Shortly before midnight on February 12th, 2019, Jagger Freeman sat in a Queens hotel room and typed a question into his cell phone’s browser: “Can a perp be charged with murder if a cop shoots a cop by accident?”
He didn’t know at the time, but the answer would determine the next several decades of his life.
Earlier that evening, Freeman’s associate, Christopher Ransom, had walked into a T-Mobile store in the Richmond Hill section of Queens, carrying an imitation pistol and demanding cash and merchandise. Freeman, a lanky 25-year-old from Jamaica, Queens, stood on the corner across the street, unarmed.
The police arrived to find the robbery in progress. As they surrounded the store, Ransom charged forward with the fake gun, prompting officers to fire more than 40 shots in 11 seconds. The flurry of police bullets struck NYPD Detective Brian Simonsen, killing him.
Sergeant Matthew Gorman was also wounded, as was Ransom, who was subsequently taken into custody. When the shots rang out, Freeman left the scene, not yet a suspect.
He went to the mall with his 3-year-old daughter and then checked back into the Jamaica hotel he had been staying at part time – the same location, prosecutors would later note, from which he and Ransom had split a cab to the T-Mobile store.
As he scrolled through online advice that night, Freeman learned of a contentious legal loophole – one that puts New York at odds with nearly all of its progressive neighbors. Although he hadn’t carried a weapon or set foot in the store where the crime was committed, he could still be liable for the officer’s death.
Following a lengthy trial, Freeman was convicted of second degree murder last month. He was sentenced last week to 30 years to life in prison by Supreme Court Judge Kenneth Holder.
“It felt like my soul was snatched from my body,” Freeman told Gothamist, speaking by phone from a Westchester County Jail where he is awaiting transfer to an upstate prison. “I didn’t do this.”
It felt like my soul was snatched from my body...I didn’t do this.
An “expansive” interpretation
The conviction has brought renewed scrutiny to New York’s felony murder law, an arcane legal concept that broadens the crime of murder to include those who set into motion a series of events that lead to a person’s death, regardless of their intent. The legal doctrine can be traced back to Elizabethan England, but was abolished in the United Kingdom decades ago, and no longer exists in other common law countries.
Currently, New York is one of just 13 states that accept a proximate theory of felony murder – meaning that a person can be liable for a “foreseeable” death, even if the victim was killed by an outside party, such as a police officer. It shares that distinction with states like Texas, Alabama, Florida and Georgia.
The legal framework has resulted in convictions widely seen as draconian. In 2004, a Florida teenager who lent his car to a group of friends who later murdered a woman was sentenced to life in prison. More recently, a pregnant woman in Alabama was charged in the death of her own fetus, after police said she started the fight that led to her being shot in the stomach.
In recent years, support for the doctrine has shown signs of weakening. It was deemed “barbaric” by the Supreme Court of California, which scaled back its own law in 2019, following a similar decision in Massachusetts. Both Illinois and Colorado have since amended their felony murder laws as part of criminal justice reforms passed in the wake of George Floyd’s 2020 murder by a police officer.
That has left New York as one of three blue states – with New Jersey and Wisconsin – that still has the law on the books, according to Guyora Binder, a law professor at SUNY Buffalo and the author of the book Felony Murder.
“Most states have an agency rule that would prevent Jagger Freeman from being guilty for a friendly fire killing by a police officer,” Binder said. “New York has the most expansive version of the law.”
Research suggests the charge is wielded disproportionately against Black defendants. Of the 649 people convicted of felony murder in New York over the last two decades, 83% have been Black or Latino, according to data provided to Gothamist by the state’s Division of Criminal Justice Services.
In New York City, the numbers are even more skewed: Since 2002, 92% of all defendants charged with felony murder in the five boroughs have been Black or Latino.
“Evil and darkness”
During the trial, prosecutors argued that Freeman orchestrated the robbery, pointing to text messages suggesting he was in charge of distributing the stolen cell phones in a previous robbery the two had committed four days earlier. Searches on his phone also revealed that Freeman had looked up the locations of the two stores that were robbed.
Taken together, prosecutors said, the evidence showed that Freeman was not just the lookout during the robbery, but the “mastermind” of the scheme.
Speaking at his sentencing, Leanne Simonsen, the officer’s widow, praised Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz for seeking the maximum sentence. “Jagger Freeman not only killed my husband but he killed a part of everyone who knew him and loved him,” she said.
The trial was heavily attended by NYPD officers, at times leaving little space for Freeman’s supporters, according to family members. In a note read aloud to the court, officers in the 102nd precinct, where Simonsen had spent his entire career, described him as a beloved figure, respected by everyone, “even the people he arrested.”
“You didn't even give him that chance nor do you deserve it,” they wrote of Freeman. “Brian's and your name will forever be linked. Brian will be remembered for love, laughs and what was right in the world. Yours will be remembered for evil and darkness.”
But Freeman’s family members and attorney believe his hefty sentence does not fit his crime. It is longer, they note, than the sentence being served by Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer who killed George Floyd. And it is out of step with other accidental deaths prosecuted by the Queens DA’s Office: After a Dublin man fatally punched a 21-year-old in a Sunnyside bar fight, he received just six months in prison.
Adding to their frustration, they note that Ransom had submitted an affidavit stating that Freeman had nothing to do with his crime. Ransom, who has a lengthy list of previous arrests for confounding stunts — such as walking into a police station wearing nothing but a cape — has also told reporters that he was attempting to commit suicide by cop.
“How you can be responsible for someone else's actions is beyond me,” said Candace Wynn, Freeman’s longtime partner and the mother of their 7-year-old child. “They walked [Freeman] out of the precinct and made it seem like he's the guy who did it.”
Freeman, who was studying criminology and playing basketball at Queensborough Community College at the time of his arrest, was offered a plea deal of 12 years, but refused, demanding a trial.
Ransom, for his part, accepted a plea deal of 33 years in prison. During the sentencing, Judge Holder appeared to admonish Freeman for refusing the deal, telling him: “You rejected all attempts to resolve this case and you demanded your trial and you got your trial.”
For some public defenders, the statement suggested that Freeman was the victim of the "trial penalty," a phenomenon in which a defendant receives a greater sentence as retribution for demanding their constitutional right to a trial.
A spokesperson for the state court system did not respond to a request for comment. Katz’s office likewise did not respond to Gothamist's inquiry.
Less than eight months after the night of the deadly T-Mobile robbery, another NYPD officer, Brian Mulkeen, was fatally shot while wrestling with an armed man in the Bronx. One of his partners fired the shots, mistakenly believing he was being ambushed, according to reports.
The consecutive friendly-fire killings prompted questions about police tactics and officers were soon ordered to attend an enhanced firearm training class. Simonsen’s widow, Leanne, was one of those who spoke out, questioning whether “trigger-happy” cops had put their fellow officers in danger once again.
But by the time Freeman’s trial began earlier this year, the discussions of policing tactics seemed to have dissipated, with the fault placed squarely at the feet of Freeman and Ransom. That’s not uncommon, according to Binder, the legal professor and felony murder expert.
“In this instance and many of these cases, there’s poor judgment on the part of police, who end up killing one another or killing civilians,” Binder said. “It’s unfortunately very tempting for prosecutors to try to shift blame to arrestees.”
In its press release announcing Freeman’s sentencing, the Queens DA’s Office makes no mention of who fired the shots that killed Simonsen.
“The defendant orchestrated a string of robberies, the last of which involved an imitation weapon and led to the tragic loss of Detective Brian Simonsen and the wounding of Sergeant Matthew Gorman,” Katz said in a statement.
Kenny Carter, a community activist with the anti-violence group Fathers Alive in the Hood, who attended several of the trial dates, said that it was clear the Queens prosecutors, the judge and the courtroom full of police were aligned in their desire to make an example out of Freeman.
“The police presence was overwhelming and quite intimidating, and it worked,” he said. “No one was talking about how officers fired 44 shots in 11 seconds. Jagger Freeman is a scapegoat.”
Freeman, meanwhile, says he has remained a marked man among law enforcement. While staying on Rikers Island during the trial, he says he was cornered by correction officers, who punched him in the face and pulled out one of his dreadlocks while calling him “Mr. BB Gun” and making other references to his case.
A Department of Investigation spokesperson said they were aware of the matter, but declined further comment.
Freeman, who is planning an appeal, says the hardest part of the trial was hearing himself described as a “cop killer” – and knowing that in his absence, his now 7-year-old daughter could come to believe it was true.
“It all hit me, my family, my daughter,” Freeman said. “They’re calling me a coward and a cop killer, but I didn’t kill cops, I didn’t kill anyone. This is the opposite of who I am.”
This story has been updated with additional information.