Former Wu-Tang Clan producer “True Master” spent four years at Rikers Island after being falsely accused of a rape that DNA evidence proved he didn’t commit. Now, he wants justice—with the help of star civil rights attorney Ben Crump.
On behalf of “True Master,” whose legal name is Derrick Harris, Crump and two other attorneys filed a 76-page complaint Thursday arguing that he wasn’t only a victim of the false accusation and violent arrest but a five-year-long legal battle to have all the charges dropped. During that extended battle, Harris and his legal team claim that members of the NYPD falsified and hid evidence that would have cleared him of any wrongdoing long before his 2015 partial acquittal and eventual vindication from the crime in 2020.
While awaiting trial at Rikers, Harris also says he was regularly subjected to violence and even sustained a traumatic brain injury. The lawsuit alleges he was denied a chance to address the injury with surgery while in jail.
“Throughout the near-decade of torment, the defendants were presented with opportunity
after opportunity to change course and ‘right this wrong,’” reads the lawsuit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District Of New York. “Time and time again, when faced with the choice to do the right thing, the defendants relentlessly chose to continue down the wrong path.”
The lawsuit names the City of New York, the New York City Police Department, three officers who carried out Harris’ 2011 arrest and the investigation into his alleged crime, and the New York County district attorney’s office and comes more than four years after Harris was first acquitted of the sexual assault charge. Harris and his legal team are demanding the defendants compensate him for damages, the cost of his legal fees, and declaratory and injunctive relief.
In 2011, Harris was accused of raping an acquaintance in his Harlem brownstone after the two shared a glass of wine. As the two did so, the woman allegedly removed her clothes and began yelling from his balcony. Harris insisted the woman leave his home and called the authorities, according to the lawsuit.
Several eyewitnesses who saw the woman screaming from the balcony called 91, according to evidence played during Harris’ 2015 trial, the New York Times reported at the time. The woman also testified that Harris forced himself on her, punched, and pushed her to the ground before attempting to rape her.
Just hours later, police broke down the door to his home without a warrant and punched, pushed, and slammed him to the ground, causing physical injuries, and handcuffed him, according to the lawsuit. One of the accused officers named in the suit corroborated the woman’s account that Harris had tried to rape her. He also accused Harris of committing a separate crime altogether: an assault that took place at a park across the street from Harris’ residence earlier that day. The woman in that crime allegedly told police that the only detail she could remember about the person responsible was that he was a “tall Black man.”
The officer supposedly ignored the vague description of the criminal and instead reported that the woman identified Harris as the man, according to the lawsuit. Authorities also came back to Harris’ home later that day, this time with a search warrant, and falsely reported they found blood and semen connecting him to the crime.
“Even though he was at the pinnacle of success, he was a Black man in America which made him an easy target for a discriminatory criminal justice system,” Crump said Thursday.
After two days in police custody and being subjected to a psychiatric evaluation, Harris was informed that his family posted bail and that he was free to leave. Unfortunately, his nightmare continued once he got home.
Hours after arriving home, another officer came to his home and informed him that he was being rearrested, this time on the charge of escaping, according to the lawsuit. This time, Harris was taken to the West Facility of Rikers Island, where he would stay for the next four years as a pre-trial detainee.
When he finally received his day in court, Harris represented himself. The officers involved stuck with their original story which was quickly disproven in court thanks to both DNA samples from a rape kit and other evidence.
“Defendants were in possession of this Medical Examiner Report as early as September 26, 2011, yet continued prosecution of Mr. Harris for years leading up to this trial of 2015 despite access to conclusive evidence of innocence,” the lawsuit reads.
Though he was quickly acquitted of the top charge by a grand jury in 2015, Harris wasn’t in the clear yet. Harris still faced attempted rape, sex abuse, assault, unlawful imprisonment, and escape charges. Harris spent the next four years fighting to have these charges dropped, paying out of pocket almost $150,000, according to the lawsuit, to have evidence examined and reentered into the case record.
It wasn’t until January 2020 that Harris managed to get all of the charges dropped.
“He lost everything,” Harris’ attorney Craig Phemister said Thursday. “He had a million-dollar brownstone in Harlem prior to this. He was a successful, award-winning music producer. All gone. The NYPD, the system, must change.”
In addition to the lawsuit, Harris and his attorneys’ have organized a petition calling on the involved officers to be terminated from their jobs for allegedly botching the investigation. They are looking to collect 10,000 signatures.
“The police should never be able to lie in an accusatory instrument and under oath and still keep their job after it was made known to the NYPD,” Harris said Thursday. “There’s only one option for lying on an accusatory instrument and that is to terminate.”