The lives of Naeem Davis and Ki-Suk Han were as far apart from each other as the distances of the places they were born. One escaped war-torn Sierra Leone as a child; the other came to New York City from South Korea to pursue an education. One wandered indigently around Times Square, sometimes doing odd jobs; the other was an out-of-work married father, looking for a job. But their lives collided on a subway platform in midtown Manhattan on Monday afternoon, when Davis allegedly pushed Han to his death in front of an oncoming train.
As Han’s family paid their respects to him at an Elmhurst, Queens funeral home on Wednesday, Davis stood before a judge hearing second degree murder charges against him.
Davis, 30, grew up in New Brighton, Penn., raised as a foster son by a couple who took in several special needs children, the Beaver County Times reported. But his attorney Steven Pokart told TIME that he immigrated to the United States at age 7 after being wounded in a mortar attack during Sierra Leone’s brutal civil war. Records show he has a history of petty crimes dating back to 2001, when he was arrested for stealing laptops out of Beaver Falls police cars and served one year’s probation. In New York, he has had several charges against him ranging from peddling T-shirts without a license to a marijuana arrest.
Han, 58, was born in South Korea and came to the United States 25 years ago, City Councilman John Liu said at a press conference. He met his wife, Serim, also a Korean immigrant, in the U.S.; the couple lived in an apartment in Queens. Their daughter, Ashley, is a 20-year-old college student. Han worked at a dry cleaners in Manhattan, but lost his job due to the economy and for several years struggled to make ends meet. Serim said the two quarreled before he left their home Monday morning.
Police say after an altercation in the 49th Street subway station, Davis, 30, pushed Han, 58, onto the tracks, where he struggled in vain to avoid an oncoming train which crushed him. Witness accounts, as reported in the media, tell varying stories of the incident. Some say Han was defending other people on the subway platform from a deranged homeless person; others say Han was intoxicated and was the aggressor. Authorities say a bottle of vodka was found on his person, which was corroborated by his wife who said he had been drinking.
Davis reportedly implicated himself in the crime to police after his arrest on Tuesday, less than 24 hours after the homicide. But a television reporter caught up with him during his perp walk and bluntly asked him about the crime. “Naeem, were you trying to kill him when you pushed him on the track?” asked WPIX reporter Kirsten Cole. To which he replied “no.”
“Did he start the fight with you, what happened?”
“He attacked me first.”
“How did he attack you, Naeem?”
“He grabbed me.”
A video released by the New York Police Department shows the two arguing on the platform before Han was pushed. Davis shouted expletives at Han to leave him alone. The seconds after that — in which Han fell to the tracks as a train rushed into the station — were captured by a freelance New York Post photographer who snapped his final moments as serveral bystanders watched in herror.
The photographer, R. Umar Abbasi, was on his way to an assignment at the time of the incident — ironically to cover the story of a homeless man who was given shoes by a Times Square beat cop. He has said repeatedly, most recently on NBC’s Today show, that he could not have saved Han. Abbasi said he had been on the far end of the platform from the two men. Once he saw that Han was on the tracks, he began to run toward him, setting off his camera flash in an attempt to signal the subway train’s motorman to stop. A loudspeaker in the station had announced to passengers that a southbound “Q” train was arriving in the 50th Street station. “The people who were standing close to him on the 50th street exit, they could have. They could have moved and grabbed him and pulled him out, nobody made an effort,” he said, emphasizing that he was too far to help. “If I could have, I would have.”
After the incident a medical resident on the scene jumped down to attempt to give Han CPR, but it was too late. Han was declared dead at Roosevelt Hospital. His family quickly made plans for his burial on Thursday, and began to piece together what went wrong on that fateful day. “I just really wish I had one last chance to tell my dad that I love him,” said his daughter Ashley at a press conference Wednesday, flanked by her mother and Liu. “It’s devastating and I’m still in disbelief.”
Davis, meanwhile, appeared in court only with his lawyer. Pokart, a Legal Aid attorney, argued before a judge that his client may have been provoked. The day after the arraignment he told TIME that Davis, who is facing 25 years to life behind bars, showed no indication of mental disturbance and simply wanted Han to leave him alone. “There really seems to be two sides to the story and I resent the way it is being portrayed in the News and the Post,” he said. “It’s all very early; the prosecutor will have to choose between depraved indifference and intentional murder.”
“It may have been negligent, even criminally negligent, but it may not have been murder.”