A jury on Tuesday convicted Tyler Flach of second-degree murder in the death of 16-year-old Khaseen Morris in an after-school brawl, finding he meant to kill the Oceanside High School senior when he stabbed him in the heart.
The end to the Nassau County Court trial came on the jury’s sixth day of deliberations after about a week of testimony from 20 witnesses in all.
Flach, 21, of Lido Beach, had pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder, first-degree gang assault and misdemeanor assault and weapon charges following Morris’ death in an Oceanside strip mall parking lot on Sept. 16, 2019.
The jury also found Flach guilty of the other charges against him, while rejecting the defense's contention that he committed second-degree manslaughter by acting recklessly and not intentionally when he fatally stabbed Morris in the prearranged fight.
WHAT TO KNOW
- A Nassau jury on Tuesday convicted Tyler Flach of second-degree murder in the death of 16-year-old Oceanside High School senior Khaseen Morris in an after-school brawl in 2019.
- Flach, 21, who is now facing up to 25 years to life in prison, is scheduled to be sentenced Dec. 14.
- Khaseen Morris was a month away from his 17th birthday at the time of his murder.
“We got justice for Khaseen,” the victim’s oldest sister, Keyanna Morris, said through sobs as his family left court rejoicing and shedding tears.
Flach shook his head a few times and didn't look back as court officers led him out in handcuffs after the verdict.
"When a jury is on day six of deliberations, no legal team should hang their heads low ... It was a hard-fought case," Flach defense attorney Edward Sapone said later.
Nassau District Attorney Anne Donnelly stood in front of the Mineola courthouse with the Morris family after the verdict and addressed reporters.
"It's not a day to celebrate. It's a day to remember what this wonderful family has been going through for the last three years. It's a day to remember Khaseen and what a good person he was," Donnelly said.
The district attorney also thanked the jury "for their extended efforts" and "deep consideration of this case."
Keyanna Morris, with her parents, sister and other family with her, thanked detectives and prosecutors for seeing the case through to what she said was a just ending after the loss of a little brother she described as sweet, innocent and joyful.
Morris was the youngest of four siblings, an avid skateboarder and a talented artist and musician who dreamed of studying photography, according to his family.
“He did not deserve this. We did not deserve to lose someone so dear and special. We lost a piece of us. But today I feel like my baby gained his wings. And I know he’s here and I know he’s happy. He pushed us. He pushed us and we felt him. He led us to continue staying strong," Morris added Tuesday of her brother.
Flach's father, who often read from a prayer book while awaiting the verdict, acknowledged that Tuesday was a difficult day.
"There's nothing to say," he added outside the courthouse.
But Sapone told reporters he believed the trial "brought out lots of positive evidence" for his client. He said the defense had "real arguments" to make for a penalty of 15 years to life in prison — below the top punishment of 25 years to life — for Flach at his Dec. 14 sentencing.
The deadly knifing, which prosecutors Ania Pulaski and Daryl Levy had argued was intentional, happened at about 3:45 p.m. in a Brower Avenue parking lot near a pizza place that is a popular student hangout.
Testimony in the trial before acting State Supreme Court Justice Howard Sturim showed the brawl was sparked by friction with the jealous ex-boyfriend of a girl whom Morris walked home from a party. That teenager was among Flach’s group of friends from Long Beach who squared off with Morris and a group of his friends from Freeport.
Police also arrested seven of Flach's friends on assault charges in the aftermath of the fight, which also left Morris' friend, Aaron Singh, then 17, with a broken arm.
Evidence in the case included a video of the fight that authorities compiled from nearby store security cameras and a cellphone video.
The case attracted national attention in the stabbing’s aftermath when Nassau police said at first that 50 to 70 young people watched the fight, with dozens recording it with smartphones and posting it on social media, instead of helping Morris.
But in a reversal, police said later that only about 20 kids watched the deadly fight and as few as two recorded it.
Morris' family cried quietly and clung to each other as jurors viewed the video at different times during the trial.
Several of Morris' friends who were either part of the fight or witnessed it also testified about what they'd seen and experienced, including how they tried to help save his life after his collapse.
Other testimony showed a surgical trauma team at Mount Sinai South Nassau hospital did two operations on Morris after emergency paramedic care and got his heart restarted twice before his life slipped away about eight hours after the deadly encounter.
Pulaski, one of the prosecutors, said in her closing argument that Flach stabbed Morris “at least two times, killing him in a matter of minutes.”
She said Flach showed his intent to kill with actions that included arming himself “from the outset,” and trying to conceal his identity as he ran into the parking lot “in full stride” and deliberately stabbed Morris within 15 seconds.
She said Flach had to get past Morris’ friends, swinging the knife and pushing, to get to his target — a distinct-looking teenager in a blue shirt whose hair was half red and half black.
“The defendant was not trying to punch Khaseen with a knife. He was trying to cut him,” Pulaski told jurors.
Sapone told jurors Flach threw a flurry of punches while holding the weapon in his hand before one punch "went awry" and the knife pierced Morris' heart during what he called "reckless" behavior on Flach's part.
The defense attorney also argued that Flach had thrown punches with the knife in his hand during other parts of the fight, but only inflicted the single stab wound to Morris in the 51-second melee.
One of those on Flach's side of the fight also testified against him.
Taj Woodruff, 20, told jurors he heard Flach say "I cut someone" after their group got in Flach's vehicle following the brawl and headed back to Long Beach.
Woodruff acknowledged he became a cooperating prosecution witness after pleading guilty to the assault charges against him. He also agreed he would be able to withdraw his felony plea and end up with a misdemeanor conviction, no jail time and likely a sealed record, if the Nassau District Attorney's Office decides he testified truthfully.
He was among seven of Flach's friends that a grand injury indicted on charges of felony second-degree gang assault and misdemeanor assault after the brawl.
Three others, Marquis Stephens Jr., 21, Javonte Neals, 21, and Sean Merritt, 20, are serving one-year sentences at Nassau’s jail after also pleading guilty.
Woodruff was among two others who pleaded guilty during sealed court proceedings and became cooperating prosecution witnesses, sources previously told Newsday. The other two cooperators, whom police previously said were 16 at the time of their arrests, didn't testify.
Woodruff’s brother, Haakim Mechan, 22, is still awaiting trial on assault charges in the case.
One of the points of contention between the prosecution and defense during the trial was the number of times Flach stabbed Morris — a detail the defense told jurors mattered because it related to the question of intent.
Police said publicly after Morris' slaying that he had suffered a single stab wound to his chest. But after the trial began more than three years later, Levy alleged in his opening statement that Flach had stabbed Morris three times.
Trial testimony showed Morris had five lacerations to his torso area, including the fatal stab wound.
A former Nassau deputy medical examiner testified it was "more likely than not" that four lacerations on Morris' torso besides the fatal wound were caused by attempts to save his life.
But Pulaski said in her closing argument that the medical examiner had “misclassified” at least one of those wounds.
“Whether it’s one stab to the chest, two stabs to the chest or three stabs to the chest, it’s murder and it’s nothing else,” the prosecutor also told jurors.
The defense contended throughout the trial that Flach caused only the deadly wound and Morris’ remaining lacerations were from medical intervention.
Sapone highlighted the deputy medical examiner’s findings in his closing argument and also pointed out that Morris’ 219 pages of hospital records only referenced one stab wound.
The defense attorney also told jurors Flach ran into the strip mall parking lot with a knife in his hands “because of the odds,” with between 15 and 50 other teenagers ready to confront him.
Sapone added that Flach folded up the knife, put it away and didn’t immediately flee after stabbing Morris — instead turning his attention to another part of the brawl.
The jury's verdict followed its requests to review a slew of evidence.
That included the video of the fight, Morris' medical records and testimony from the deputy medical examiner and four of Morris' friends. Jurors also made repeated requests to hear the differences between second-degree murder and manslaughter in the first and second degrees.
Instead of murder, jurors could have found Flach guilty of first-degree manslaughter, which has a top penalty of 5 to 25 years in prison, or second-degree manslaughter, which has a maximum sentence of 5 to 15 years behind bars.
The jury never hinted at deadlock, despite deliberating for nearly a week.
Several jurors ignored requests for comment while leaving court Tuesday.
With Shari Einhorn
A timeline of the case:
Sept. 16, 2019: Khaseen Morris, 16, is fatally stabbed during a fight at an Oceanside strip mall, a crime captured by store security cameras and on cellphone video.
Sept. 18, 2019: Nassau police announce the arrest of Tyler Flach, then 18, of Lido Beach, on a murder charge in connection with Morris’ death.
Sept. 19, 2019: Flach pleads not guilty to second-degree murder at his initial arraignment.
Sept. 27, 2019: Seven Long Beach teens are arrested and charged with assault after the attack.
Sept. 29, 2019: Mourners take “last ride” on skateboards, bikes, scooters and on foot from Oceanside funeral home to honor Morris.
Jan. 31, 2022: Three of the defendants charged with assault plead guilty. Javonte Neals, Sean Merritt and Marquis Stephens Jr., all then 20, each admit to a felony second-degree gang assault charge and a misdemeanor assault charge.
April 12, 2022: Neals, Merritt and Stephens Jr. are sentenced to 1 year in jail and get youthful offender status, meaning their convictions are sealed.
Oct. 3, 2022: Jury selection begins in Flach’s murder trial.
Oct. 13, 2022: Opening statements take place in Flach’s trial.
Oct. 25, 2022: Jury deliberations begin in Flach trial.
Nov. 1, 2022: Jury finds Flach guilty of second-degree murder and first-degree gang assault, along with misdemeanor weapon and assault charges after six days of deliberations.
(Compiled by Newsday Staff)