When Tessa Majors, an 18-year-old Barnard College student, was found murdered in Morningside Park in 2019, New York City responded with shock and grief.
For many, the brutal stabbing recalled an earlier time, from the sudden violence of a crime committed against a young woman to fears that investigators would crack down on innocents, as they had in the Central Park Five case decades earlier.
But Ms. Majors’s story was not a vestige of an earlier era: It was a 21st-century tragedy. And on Tuesday, a 16-year-old pleaded guilty to her murder in Manhattan criminal court and described at length the encounter that led to her violent death on a chilly December evening in Morningside Park.
Luchiano Lewis, who was charged as an adult, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and first-degree robbery. He was immediately returned to custody pending sentencing on Oct. 14.
In a Manhattan courtroom on Tuesday, Judge Robert Mandelbaum asked Mr. Lewis if he was in fact guilty.
The teenager paused, then said yes.
Prosecutors have said Mr. Lewis and another boy, Rashaun Weaver — along with their middle school classmate, who pleaded guilty to a robbery charge as a minor — entered the park that December evening in search of someone to rob.
Mr. Weaver pleaded not guilty in February 2020. After the hearing on Tuesday, Mr. Weaver’s lawyer, Jeffrey Lichtman, reminded reporters that Mr. Weaver and Mr. Lewis had been 14 years old at the time of the killing. “This was not a premeditated murder,” he said.
In court on Tuesday, Mr. Lewis read a lengthy statement, his muffled voice trembling at times. He said that he had known that Mr. Weaver was in the habit of committing robberies and that Mr. Weaver had several times encouraged him to come along to Morningside Park, along with another of their classmates, to find people to rob.
Mr. Lewis said that he had gone along several times before the encounter with Ms. Majors, only to back out, but that he, Mr. Weaver and their friend had attacked a man two or three weeks before the murder.
Prosecutors have said that the middle school classmates had considered several targets on that December evening before settling on Ms. Majors, a first-year student and punk rock musician from Virginia who had just months earlier proudly booked her first real gig in New York City. Mr. Lewis echoed that, saying that one man they had decided to rob had been too fast, and they ultimately gave up chasing him.
He then described the encounter with Ms. Majors in detail, saying that Mr. Weaver had kicked Ms. Majors in the back and yelled at her to give him her phone and money. He said that Mr. Weaver and Ms. Majors had wrestled in two separate locations before Mr. Lewis saw a witness and urged his classmates to flee, adding that he did not know exactly where he was when Mr. Weaver stabbed Ms. Majors.
Mr. Lewis said Tuesday that using a knife had not been part of the classmates’ plan, and that after he noticed a witness watching the encounter, he urged the other teenagers to run away. He added that he did not know that Ms. Majors had been stabbed, let alone killed, until he looked up a news story on his phone the next day and saw a picture of the woman that they had robbed.
Prosecutors have said that after Ms. Majors fought back, biting one of the teenagers on the hand, Mr. Lewis restrained her and Mr. Weaver stabbed her several times. In his statement, Mr. Lewis did not describe any physical contact between himself and Ms. Majors.
Ms. Majors, whom a witness heard screaming for help, broke free of her assailants, and after climbing a set of stairs, collapsed on a corner outside the park. She was found there, lying face down and already having lost a significant amount of blood. She died at an area hospital; a medical examiner later found that she had been stabbed several times in the chest, including one stab wound to her heart.
The following day, the police interviewed a classmate of Mr. Lewis and Mr. Weaver, telling him that they had video footage and other evidence of the crime. The boy confessed and was later sentenced to up to 18 months in a juvenile detention facility. The sentence drew a rebuke from Ms. Majors’s family, which issued a statement saying, “There are no minor actors in the murder of Tess Majors.”
The family was present in the courtroom on Tuesday, but Ms. Majors’s father did not respond to reporters’ questions after Mr. Lewis entered his plea.
It was determined that Mr. Lewis and Mr. Weaver could be tried as adults — a matter of prosecutors’ discretion for teenage defendants who are accused of certain violent crimes. Cyrus R. Vance Jr., the Manhattan district attorney, said after Mr. Weaver was charged that his office would take special care to safeguard the teenagers’ rights.
Mr. Lewis was arrested two months after the murder and accused of having restrained Ms. Majors to keep her from fleeing. He initially pleaded not guilty and was ordered to be held without bail at a juvenile detention facility.
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