Since the brutal killing of Christina Yuna Lee in the pre-dawn hours of Sunday, a chorus of concern has grown about whether the accused attacker should have been red-flagged and steered into the mental health system.
Just five weeks before Assamad Nash, 25, was charged with Lee’s murder, the opportunity to do just that presented itself as he stood before a Manhattan judge facing three separate criminal cases for subway-related crimes.
Nash had been charged with an illegal sale of a subway fare, escaping from the police after being caught damaging MetroCard machines and punching a commuter in the face. During his Jan. 7 arraignment, Judge Herb Moses ordered Nash freed without having to come up with bail.
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The judge did impose some restrictions, placing Nash in what’s called supervised release, a program that required the defendant to report to authorities each month — twice in person and once by phone.
But during that appearance, the judge could have imposed another requirement that Nash be referred to mental health professionals for psychological examination and, if needed, professional treatment.
That did not happen. Nor was Nash’s mental state addressed Monday when he was back in Manhattan court, this time to face much more serious charges of second-degree murder and other crimes related to his alleged stabbing of Lee.
Prosecutors in Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s office alleged that around 4:20 a.m. Sunday Nash trailed Lee, 35, to her sixth-floor walk-up apartment in Chinatown, forced his way inside and stabbed her 40 times. He was ordered by a judge to be held without bail.
Christina Yuna Lee Case: More Coverage
‘We Did Fail Her’
The shocking crime has enraged New Yorkers, and on Tuesday community members and elected officials gathered at Sara D. Roosevelt Park, across the street from Lee’s apartment, to rally for an improvement of public services, with a particular focus on mental health.
Organizers called for several moments of silence and a coalition of groups — ranging from Asian-led community organizations to violence interrupters and civil rights organizations — called for immediate and drastic improvements in the city’s mental health services and public safety.
Queens Councilmember Linda Lee, who chairs the committee on mental health, said: “We need to put our money where our mouth is. Myself as well as our colleagues, we have a large burden on our shoulders right now and we need to step up to the plate and we need to make sure that the city’s dollars, your taxpayers’ dollars, are being spent wisely.”
“We have got a broken set of systems,” New York City Comptroller Brad Lander said. “And we have seen through this pandemic, how mental illness and homelessness have been growing without adequate response and we’ve seen through the pandemic how hate throughout the community has been growing without adequate response.”
Added Lander: “I feel complicit that we did fail her, we did fail Christina and we know that we’re going to be back here again if we don’t change what we’re doing.”
But the question of Nash’s mental health did not surface in the criminal justice system’s handling of any of the three incidents that preceded the murder charges he now faces, all of which remained unresolved by the time authorities say he targeted Lee.
On the morning of Sept. 23 at a subway stop a block away from where Lee lived, Nash sold an undercover NYPD transit cop a MetroCard fare for $2. He was arrested, and police say they found a packet of the drug K2 in his pocket. According to the criminal complaint, Nash said to the officer, “Can I get my K2 back? I love K2.”
Nash was given a desk appearance ticket and released. About a week later, on Sept. 28, he allegedly confronted a commuter who’d swiped in another rider. Police say he punched the man in the face and fled. Nash was soon arrested and released on another desk appearance ticket.
Then over several days in early December, police say Nash systematically jammed up MetroCard machines at a Herald Square subway station so they could not accept bills. This is a common tactic of scammers to force commuters to purchase swipes, police say.
He was arrested in Herald Square Jan. 6 and placed in a police van. Nash allegedly pushed open the van doors and fled, but was detained soon after. This time when he went before Judge Moses, the court placed him into supervised release.
Supervised release, a criminal justice reform adopted to reduce pretrial incarceration, allows the release without bail of certain defendants whom prosecutors feel need to be monitored in order to ensure they’ll return to court, but with certain conditions.
An analysis by THE CITY last month found a high-rate of rearrest for defendants on supervised release, with 23% rearrested on felony charges after release, according to court data for January 2020 through June 2021. When misdemeanors are factored in, the rearrest rate for those on supervised release is 41%.
Mostly the restrictions consist of requirements that they contact caseworkers, who are assigned by nonprofits hired by the city to keep track of the released defendants. But conditions could also potentially include requiring defendants to participate in mental health programs. And there’s even an option under the state’s Mental Health Law that allows judges to involuntarily hospitalize defendants deemed to be a danger to themselves or others.
None of these options surfaced in Nash’s journey through the Manhattan courts over the last five months.
The Manhattan District Attorney’s office said Legal Aid Society attorneys representing Nash never raised the issue during the three prior court appearances.
THE CITY asked the Legal Aid Society why they didn’t request a mental health intervention as part of Nash’s supervised release. Spokesperson Redmond Haskins declined to comment on that, or whether they are considering bringing up Nash’s mental health as part of their continuing representation of him in the murder case.
Neither of the nonprofit providers that handle supervised release cases in Manhattan, the Criminal Justice Association and CASES, responded to THE CITY’s requests to discuss the mental health options in supervised release.
The Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, which oversees the supervised release program, declined to say whether Nash had shown up for his two in-person check-ins or made the one phone call required since the Jan. 7 hearing.
“We don’t comment on individual cases, or what occurs between clients and Supervised Release providers,” they wrote in an emailed reply to THE CITY.
Asian Women Targeted
Asian community advocacy organizations and other supporters of Lee — a 35-year-old creative producer who’d just moved to New York City a year ago from New Jersey — worried that the murder is related to a dramatic spike in anti-Asian bias attacks that have plagued the city for the last two years. So far, Nash has not been charged with a hate crime.
In December the NYPD reported a 361% jump in the number of anti-Asian bias incidents over the prior year, with a particular spike in the city subway system.
At the vigil Tuesday, Queens Councilmember Julie Won said that the last two years have been difficult for Asian-American women, who often don’t feel safe in the city’s streets. Won noted the fact that Lee decided to take an Uber home the morning she was killed, rather than the D train, which has a stop just steps away from her apartment building.
“Again and again we’re seeing that Asian women are being attacked at two-thirds of a rate higher than any other race,” Won said. “Whether it is a hate crime or you’re saying that it doesn’t qualify to be a hate crime, I need you to acknowledge the gender as well as the race of the woman who was attacked. You cannot erase that from their story.”
Afterward, attendees led a small procession to Lee’s apartment and left white flowers in front of a tree next to the entryway.
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