CDTA Bus Fight: From 9-1-1 To Trial

Apr 28, 2017

This week, two former University at Albany students were found guilty of falsifying reports surrounding a racially-charged assault on a bus in January 2016. They were cleared of more serious related charges. Here's a look back on a case that made international headlines.

On January 31, 2016, three African American women reported being assaulted during an argument on a CDTA bus in the wee morning hours.

In this photo from February, Asha Burwell, then a junior from Long Island and student manager of the women's basketball team, addressed the crowd at a UAlbany rally.
Credit BLM Upstate NY

The story took off on social media when Asha Burwell, then a junior from Long Island and student manager of the women's basketball team, tweeted "I just got jumped on a bus while people hit us and called us the ‘n’ word and NO ONE helped us."

Two of the three women were taken to Albany Medical Center with non-life threatening injuries.

University police issued a statement saying, "Initial, eye-witness, information indicated the incident started on Western Avenue near Madison Avenue.  A review of the video from the CDTA bus has established that the encounter began off campus with verbal exchanges, but that the physical confrontation took place after the bus had driven onto UAlbany’s Main Campus."

Credit 中國蘇

On social media, Burwell stated that when Albany Police showed up at her door to take a report, a female officer remarked that the dorm room smelled of marijuana, quote, "And that's when I knew she didn't even care about us."

There were 12 cameras on board the bus. University police reportedly analyzed video and audio evidence and interviewed 29 witnesses.

From there, a series of "hot buttons" made headlines: 

The following Monday night, hundreds rallied on the UAlbany campus in support of Burwell along with Ariel Agudio and Alexis Briggs. Burwell addressed the crowd in audio recorded by NewsChannel13.  LL 13  "My friends Ariel and Alexis and I have experienced something that no one should ever have to experience in their life."

Then-UAlbany President Robert Jones said he was "deeply concerned, saddened and angry" about the incident and cut a trip short to return to Albany.
Credit WAMC/Dave Lucas

Then-UAlbany President Robert Jones was moved to issue a statement.   "We really need and want to get this right. For our students involved, for our campus and for the future of our university."

And in the midst of the presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton tweeted: “There is no excuse for racism and violence on a college campus.”

Albany County D.A. David Soares said his office handled the incident with extreme care from the very start.    "What people don't realize, for example, in a case where there's video footage or video surveillance, is that we have to go frame by frame and take a look at a television screen for very long periods of time, 13, 14 hours a day, to find that little needle in a haystack sometimes. So that's not working on the same timeframe as a reporter for example, who has a deadline, and it's certainly not working at the pace of social media."

By then, the story was hashtagged #DefendBlackGirlsUAlbany on social media, lines were being drawn, and videos were being posted and forwarded.

Still photo taken from CDTA bus video released by police.
Credit CDTA

A few days later the CDTA bus videos were shown to community leaders.  In the end, neither the Center for Law and Justice's Alice Green nor Albany Common Council President Carolyn McLaughlin could tell exactly what happened.

It appears that confusion recurred at the trial.

Police investigators soon determined the footage showed no hate crime occurred and by May Soares announced the three women had been indicted by an Albany County Grand Jury, charged with assaulting a bus passenger and making up the racially fueled attack.

In early May, Jones issued another communique, this time stating that Burwell and Agudio were dismissed from the university; Briggs suspended for two years.

The three pleaded not guilty in Albany County Court on an indictment accusing them of assault and other charges including falsely claiming they were victims of a racial attack.

By the end of June 2016, Briggs took a plea deal, admitted her part in fabricating the assault, and apologized to the community.

The spotlight was then turned on Burwell and Agudio, who rejected plea deals.

Nearly a year later on April 26, 2017 a jury found the women guilty of two counts each of falsely reporting an incident, Class A misdemeanors. They were cleared of the other charges in a six-day trial.

Burwell and Agudio, both 21, each face up to two years in jail when sentenced on June 16.