Four of eight teens who were arrested last month for their alleged roles in a brawl that led to the death of an Oceanside High School student were arraigned on gang assault charges in Nassau County court on Tuesday after they were indicted by a grand jury earlier this month.
Long Beach residents Marquis Stephens Jr., 18, Javonte Neals, 18, Taj Woodruff, 17, and Sean Merritt, 17, all pleaded not guilty to second-degree gang assault and third-degree assault charges after a Sept. 16 fight at an Oceanside strip mall that left 16-year-old Khaseen Morris dead.
The teens were arrested on Sept. 27, along with suspect Haakim Mechan, who is expected to appear in court on Monday, as well as two unnamed minors. The teens were indicted on Oct. 7 and were released on $25,000 bond.
Tyler Flach, the main suspect in the stabbing death of Morris, was arrested days after the attack and is now being held without bail. He was indicted by a Nassau County grand jury on felony murder, weapons and gang assault charges on Sept. 24. He is expected to be appear in court on Oct. 31.
The indictment, which was unsealed on Tuesday, accused Flach of intentionally killing Morris, and the teens of aiding and abetting the attack with the intent to cause physical injury.
Acting State Supreme Court Judge Howard Sturim said in court that bail would remain the same for Merrit, Neals, Stephens and Woodruff at $25,000 bond and ordered the defendants to surrender their passports within two days.
The Morris family was also present at the arraignment wearing tie-dye shirts with an image of Morris and words that read, “Speak the truth even if your voice shakes” –– a phrase that the family said Khaseen lived by.
Khaseen Morris’s sisters spoke to the press outside the courtroom.
“It’s the beginning. It’s going to be long and we’re going to have to wait and find out,” Keyanna Morris said. “We’re going to stay strong. He can’t fight right now, so we’re going to fight for him.”
“We’re just going to watch this play out … this is the beginning of a long journey, and we’re going to stand here and fight for Khaseen,” Kedeemah Morris added.
Flach’s lawyer, Edward Sapone, has maintained his client’s innocence and has previously said that more information will come to light proving he did not commit the brutal killing.
The attack left a second unnamed victim with a broken arm and swelling to the head. Prosecutors said at the initial arraignment on Sept. 28 at the First District Court in Hempstead that Stephens, who was a star wide receiver on the Long Beach High School football team, allegedly “body slammed” the second victim, which caused the injury. Mechan, meanwhile, allegedly kicked the second victim in the head while the victim was lying injured on the ground.
The attorneys for the defendants maintain that their clients were not involved in Morris’s death and were unaware of Flach’s intentions.
Neals’s lawyer, Lawrence Carra, said that his client had “no expectation of what transpired at that time.” He added that the prosecutors said that they have additional evidence, including videos of the incident.
Stephens’s attorney, William Kephart, said that he looked forward to receiving information from prosecutors in order to continue his own investigation.
“The indictment makes it very clear that Marquis Stephens had nothing at all to do with the murder of Khaseen Morris,” Kephart said.
“I think it’s important for the community and everyone to know that our hearts go out to that family, and this never should’ve happened,” Woodruff’s lawyer, Donald Rollock, said. “There’s different levels of culpability in this situation. My client had nothing to do with the fact that this young man was killed.”
A spokesman for the Nassau County district attorney declined to comment on Tuesday.
Police said at a news conference on Sept. 19 that the dispute between Flach and Morris was over a girl who had recently broken up with one of Flach's friends two weeks before the altercation.
Nassau County Detective Lt. Stephen Fitzpatrick said that Morris and the girl were friends and that the girl’s ex-boyfriend, who was not identified, may have been jealous. Fitzpatrick added that Flach and his friends went to the strip mall to fight Morris. Flach, he said, took it to the “next level” and stabbed him. Another teen suffered an arm injury. Video of the brawl went viral on social media.
Ryder said that police received 14 911 calls reporting the incident on Brower Avenue at 3:45 p.m. that day, and about a dozen calls were made through Nassau County Crime Stoppers. Morris, who police said was stabbed multiple times, was taken to South Nassau Communities Hospital, where he died of his injuries.
Fitzpatrick said that Flach was the “most violent” of the group. He added that one of the minors who was arrested was the ex-boyfriend of the girl who befriended Morris. Flach and the other seven teens were active in the attack on Khaseen and his friends, “physically beating and throwing him to the ground.”
“She broke up with him, and this fight happened as a result of jealousy that Khaseen was seen with the girl,” he said at a news conference. “They came with the intention to seriously hurt them, and Khaseen got killed as a result of that.”