (/ˈtroʊl/, /ˈtrɒl/) is a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people,[1] by posting inflammatory,[2] extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community (such as a forum, chat room, or blog), either accidentally[3][4] or with the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional response[5] or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.[6]

Sep. 20 2013 07:01 AM
Eddie Brown from NYC

Pop looks like a real winner.

Sep. 19 2013 08:24 PM

@JohnfromOffice, no one is listening to you. Just stop; you're just being mean.

Sep. 19 2013 11:42 AM
Patrick from San Francisco

Instead of buying bling, rap stars should use some of their money to create a defense fund for innocent black men accused by the DA of crimes they didn't commit.

Sep. 18 2013 05:42 PM
john from office

My message was for the son, not the father. The father is blaming everyone else but himself. You sir are a poor father and you raised a criminal.

Sep. 18 2013 08:07 AM
john from office

Ronny. lose the victim mentality, go to school and learn to speak english well. You were doing wrong and a man died. He was the victim here. You fill your mind with words you don't understand. In the end you will be back in jail, unless you change. Blame yourself, not the system. Stop smoking that crap.

Don't be another street thug.

Sep. 18 2013 07:57 AM

At 17yrs old selling pot, and "he didn't know the 2 older boys were in a gang"... Yeah right. Where were his parents? Was the father out in tour not taking care of his son? Was he raised w/ a lack of discipline? I've seen the videos... He still talks like a street thug that, guess what, still probably gets high... Clean up your act young Drayton. Educate, learn to speak better and not like a thug. Or you'll wind up back in jail... Again.

Sep. 18 2013 01:38 AM
Ronny Drayton from Queens NY

I ment to say as a father ........thank you all

Sep. 18 2013 12:58 AM
Ronny Drayton from Queens NY

John you're words are fuled with untruths and evil and a view that is without merrit.
Please I don't care about what you think about me because a a father or anyone else I have been there for my son.
People make mistakes and wrong choices but oh yes John the great one has never been in any kind of problem to date ?
Right so with that said there is so much I will not say about this case now as we are at the end.
If you want to learn more about the truth of this case which is the longest case on the Queens Docket go to
The story is called "The Ballad of Donovan Drayton" for the whole timeline and bullet points.
I have no time for arrogant men or women I have spent 6&1/2 years fighting this very same mental smell of evil.
Be careful John you could get jammed up also anyone could and then what do you do !!
Foolish men speak without knowledge
Ronny Drayton

Sep. 18 2013 12:52 AM
Peppa Labaija from Bergen Cty., NJ

God Bless You Both! This story had me in tears. I have been in several situations with so called friends that could have gone soooo wrong and landed me in jail. There but for the Grace of God go I.... I wish you Love, Luck & Happiness <3

Sep. 17 2013 11:57 PM

stay clean, brother.

Sep. 17 2013 11:43 PM
Mark Bowers from Jersey City, NJ

To John. Thank you showing your bigotry and deep seething prejudice. It's you and individuals like you that plague
this country and the world and personally' I feel this world and country would be a much better place if you and others that think like you were not in it. You probably have to go to bed thinking this way so you can justify your
lowly exsistance. As a musician and friend' I've had the pleasure and privilege to work with this young man's father and I never met a more kinder,respectful and extremely talented individual and It is painfully obvious' that you know nothing of this humble man or his family and It is safe to say' just by making your short sighted comment's you give the world a glimpse into your narrow little mind. You seriously need to look inside yourself and fix that broken thing you call "a life". You need to get to work on that ASAP!! okay?

Relax and Regulate.

Sep. 17 2013 08:23 PM
suzinne from Bronx

Is it any surprise that these boys who grow up with ZERO role models get caught up in the criminal system? I say that as a Bronx housing project resident for many years. A 16 year old down the hall from me MURDERED an elderly tenant in the building. The boy had an intact family, but it was more than obvious to me that the father had no backbone whatsoever.

Granted, people should not be locked up at Riker's Island (which I have indeed visited) for years awaiting trial, but the overly sympathetic focus of this story misses the big picture.

Sep. 17 2013 08:00 PM
Xepolo A. Politto from Washington Heights

Nobody does anything wrong in 2013 America. Maybe the kid is innocent, maybe not. But it's not his fault. It's the entire system. The same excuse applies to the justice system that incarcerated him. It's no one's fault. They didn't mean to do it. See, no one did anything wrong! So let's all feel good about ourselves. The concept of "wrong" is so not cool and antiquated.

Sep. 17 2013 05:00 PM
Edward Perkins from Jersey City

Way beyond unacceptable! We can not allow circumstances like this to continue showing up on our radar. #EndMassIncarceration!!

Sep. 17 2013 02:50 PM
Chris from New York

This is outrageous! There should be top down limits on how long types of court cases can sit in the backlog and if they don't meet them then the charges are dropped. This would force DAs with political ambitions to negotiate, lower the burden on prisons and shorten the backlog.

Lawyers love this crap and delays though. Longer cases = more fees.

These large court backlogs also affect civil proceedings. I'm going through a divorce and am being blackmailed into paying alimony for 1 year for a marriage that lasted less than 2 years. My wife is fully employed and capable of supporting herself... but because the court backlog is so jammed it can take a long time to work through a civil case (over a year).

Sep. 17 2013 01:09 PM
Robert from the office from Logic

Hey "John from the office". The issue is, "unreasonable pre trial delay." Not racial hatred. Just thought I'd focus you a bit.

Sep. 17 2013 12:27 PM
Emily from Brooklyn

Thank you for covering this story! I have had the pleasure of sitting next to Ronny, Donovan's father, and hear him speak about family, being a single father, the resilience of the human spirit and the power of positive thinking. He fought an incredible battle for his son and tirelessly spread the word about Donovan and thankfully the court finally began to glimpse the truth- I hope they can see far enough beyond their noses this Wednesday to let Donovan begin to live his adult life without bars on his window.

Sep. 17 2013 10:01 AM
john from office

Let followup in 5 years with this "victim". I predict he will be back in jail for a new crime. WNYC, should do that followup.

Sep. 17 2013 09:15 AM
Rachel from Brooklyn

Thank you for this reporting. This story well exemplifies the horrific individual consequences of our fear-based and too thoughtless criminal justice system that gives prosecutors too much power and credibility. Prosecutors are supposed to represent the people -- seek truth and justice. Instead, they too often seek convictions over everything. This is outrageous, an immoral abandonment of too many men and women, many of whom are not white and low-income. In our complacency, we throw away these people's lives.

This story made me, someone who has studied this system for decade, weep again. Hopefully, it made more people think about whether the calculus that our criminal justice system uses is acceptable or degrades us all.

Sep. 17 2013 09:00 AM

America is broken. Land of the free? For some. Innocent until proven guilty? Not for everyone.

Michael Moore, Ken Burns or Errol Morris should make a documentary about Donovan Drayton and others who are wronged by this system. Maybe Morgan Spurlock wants to make something more substantial than his last film?

At least this story is being told, this is a start. Thanks Robert Lewis.

Sep. 17 2013 08:56 AM
john from office

So a poor parent, raises a drug dealing son, who does not attend school and only becomes involved in his son's life after he becomes involved in the criminal justice system, is now a hero?? How about parenting your child so he is not involved in a shooting during a drug deal gone bad??.

This report fails to address the fact that this "child" was not in school and dealing drugs. He belongs in jail, he is a criminal.

Sep. 17 2013 08:55 AM
A citizen from Fort Greene

Not forgetting about the victim of the shooting, but this is heartbreaking and infuriating. 5 years, no trial.
Well actually, there was a trial : guilty by association.

It takes a celebrity lawyer to write a writ of habeus corpus.
Are over zealous or "ambitious" (corrupt) DA's at the center of all these stories?
I spent a night and full day in jail last year, when I rode onto a curb with my bicycle, underwent the typical rude apprehension by police, and was notified that I had an outstanding warrant, and I was being taken in.
I was never told what that warrant, or old summons, was for. Spent a night in the 79th, and a whole day at central before finally being whisked through the bizarre maze and rubber stamp released in front of a judge and public defendant that never even looked at me.

No comparison to Donovan's nightmare experience.
But the whole ordeal- non-responsiveness, antiquated system, absurd logic, arrogance from the judges down through the highly uneducated police officers- is a story repeated multiple times a day, day after day, week after week. I had one Kafkaesque night and day - I dealt with it. Donovan had a support community around him, and sounds like a remarkably strong and well-adjusted individual. Sounds like he's dealing with it, or holding his breath until weds. But a lot of the youth that get swept up in this vicious cycle of the slanted criminal justice system, from one bad decision or unfortunate association, don't have that have that community of support. And get stuck in the vicious cycle. Dozens every day, day after day, week after week. Branded as criminals, forever burdened with that branding, each time a huge sink of tax dollars. That's not even mentioning the irreversible psychological impact these kids have to silently deal with (ever spent a night in concrete jail with fecal matter on the walls and endless wailing and shouting?)
We're hungry for an overhaul. Our justice, and health of our democracy, depend on it.

Are ambitious DA's at the center of this culture of negligence?

Sep. 17 2013 08:32 AM
Nechesa Morgan from Brooklyn

I was half asleep when this story first came on this morning. It literally made me jump out of bed. I can't even begin to express the outrage I feel towards our "justice" system but am so thankful the story was told.

At the same time it was an absolutely beautiful story of the unrelenting love a father has for his son. I'll be telling everyone who's within earshot about this story.

Thank you.


Sep. 17 2013 08:19 AM
Lyn from Westchester, NY

Mr. Lewis is a hero. Thankfully we have some dedicated souls like him willing to work endlessly on behalf of wronged individuals and on behalf of justice. Sadly, we don't have more like him.

Sep. 17 2013 08:18 AM
tom from Rhode Island

A terrible injustice brought to us by a Queens DA's office that needs a overhaul.

Congratulations to the reporter Mr. Lewis for a very well written piece.

Sep. 17 2013 07:46 AM

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