The Case of Michael Stewart, the New York Artist Some Say Was Sentenced to Death for Drawing on Subway Tile
Advocates say Michael Stewart was a victim of police brutality in New York City in 1983, his family received no justice, and his case is one many draw parallels to that of George Floyd, Eric Garner and Philando Castile.
Cameras have captured the deaths of George Floyd, Eric Garner, Philando Castile and many other Black Americans, whose deaths were the result of interactions with police. Witnesses watched in real life and in video as Floyd, Garner and Castile were killed but in the middle of a September night in 1983, no cameras captured what witnesses say was Michael Stewart crying for help outside a Manhattan subway station. No cameras rolled, but some eyewitnesses would later recall the screams, cries and pain of a 25-year-old man whose punishment advocates say didn’t fit the crime.
The case of Stewart gripped New York City as news reports came out that he was handcuffed, beaten and hogtied and then fell into a coma after allegedly tagging a subway wall. He died from his injuries 13 days later.
As similar storylines have played out in the 37 years since his death, for his loved ones and those who lived in New York at the time, the news today echoes the memory of yesterday.
The Scene That Created Michael Stewart
Downtown New York City in 1983 was the epicenter of cool and boasted a thriving creative culture, which gave rise to musicians, artists, actors whose experimentations then would become the stuff of legend. Up-and-comers finding their creative footing downtown in the ‘80s included Madonna, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Fab Five Freddy, Beastie Boys, Sonic Youth, Kenny Scharf, Debi Mazar, Al Diaz, and Vincent Gallo.
The era brought the fusion of new wave, punk and hip-hop.
“I think that era is going to go down like Paris and Berlin in the ‘20s. It was just so rich with human creativity and art and culture,” Stewart’s friend and colleague David Ilku told Inside Edition Digital. “Someone you knew was performing in a band and then another person was doing a reading of their play and another person was having an opening in a raw space and another person would be doing a fashion show. There was so much creativity. The rents weren't out of control like they are now. And it was just like a paradise for young artists wanting to come leave wherever they were from and make their way or find themselves.”
Like Ilku, Stewart’s girlfriend at the time who spoke to Inside Edition Digital on the condition of anonymity, spoke fondly of that era in Manhattan.
“The East Village was misfits from across the country and Europe who came to find bohemian culture where we made a new family,” she said. “We all knew each other.”
Among the massive circle of creative friends was Michael Stewart.
“Michael was an artist, and he was finding his way,” fashion designer Dianne Brill, whose clients included Prince, Duran Duran and Raquel Welch, told Inside Edition Digital. “I think we all were finding our way there with what we were developing, and we were constantly on the move and trying new ideas and new techniques and trying to find where whatever our art was,”
A young, up-and-coming artist and model who worked for Brill, Stewart was from Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. He was embedded in the downtown scene, which stretched across the Lower East Side, Alphabet City, Bowery, SoHo and Tribeca. Now swanky areas, those neighborhoods were a haven for crime over 30 years ago.
“I know the '70s and the '80s, they were dangerous. And the city was poor...They sold coke and dope under my window on Avenue B,” Stewart’s friend, Jordan Levin, told Inside Edition Digital. “So there was a ... feeling like you were really on the edge of civilization and the edge of the city. While that could be genuinely scary, it was also really exciting.”
Street art and graffiti became popular forms of expression in the 1970s for those disenfranchised communities, but the practice drew the ire of city officials.
Graffiti artists would enter the subway yards in the middle of the night to tag the trains and city officials grew tired of it, especially Mayor Ed Koch, who had guard dogs and razor wire installed around the yards to prevent artists from entering. It helped ebb what some considered “urban decay.”
“This was the beginning of the end because the graffiti artists could not get into the yards,” former New York City Mayor Ed Koch’s press secretary George Arzt told Inside Edition Digital. “But it started in the 1970s, when the city was... going through a really bad financial crisis, and there were major cuts in services. It affected the state a great deal. So there were cuts in services on the MTA and in other areas. And no one had the resources to fight graffiti, because we were fighting for survival and avoiding bankruptcy.”
The city’s war against graffiti had been raging since 1972, during Mayor John Lindsay’s tenure. Part of the responsibility of the transit police assigned to the subways was to curb the practice on trains and subway stations.
“The city’s position was that graffiti was defacement of city property,” Edward Silberfarb, a former spokesman for the transit police, told Inside Edition Digital. “It was widespread and created an impression in the public mind of lawlessness and chaos. The Transit Police response was to apprehend graffiti vandals.”
As the city cracked down, the biggest and best artists then began taking their talents into the galleries of downtown to make some money off their work.
At the same time, downtown’s nightlife scene was also a staple of the bohemian rhapsody of fusion, as places like the Pyramid Club and Danceteria became havens for the people who considered themselves part of the scene.
“It was just crazy, crazy fun. To be that age, to have so much access to fun, it was bananas,” Ilku said.
While many in the scene wanted to be recognized and some had personalities that were larger than life, it took very little for Stewart to stand out.
“Michael was androgynous,” Stewart’s girlfriend said. “He was tall, thin, like a feather could blow him over.”
Those that knew him said he radiated cool and quiet confidence.
“He was very shy, not neurotic, [he was] unassuming and withdrawn,” his girlfriend said. Stewart’s work on the scene as both a model and as a graffiti artist added to the artistic whirlwind happening downtown. He used the street as his canvas, and also created work for his close friends on canvas, but his silent self assuredness meant he at times enjoyed the limelight less than his fellow artists. “He couldn’t promote himself like Jean-Michel [Basquiat] or Keith Haring,” she said.
That didn’t mean he lacked for success. Dianne Brill said she was captivated by Stewart’s look and she gave him a gig as a model for her company. He appeared in magazine ads, runway shows and was one of the few Black models in fashion at the time. He even appeared as a dancer in Madonna’s first music video for her single “Everybody.”
David Ilku, who also modeled for Brill, worked with Stewart and said working in the business was a natural fit for his friend, who he said “stepped right in because he knew he was just being Michael.”
Stewart’s career was poised to explode, until one night in September 1983 when everything came to a tragic end.
A New York City Tragedy
“It was very difficult being a Black person in New York City in the 1980s and what's unfortunate is that, Michael Stewart's case falls within a larger pattern of very visible cases of police violence in the same period,” Dr. Keisha N. Blain, history professor at University of Pittsburgh, told Inside Edition Digital.
Stewart was with his friends at the Pyramid Club on Sept. 15, 1983. Just after 2 a.m., he and a friend left the club and split a cab so he could go to the nearest subway station. His friend was going back to her uptown apartment in the cab and he was going to take the subway back to his parents’ house in Brooklyn.
At around 2:50 a.m., the station agent at the 14th and 1st subway station said Stewart hopped the turnstile and avoided paying the 75 cent fair. He walked down to the platform and transit cops followed him. Those police officers said Stewart was seen tagging a tile on the wall with graffiti.
Police arrested Stewart for tagging the subway wall. They said he was initially cordial with them and that he asked them to not call his parents because he didn’t want to disturb them that late in the night, according to the New York Daily News. Stewart, handcuffed, walked with the officers out of the subway station.
Then, police said, his disposition changed. As they waited for a transport van to arrive that would take them to a nearby precinct at Union Square station, Stewart allegedly tried to run away, according to police.
"At the top, Stewart fell face-forward on the ground," Officer John Kostick would later say during courtroom testimony.
Kostick said he held Stewart down to the ground until the van arrived. Once it did, police said they placed him inside with other officers. Cops said Stewart then became violent inside the van, trying to fight officers once they arrived at the police station.
Eleven cops, all of whom were white, surrounded the 135-pound Black man, multiple witnesses at nearby Parson School of Design students said. Some of those students said that from their dorm room windows, they heard him screaming for help. In a criminal case that followed prosecutors said he was beaten and choked.
Stewart was hogtied, according to the prosecution, and the beating continued, according to the New York Daily News. The cops brought him to Bellevue Hospital for psychiatric evaluation. But Stewart was bruised and unconscious as they arrived just before 3:30 a.m, according to multiple reports. Nurses said that Stewart’s body was so badly injured that it took a few minutes to get the handcuffs off of his swollen wrists and hands, according to the New York Times.
Cops said that Stewart had drug paraphernalia on him, but none was ever recovered at the scene nor entered in as evidence. Tests done at the hospital showed that Stewart did not have any trace of drugs in his body.
Later that morning, police went to the Stewart home and told his parents what they said happened.
“Michael’s mother called me around 8 a.m. and said something was wrong and Michael was in the hospital,” his girlfriend told Inside Edition Digital. “Police came to her door and said he was in the hospital but gave no info.”
His family and girlfriend rushed to Bellevue. His girlfriend told Inside Edition Digital he laid in a hospital bed “unconscious but handcuffed to the bed with a cop outside his door.” She managed to snap photos of him as he lay in a coma in the bed, and later gave them to the press. The images were as graphic as they were significant in providing a record of what had happened to Stewart. They showed his face was swollen, especially around his eyes, there were marks on his neck where he had allegedly been choked and there were bruises on his head and the rest of his body.
Just 13 days after falling into a coma, Stewart died on Sept. 28, 1983. He was 25.
“Michael Stewart was lynched,” his girlfriend told Inside Edition Digital. “This is no different than a lynching.”
How Michael Stewart’s Death Mobilized New Yorkers to Demand Justice
Word of his death traveled fast across the scene. At the same time, Stewart’s parents began informing his friends and loved ones of what happened.
“The phone call from his mother waking me up was just something that sears in your soul for the rest of your life,” Ilku recalled. “The phone ringing, rather early, and a woman's voice who I'd never heard before was slowly and painfully and almost like in a trance, telling me that Michael was dead. And she just wanted me to know and Dianne [Brill] had given her my number. You just aren't prepared ever in life for something like that.”
Koch, who was mayor at the time, also received the news that Stewart was dead. Arzt, his press secretary, told Inside Edition Digital that he sprang into action.
“He was calling up people, and wanted to know what happened. He heard both sides, but I think that there were other police brutality cases at the time, and people in general privately sided with the Stewart family, because they knew what this had to be,” Arzt said. “The guy takes out a magic marker and he loses his life for a magic marker?”
Many famous faces in the scene were devastated by what had occurred. Madonna had put on a benefit show at Danceteria for Stewart to raise funds for his family’s legal aid. Both Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat created paintings to pay homage to their friend.
Stewart’s girlfriend recalled Basquiat being shaken to his core by what occurred. The famous Black artist “was terrified” and repeatedly said to her, “this could have been me,” she said.
“Jean-Michel saw so much of Michael Stewart in himself,” Brill said.
Much like the mother of Emmitt Till, a 14-year-old Black boy from Chicago who was lynched visiting relatives in Mississippi in 1955 after a white woman said he whistled at her, Stewart’s mom, Carrie, opted to have her son’s casket open so people could see what happened to him, according to the book “Widow Basquiat.”
Brill created the suit that Stewart was buried in. Carrie had seen her son in one of Brill’s suits and called the designer to request it because of how good it looked on him.
“It was a sample of a new suit that I was doing and I hadn't sold it yet, and she said, ‘Can he have the suit now?’ I was like, ‘Yes. Immediately I'll get it to you,’” she recalled. “He looked beautiful in that, and he was buried in that suit. I never made the suit. I was like, ‘No, this is Michael's, and there was one in the world, and it was his.’”
His mother spoke at her son’s funeral and said that she taught her son to believe in justice and the first song he learned to sing was “God Bless America,” according to “Widow Basquiat.”
“How could [the cops] do this, right? They're the ones who are supposed to keep order. How could they destroy him?” Levin said to Inside Edition Digital. “His face was a horrible mess… It was so brutal. And when that happens to someone that you know, that you've danced with, that you've shared even just a night with, that someone you think of as a friend, it's so different from reading about it on the news. It makes it so much more real.”
Much like activists and supporters did in the wake of George Floyd’s death this summer, activists took to the streets, and brought with them the media.
“So I got involved. There were protests around. There was a campaign to protest what had happened to him. To try and get justice,” Levin recalled.
Video artist Franck Lazare Goldberg began documenting the aftermath of tragedy for what would become the documentary, “Who Killed Michael Stewart?” In making the film, he learned many young white people “were not really aware of racial discrimination,” he told Inside Edition Digital.
“There was a lot of push back” in making his film, he said. “People were not interested in hearing the story. That it was uncomfortable to them to go against the police department in New York City.”
Today, when Lazare Goldberg hears stories of police brutality, or learns of the death of a Black person at the hands of police, he thinks of the Stewart case.
Blain believes that this incident had nothing to do with graffiti.
“If it had nothing to do with the graffiti, the question is, what ultimately, inside of the confrontation? Could it simply be that it was near three in the morning, and police officers saw a young Black man entering the subway? Quite frankly, that would have been enough reason for them to have followed him, especially, we understand police profiling when it comes to policing," Blain said.
When asked by Inside Edition Digital why Stewart was beaten so badly, former transit police spokesman Edward Silverfarb rejected the premise of the question and replied in an email, “‘When did you stop beating your wife?’ To answer the question, one must accept the premise. The circumstances of the arrest was part of the investigation.”
When asked by Inside Edition Digital what New York City was like after Stewart's death he said, “I can’t recreate the mood of the city 37 years ago except to say ‘life went on.’”
Though it’s impossible to say for certain if the city’s “War on Graffiti” contributed to Stewart’s death, Arzt said, “It certainly gave the cops a way to beat up somebody, for no reason, even if they did recover a magic marker. And even if there was something on the wall. It was sheer police brutality.”
Blain agreed, claiming what happened to Stewart fit a pattern.
“Michael Stewart's case falls within a pattern where New York City in the 1980s was simply an epicenter of police violence,” Blain said. “Almost everyday, there was another incident and people have to be very careful, just similar to today, but very careful just walking down the street because one can have an encounter as Michael Stewart did over a very minor infraction. It was graffiti. He had not committed some sort of violent crime… ultimately turned into a death sentence just to spray something on a wall.”
The Controversy Around Michael Stewart’s Autopsy
The city’s medical examiner at the time, Dr. Elliot Gross, concluded after a seven-hour autopsy that Stewart was drunk, had died of a heart attack and cops were not at fault, according to the New York Times. Uproar ensued, as those seeking justice for Stewart alleged a cover-up to clear the cops was underway.
The Stewart family hired forensic pathologists to conduct their own autopsy and discovered that Stewart’s eyeballs, which could have indicated strangulation, were removed without the family knowing.
“On Sept. 30, the day after the autopsy, Dr. Gross returned to the autopsy room and removed Mr. Stewart's eyes,” read a 1985 New York Times report written during the trial. One of the doctors hired by the Stewart family, Dr. John Grauerholz, a forensic pathologist, did not mince words where Gross was concerned.
“According to Dr. Grauerholz, Dr. Gross placed the eyes in a container of Formalin, a solution that preserves tissue but tends to wash out any trace of blood. ‘It bleaches out the red cells,’ Dr. Grauerholz said,” The New York Times wrote.
Gross claimed during the trial that he had removed the eyes "to preserve them as evidence" and had tried multiple times to reach Graurholz. The New York Times reported that Graurholz said no such attempts were made.
Gross changed his conclusion multiple times after his first autopsy and said "physical injury to the spinal cord in the upper neck” had been the cause of death. Gross said there was swelling on Stewart’s brain and pinpoint bleeding in his eyes, which is often an indication of strangulation.
Gross then conducted a third autopsy and said Stewart died of blunt force trauma.
Though he initially agreed to speak with Inside Edition Digital, Gross never responded to multiple subsequent requests for comment, nor did he return any of our multiple phone calls.
The Case of Michael Stewart’s Killing Goes to Trial, but Justice for His Loved Ones Remains Elusive
On June 1, 1984 six of the eleven officers involved were arrested in connection to Stewart’s death; Kostick, Anthony Piscola and Henry Boerner were charged with criminally negligent homicide, assault and perjury. Sgts. Henry Hassler and James Barry and Officer Susan Techky were charged with perjury almost two months after Steweart died.
“The case obviously flew out of control, as you would expect, massive publicity. And this man was a very slight man. There were six cops. So you wonder, what were the cops doing?” Arzt said.
The case first went to a grand jury, but was dismissed in September 1984 after it was discovered one of the jurors was looking into the case on his own accord because he wanted to know more.
In February 1985, it went again before the grand jury and jury selection began that June. For five months in 1985, an all-white jury heard the heated case.
The defense argued that no more than necessary force was used by the police to subdue Stewart, who they said was intoxicated and in a frenzied state. While prosecutors conceded that Stewart had resisted arrest and was legally drunk, they said police used “unnecessary excessive force.”
Although tests at Bellevue showed his blood alcohol level was twice that of an intoxicated driver, three of Stewart’s friends who saw him the night of the incident testified they did not believe he was drunk.
According to a published report in the New York Times, a Parsons School of Design student who was a witness for the prosecution said he saw police apply a “chokehold” on Stewart’s neck and said Stewart was put in a chokehold with a nightstick for 30 seconds by police and tried calling for help.
''He was pulling on the stick upward,'' witness Christopher Seyster told the jury. ''The man's head on the ground was going up.''
Of the nearly 50 other witnesses the prosecutors called, half said they saw police “stomp” on Stewart, while others said they did not. None could identify a specific transit cop who allegedly took part in an assault on Stewart. The prosecution argued that even if the transit officers did not take part in a beating of Stewart, they were guilty of failing to prevent an assault.
All of the officers on trial denied any wrong doing and were acquitted of all charges in November 1985.
“Koch was a supporter of the police, but privately I know that he felt that justice wasn't done here,” Arzt said.
In his journals published posthumously in 2010, artist Keith Haring, an acquaintance of Stewart, wrote about his disgust reading that the officers were acquitted in the killing of his friend.
“They know they killed him,” Haring wrote. “They will never forget his screams, his face, his blood. They must live with that forever.”
Following the acquittal, the Stewart family filed a $40 million civil suit against the 11 cops, Dr. Gross and the City of New York. Attorneys James Meyerson and Jonathan Moore were part of the legal team that represented the family in the civil suit.
“I would say in a nutshell that the criminal case held nobody accountable or responsible for the death of Michael Stewart,” Meyerson told Inside Edition Digital.
Moore said that, because the district attorney’s office could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt the police intentionally harmed Stewart, he believed it was no surprise that the cops were acquitted in the criminal case.
“It's not unusual in these cases, the criminal case ends up with the cops getting acquitted because the burden is beyond a reasonable doubt, and principally because of Elliot Gross, they couldn't say how he died. If you can't say how he died, how can you say they were guilty of causing his death beyond a reasonable doubt,” he said.
The city settled with the Stewart family. “We were able to hire a forensic pathologist who was able to say definitively based upon his examination of the slides from the autopsy that Michael Stewart had died from neck compression, which was caused by one of the officers,” Meyerson said.
Seven years after his death, without the city, Dr. Gross or officers admitting to any wrongdoing, the case was settled for $1.7 million.
“How do you put the value to Carrie and Millard Stewart, how do you put a value on the life of their son?” Meyerson asked.
Vincent Warren worked as a paralegal on the civil case and is now a civil rights attorney. He told Inside Edition Digital he was inspired to work in his field because of the Stewart case.
“It should also be clear that this is not coming out of anybody's pocket except for ours as taxpayers,” he said of the million-dollar civil suit settlement. “The idea that part of our tax dollars are going to go to the city to be able to come back to us after the city negligently kills our children makes no sense.”
How Michael Stewart’s Legacy Lives On
In 1989, filmmaker Spike Lee released his film, “Do the Right Thing,” which examined racism in Brooklyn, New York in the 1980s. He would later say that the death of the fictional character, Radio Raheem, in the film was inspired by the death of Michael Stewart. Stewart’s death was also referenced in one of the final scenes.
That same year, musician Lou Reed paid homage to Stewart in the song “Hold On,” where he sings about the headlines in New York City in the 1980s.
Since Stewart’s death, activists have continued to take to the streets to call for justice in the killings of Black men and women whose deaths came as a result of interactions with police.
“We're constantly repeating ourselves because we're not actually making the fundamental changes that would create different circumstances,” Blain said. “What is sad is that since the Michael Stewart case, what has happened in American policing? Well, police forces have been expanded, so they have grown significantly since 1983 but how about the fact that they have been militarized significantly since 1983? If you take a quick look at images or videos of the police officers in New York City, in the 1980s and you compare those images or videos to police officers today, think about the police officers who are showing up in cities as people are challenging police brutality following the George Floyd killing.”
In particular, the videos capturing the deaths of Eric Garner in Staten Island in 2014 and of George Floyd in May 2020 have sparked national protests, with many taking to the streets, screaming their final words of “I can’t breathe.”
“If there had been a video of what happened to Michael Stewart, I think it obviously would have changed everything. The fact that you can make a video, it's very odd, it's a very hard time that we're living in. Black men's deaths are being videotaped,” Goldberg said, “The question is, what is the system going to do to change it?”
One of the witnesses to Stewart’s death was filmmaker and musician Rob Zombie, who took to social media following the death of George Floyd to explain what he saw.
“This happened on my first night after moving to NYC and right outside the window to my dorm room that overlooked Union Square. Myself and my seven roommates witnessed everything. I was 18 and had just seen an unspeakably horrible event,” he wrote.
Zombie said he was interviewed by the district attorney and spoke before the grand jury in the Stewart case, but was not brought in to testify during the trial.
“Now I am 55 and watching the same s*** again and again and again in broad daylight filmed in HD on an iPhone,” he wrote.
“These police killings don't happen in a vacuum, they happen in a societal context, and from what I've seen over many years, when Black folks are killed by the police... Black folks feel two things, they feel grief for their community member, and they feel anger about what's been done to them,” Warren said.
The transit police dissolved in 1995 and became part of the NYPD. When asked to comment the NYPD told Inside Edition Digital to contact the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, the union which represents the NYPD, which did not return our multiple requests for comment.
Following the 2020 deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, Black Lives Matter murals honoring the names of Black citizens killed popped up across New York City. Stewart’s name was among those honored in the murals.
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