Three University of Albany students who said they were physically attacked on a city bus in January and bombarded with racial slurs—while fellow riders and the bus driver looked on—have been charged with various counts of assault and false reporting. All three pleaded not guilty during an arraignment Wednesday, and a tentative trial date has been scheduled for September 26th.
Ariel Agudio, Asha Burwell and Alexis Briggs, all 20-year-old black women, said in the immediate aftermath of the January 30th incident that they had been the victims of a blatantly racial attack on board a Capital District Transportation Authority bus, perpetrated by a dozen white men and women. Burwell took her account to social media, writing that, "a bunch of guys [started] hitting me and my two friends and punching us in the head." Within hours, SUNY Albany President Robert Jones issued a statement in their defense, calling on the student body to "reflect on the principles and values that Dr. King stood for."
"I am deeply concerned, saddened and angry about this incident," he wrote. "There is no place in the UAlbany community for violence, no place for racial intolerance and no place for gender violence." Hundreds of students rallied on campus that week, eliciting a supportive tweet from Hillary Clinton. "We are determined to seek the justice we deserve and we will not give up," one of the women told the crowd of supporters.
But in the days following the campus rally, video from witness cell phones and a bus security camera emerged, contradicting the women's account. Though some of the video was shaky and blurry, investigators said that there was no visual evidence of the women being attacked, nor audio of the alleged racial slurs. The bus surveillance footage is below:
Local police have since constructed a timeline that contradicts the women's account, based on surveillance and cellphone footage, witness testimony, medical records, and victim testimony.
According to the Times Union, police say that shortly after 1:00 a.m. on the morning of the incident Burwell climbed over a bus seat and hit fellow riders, Mary Glisson and Gabrielle Camacho, in the head and face. Briggs then jumped up to pull the passengers away from Burwell, but Agudio climbed over a seat as well, and allegedly struck Glisson and Camacho, pulling Camacho's hair, police say. Glisson ultimately sustained a neck injury and facial swelling and bruising.
Augido allegedly noticed that she was being filmed, and knocked rider Robert McCarthy's phone to the ground before striking him in the head and grabbing his face. Around 1:10 a.m., Burwell called the police and said, "Me and my friends were jumped on a bus because we are black. Guys continuously hit us in the face."
All three women pleaded not guilty to the assault and harassment charges in February. "It is... unfortunate that some in the media and public appear to have reached a conclusion as to what occurred in this incident without actually having the information needed in order to reach such a conclusion," Agudio's lawyer, Mark Mishler, said at the time.
Some advocates have challenged that the surveillance footage from the bus is incomplete, and that the audio is difficult to discern. An interaction between the three black women and the other bus riders could have taken place before the footage starts. "I walked away saying, 'I can't tell you what happened in that video; you haven't shown me anything to confirm what these young women are saying, and I can't deny it either, because it's just not clear to me,'" Alice Green, director of the Center for Law and Justice, told the NY Times in March.
This week's indictment, released Monday, alleges that all three women struck and injured one 19-year-old female bus passenger. Agudio also allegedly attempted to injure a 19-year-old male passenger and two other women, ages 18 and 20. Burwell allegedly had "physical contact" with a 19-year-old male passenger. All three have been charged with falsely reporting the incident to the police.
Agudio and Burwell also face charges of harassment, and Agudio was charged with two counts of attempted assault.
Dr. E. Fay Williams, President of the National Congress for Black Women, helped organize the February rally in support of the women. "Many, including me, commented on the unfortunate incident before we heard there was another side," she said in a statement issued Wednesday. "For that, I am deeply sorry and I pray that the court will help to bring the case to a just conclusion."
Attorneys for the women told reporters on Wednesday that, "We believe that justice will be served, and we will take the steps necessary.... We are very happy that the judge took the time to properly explain the charges to these young ladies, and to make sure that this process is not cheapened."