Senior Spotlight: Kenya Edmonds ’19 Personifies Resilience While Shining A Light On Criminal Justice Reform

Senior Spotlight: Kenya Edmonds ’19 Personifies Resilience While Shining A Light On Criminal Justice Reform

Senior Spotlight: Kenya Edmonds ’19 Personifies Resilience While Shining A Light On Criminal Justice Reform

Our 2019 Commencement Ceremony is right around the corner. To mark the occasion, and celebrate the incredible achievements of our seniors, we spoke with several students that will be graduating on May 29. Our hope is that their stories inspire the entire John Jay community—alumni, faculty, staff, current and prospective students—to strive for excellence. Our next Senior Spotlight is Kenya Edmonds ’19, an Honors Program student, a Pre-Law Institute (PLI) student, an intern at the National Network for Safe Communities (NNSC), a domestic violence survivor, a proud mother, and a voice for women in the criminal justice system.

Can you tell us about your journey to John Jay College?
My journey coming to John Jay was very complex. Before I came to John Jay, I was at BMCC [Borough of Manhattan Community College]. I was a single mom working full-time with a small child, just trying to make a better future for my daughter. I was still in a relationship with my child’s father and encountering domestic violence. I tried to seek help from the courts, but I didn’t really get the help that I needed. Unfortunately, my life took a really bad turn of events, and I was wrongfully incarcerated for a situation that happened on my daughter’s third birthday.

You ended up spending three and half years at Rikers Island without ever being given bail. How did that happen?
Yes, I was never granted bail. I asked for it every time, but I was told that when you have a murder case in the Bronx, there isn’t bail. There’s just this presumption that you’re guilty before you’re even proven innocent. At every court date, I’d tell them, “I’m in jail for a crime that I didn’t commit. When is this case going to be heard?” One of the things that the DA at the time would always bring up is that I was a flight risk. I didn’t even own a passport, and I had a child. Where was I going with a small child and no passport? So, for three and a half years, they were able to push it back, and push it back. I had a total of about seven different ADAs on the case. At one point there was an ADA that showed up from the narcotics division, and I remember my judge saying, “This is a murder case. Are you sure you have the right courtroom?” He said, “The file ended up on my desk, so I just came to stand in.”

How did your family and daughter deal with the situation while you were there?
I felt like it wasn’t a place that my daughter should ever see me in, so I was very adamant about her not coming there. This was a child that went from seeing her mom every day, seven days a week, to only speaking to me two to three times a day on the phone. When she was about four, she started to think that I wasn’t alive and I was talking to her from Heaven. When it got to that point, my mother was like, “I have to bring her to see you.” I remember that day. My daughter walked past me and I didn’t even recognize her. She had gotten taller, her features had changed, and her hair had grown. She walked right past me, and I was like, “That’s a cute little girl.” That’s how long it had been since I saw her.

“I always understood that what I was going through was bigger than me.” —Kenya Edmonds

What was your experience like at Rikers Island?
I was in a segregated housing area because I had such a high-profile case. On average, there were always about 10 or 12 of us in the housing area together. I always understood that what I was going through was bigger than me. I realized that society would typically condemn people for some of the crimes that these individuals committed, but I got to know these people on a one-on-one basis. I got to know them beyond the surface of a news title. I got to understand how people who allegedly commit these heinous crimes operate. I learned about their thought processes and was able to see them as human beings and not just as criminals. Once you get beyond the profile of a criminal, and you get to see the person, you understand things a lot better. I’m not saying it’s going to make you feel different about the alleged crime that has been committed, but it allows you to make sense of things much more.

“I stood up and they stood up. Then they read out the charges. It was literally, not guilty, not guilty, not guilty, not guilty. I broke down when they got to the last charge. It was like a gray cloud was lifted off of my head.” —Kenya Edmonds

What was it like to finally go to trial and be acquitted?
We went to court April of 2015. The judge said, “This is it. This case has gone on long enough. What are you guys going to do? Either you’re going to offer her time, or you’re going to trial.” A week later, we went back to court and the DA said, “We’ll offer 25 to life, nothing less.” I said, “Well, we’ll just go to trial.”

Usually a trial is no more than three or four days, if that. A week is a long time. My trial started May 1, and I was acquitted June 1, 2015. I was acquitted of all charges. I will never forget that day. It was pouring down rain. I got up at 4:00 in the morning and went to court at about 5:00. The jury came in at probably 10:00. I just sat there on this metal cement block, all day long. At one point, my mom came to see me, and I told her, “Mom, I want you to understand that not all innocent people go home.” I was tired of being at Rikers Island. I was tired of waiting. I was tired of telling my story over and over.

We walked back in and the jury came out. My lawyer asked, “Can she stand?” I stood up and they stood up. Then they read out the charges. It was literally, not guilty, not guilty, not guilty, not guilty. I broke down when they got to the last charge. It was like a gray cloud was lifted off of my head. In that moment, the jury was crying, I’m crying, my mom’s crying, and my daughter’s crying. I turned around and there’s some officers who were crying. There were so many people saying, “We always prayed for you. We always knew you were going to go home.”

“I was smart enough to understand that education was going to be the key to jumping over so many boundaries.” —Kenya Edmonds

How did you find your way to John Jay afterwards?
My mom told me to get a fresh start. So, I moved from New York City to Atlanta. I got a retail job there, but before Rikers, I was in a joint program [the CUNY Justice Academy] with BMCC and John Jay where you’re automatically transferred into John Jay after completing your associate’s degree. I had gotten my acceptance letter from John Jay in January. Then I was arrested in March. When I was in Atlanta, working in retail for $7 and some change an hour, I thought, I didn’t go through all of that to do this. And that’s no discredit to those that are in that field. It’s honest work. But I knew that after the things that I had been through, there was no way that I could just settle for that.

I had $1,500 to my name. I couldn’t even afford a plane ticket to New York. I could only afford a plane ticket for me and my daughter to get to Philadelphia. From Philadelphia, I got on a train to Jersey. At that point, I probably had about $500 in my pocket and nowhere to stay. I was calling around from shelter to shelter. I ended up going to a library and sitting there until it was about to close. Then I finally got a phone call from one of the shelters saying, we have room for you.

After a month, I moved back to New York City and I was determined to make it work. I didn’t have a job, so I had to apply for public assistance, and one of the stipulations of public assistance is that you either work or you go to school. I was smart enough to understand that education was going to be the key to jumping over so many boundaries. I came down to John Jay in July 2016. I just walked into the admissions office, and I said, “Hi, my name is Kenya Edmonds. I was accepted, but I had a situation and I never showed up.” The admissions officer said, “You just have to readmit. Go to Jay Express.” I did it in one day, and he said, “Okay. See you in August.” That’s how I started my academic journey.

“A lot of students are first-generation students and we’re winging it. We’re just trying to figure out how we can make it up the success ladder.” —Kenya Edmonds

You’ve been quite successful here at John Jay. What’s been the key to your success?
It wasn’t easy living in a shelter, having a small child, and trying to find an apartment while upholding an A average. But, I knew that if I stayed on top of my education, it was going to help me jump so many boundaries. I remember when I interviewed for the Honors Program and I met Ms. McNickle and Dr. Lents. My last semester grades at BMCC had been really poor, because of the domestic violence I was going through. They were looking at an old transcript from BMCC, where I got Bs and Cs, and my one semester at John Jay where I got straight As. They were like, there’s something to this girl, and I got accepted into the Honors Program. At that time, I didn’t feel comfortable telling people about my previous situation because it carried a really bad stigma. But, there was one particular day when Mrs. McNickle and I were just sitting in her office, and I told her what happened to me. I ended up speaking with Dr. Lents about it too, and Dr. Lents definitely helped me along my journey.

I’ve just been blessed enough to always have a support system from the faculty members at John Jay. I'm also a CUNY EDGE student, being on public assistance. Their program sometimes gets overlooked. People know it, but people don’t understand that they are really helping students facing the most amount of challenges.

Having the support of people like Dr. Davidson from the Pre-Law Institute has also really helped. Dr. Davidson is the guru of all gurus. He’s definitely someone that is very big on helping students from underserved communities. A lot of students are first-generation students and we’re winging it. We’re just trying to figure out how we can make it up the success ladder. We don’t have examples. We don’t have anyone to show us the way. People like Dr. Davidson reach out to those students. I feel like he can see it in our face, and he says, “You’re really lost. You really don’t know what you’re doing. Come here, let me help you.”

“I want to be a lawyer, but I think my passion really lies in criminal justice reform and policy reform.” —Kenya Edmonds

What’s next for you?
I will be taking Dr. Davidson’s summer LSAT prep program, and then take my LSAT in the fall. Some of the law schools that I’ve looked at are Columbia, NYU, and Fordham. I want to be a lawyer, but I think my passion really lies in criminal justice reform and policy reform. I think that I have a level of expertise in that area that not many people have. I can understand academia, but I can also relate to communities affected by the criminal justice system. Usually, you’re either from the academia side, or you’re from the side of experience. Neither side is really hearing each other. I’m that person in the middle.

Finish this sentence for me: Without John Jay…
I would’ve never have found my purpose. John Jay has allowed me to use my expertise within my field of experiences and turn it into so much more.

Listen to the full interview with Kenya Edmonds.