The chaotic scene inside a Harlem bodega began with a bag of chips and a declined electronic card transaction. It ended in death.
A 35-year-old man, Austin Simon, went behind the counter to confront a bodega employee, demanding an apology after the card was declined and the worker grabbed the chips from the hands the 10-year-old daughter of Mr. Simon’s girlfriend. Mr. Simon, who was unarmed, pushed the worker backward, and in the ensuing scuffle, the worker fatally stabbed him.
The worker, Jose Alba, 61, was charged with second-degree murder a day after the late-night confrontation on July 1. A week later, the case has become the latest focal point — for tabloid front pages and Mayor Eric Adams — in a city anxious about an uptick in serious crime.
A number of city officials have criticized the decision by the Manhattan district attorney, Alvin L. Bragg, to charge Mr. Alba with murder and to ask initially that he be held on $500,000 bail. The emergence of surveillance video that showed Mr. Simon shoving Mr. Alba raised the specter that Mr. Alba was acting in self-defense.
On Friday, Mr. Adams expressed strong support for Mr. Alba in a radio interview on WABC.
“This is the same message that I’ve been stating over and over again: that hard-working New Yorkers, and Americans to be honest with you, should not be attacked in their place of work,” Mr. Adams said. “There is a line that must be drawn when you are a primary aggressor and that is what I saw on the video.”
The comments by Mr. Adams, who was elected on a promise that he would reduce crime, came a day after he held a news conference outside the bodega and said he was on the side of “innocent New Yorkers” who want to to ride the subway and go to work without fear of attack.
“We have enough people who are there for people who break the law,” Mr. Adams said at the news conference. “I’m a person that’s there for people who follow the law.”
That day, Mr. Alba’s bail was reduced to $50,000; he was released that evening. He was required to surrender his passport, remain in New York City and wear a monitoring device.
Mr. Adams acknowledged speaking with Mr. Bragg about the case on Thursday, but representatives of both men said they had not discussed the bail amount or the charges.
Douglas Cohen, a spokesman for Mr. Bragg, said that discussions about changing the conditions of Mr. Alba’s bail began on Saturday after he was arraigned.
“We are continuing to review the evidence and the investigation is ongoing,” Mr. Cohen said in a statement.
Fabien Levy, a spokesman for Mr. Adams, said the mayor speaks regularly with all five of the city’s district attorneys and had spoken with Mr. Bragg “about the facts of this case.”
“While we do not discuss private conversations, the mayor respects the independence of all five D. A.s and would never seek to interfere in how they prosecute a case,” Mr. Levy added.
Mr. Adams also recently spoke with the Staten Island district attorney after a man was arrested and charged with assaulting former mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani in a supermarket there. The charges against the man were later reduced after video showed that he appeared to have only patted Mr. Giuliani on the back.
Mr. Adams’s involvement in the bodega case drew outrage from Mr. Simon’s family, who accused him of using the deadly confrontation to further his political agenda.
“They’re just trying to paint this picture of this young Black man who was actually redeeming his life as someone who was just a criminal,” Candra Simon, 38, a cousin who grew up in the same Harlem building as Mr. Simon, said in an interview on Friday.
“He said in his comments he can’t affect what the D.A. does and how he prosecutes, so then you’re doing it for votes,” she added.
Ms. Simon portrayed her cousin as a father who was straightening out his life. He was orphaned at 7 after his mother died, she said, adding that the loss had caused him a great deal of anxiety. As other relatives died, he began to act out, she said.
He spent time in prison for assault but told relatives that his most recent sentence would be his last because he wanted to focus on his children, Ms. Simon said. He loved music, was funny and gregarious and wanted a career in the music and entertainment industry, she added.
Having watched the video of the confrontation, Ms. Simon said she did not understand how Mr. Alba could claim self-defense. While acknowledging that Mr. Simon should not have gone behind the counter to confront Mr. Alba, she said there was no evidence that her cousin had a weapon.
A criminal complaint charging Mr. Alba says he stabbed Mr. Simon in the neck and chest at least five times. Mr. Simon’s girlfriend tried to pull Mr. Alba away from Mr. Simon during the confrontation and held his right arm, but Mr. Alba continued to stab Mr. Simon, according to the complaint. She used a knife in her purse to stab Mr. Alba in the arm, the complaint says.
After that, the complaint says, Mr. Simon fell face first to the ground bleeding. He had a small white towel in his left hand and nothing in his right.
“That’s a man who had a family, who was loved and essentially he died trying to protect somebody he cared about,” Ms. Simon said.
To claim self-defense under New York State law, a person must be able to prove they believed their life was in imminent danger, said Dmitriy Shakhnevich, adjunct assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
A defendant like Mr. Alba would need to show that society as a whole would agreed that he was in enough imminent danger to react with force and that the force in question was not “excessive.”
There is also a “duty to retreat” in New York’s law, which is different from some states that have “stand your ground” laws, Professor Shakhnevich noted. If a person in New York has a way out of a situation, they must to take it, he said.
In the case of Mr. Alba and Mr. Simon, the video appears to show shoving, pushing and some threatening behavior on Mr. Simon’s part, Professor Shakhnevich said. Because of the bodega’s small space, the duty to retreat would not really apply, he added. But with the video lacking sound, there will be gaps in what is known about what the men said that night, the professor said.
“In a self-defense case, the jury really wants to see a defendant testify,” he said. “And I believe if the case goes to trial, the defendant will have to take the stand and he’ll have to tell his side of the story.”
According to the criminal complaint, Mr. Alba told investigators that Mr. Simon had demanded that he “come apologize to the girl.”
Mr. Alba admitted to the killing, saying, “I took the knife we use to open boxes and I stabbed him,” the complaint says.
Alice Fontier, the managing director of the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, which is representing Mr. Alba, said “the video in this case speaks for itself.
“Mr. Alba was simply doing his job when he was aggressively cornered by a much younger and bigger man,” Ms. Fontier said in a statement. She added that Mr. Alba had immigrated to New York from the Dominican Republic 35 years ago and had become a U.S. citizen 18 years ago.
Ms. Simon said she worried about whether her cousin’s killer would face punishment given the mayor’s involvement.
“There was no weapon found on the scene from my cousin but he deserved that?” she said. “Mayor Adams is going to say that was OK. He’s going to set a precedent where its OK for disagreements in stores to end with the clerk murdering someone.”
Hurubie Meko contributed reporting. Susan C. Beachy and Kirsten Noyes contributed research.