IIt all started with a bag of potato chips.
It ended with a 37-year-old man lying dead in a pool of blood on the floor of a bodega and a 62-year-old shopkeeper charged with murder.
But the case is far from clear.
The fatal incident was caught on shocking surveillance footage showing 37-year-old Austin Simon attacking 62-year-old Jose Alba before Mr Alba pulled out a knife and stabbed him.
A criminal defense attorney tells The Independent that the graphic video is likely key to the bodega worker’s release from prison, as she called the decision to charge him in the first place “unfathomable” under New York’s self-defense laws.
It was around 11 p.m. on Friday (July 1) when the NYPD said Mr. Simon’s girlfriend and her baby daughter entered the Bluemoon convenience store in Harlem, where Mr. Alba has worked behind the counter for decades.
The unnamed friend wanted to buy her daughter a bag of chips but didn’t have enough money to pay for it, police said.
At that point, she allegedly ran out of the store to get her boyfriend.
What happens next was captured on surveillance footage at the store.
In it, Mr. Simon can be seen suddenly entering the room behind the counter where Mr. Alba is serving customers.
He confronts Mr Alba and violently pushes the 62-year-old against the shelves.
Mr. Alba falls back and lands on a chair against the wall.
A hand is seen reaching over the counter during the incident.
Mr. Simon continues to yell in the face of the store clerk and the person in front of the counter yells at him.
There is no sound in the footage, so it’s unclear what’s being said during the dramatic encounter.
The 37-year-old then grabs the back of Mr. Alba’s shirt and pulls him off his chair and out of the counter area.
Shocking surveillance footage shows deadly clash at New York bodega
At this point, the Bodega employee grabs a knife from some of the shelves and begins stabbing Mr. Simon.
The two men grapple with much of the chaos that unfolds off-camera.
Mr. Alba then reappears in front of the camera a few seconds later, covered in blood and with the bloody knife. He touches a stab wound on his own left arm.
Police said the 62-year-old stabbed Mr Simon in the neck and chest.
During the incident, Mr Simon’s girlfriend also pulled out her own knife and stabbed Mr Alba in the arm, police said.
Mr Simon was taken to hospital where he died from his injuries.
Mr Alba was arrested at the scene and charged with second-degree murder and criminal firearms possession.
He was taken to the notorious Rikers Island jail and a judge ordered him held on $250,000 bail – less than half of the $500,000 demanded by prosecutors.
Prosecutors had argued that Mr Alba posed a flight risk because the Dominican native had planned a vacation there.
Meanwhile, no charges have been brought against Mr Simon’s girlfriend for stabbing the bodega worker.
The case – as well as the unusually high bondage in the city – sparked uproar from Mr Alba’s family as well as members of the community, who say the popular store worker with no criminal record had no choice when he was attacked.
“At the moment it was either him or the guy,” said Yulissa, Mr Alba’s daughter The New York Post.
“He’s never hurt anyone. He’s never had an argument where he had to defend himself. This is the first time for him.”
Mayor Eric Adams has also spoken out in support of Mr Alba, saying in a news conference on Thursday his “heart beats for this hardworking, honest New Yorker”.
“My heart goes out to this hardworking, honest New Yorker who was doing his job at his store where a person walked in, went behind the counter and attacked him,” he said.
Hours later, a judge agreed to lower his bail to $50,000 and his family, with the help of the bodega owner, was able to post the $5,000 bail to get him released from Rikers Island.
His attorney, Danielle Jackson, of the Harlem Neighborhood Defender Service, said in court that he had “firm intentions” to return to court to clear his name.
Prosecutors had until Thursday to either release Mr Alba on bail or bring the charges before a grand jury.
The Independent has reached out to Mr Alba’s family members for comment.
As the community rallied around Mr Alba, records show that Mr Simon has had multiple exposures to the law and was on probation at the time for allegedly assaulting a police officer.
attempts from The Independent Reaching Mr Austin’s family members for comment on Thursday was unsuccessful.
Katherine Fernandez, a criminal defense attorney at Julie Rendelman’s law offices in New York, narrates The Independent that — after seeing the surveillance video, she believes it was a matter of self-defense.
Under New York law, a person has the right to use physical force against another in self-defense if he reasonably believes that fatal or imminent physical force will be used against him; if the accused is not the original aggressor; and if the accused has attempted to withdraw if it is safe to do so.
Ms Fernandez says the footage shows Mr Alba can argue all of these things.
“When you watch the video, it’s very important to note that Jose Alba is in a very tight workspace and the man gets into the area behind the cash register where he shouldn’t be,” she says.
“This guy walks in, he cums in his face straight away…. The deceased is clearly the original attacker.”
She adds: “The deceased is clearly extremely aggressive. He pushes him to the ground, literally preventing Alba from walking.
“And when Alba tries to get up – and that’s important because he has a duty to back off – the guy grabs him…then he draws the knife.”
Whether or not Mr. Simon was armed with any weapons at the time is not necessarily relevant under the Self-Defense Act.
The lawyer says what was said between the two men in the interaction is important.
If Mr Simon verbally threatened to kill Mr Alba, it would lead him to believe that deadly physical force would be used against him.
But with Mr Simon now dead, it could be difficult to prove the exact words.
However, the burden of proof lies with the prosecution to prove that Mr Alba intended to kill Mr Simon.
“I personally don’t see how they can do that,” says Ms. Fernandez.
The defense attorney says it is “outrageous” that Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s office filed murder charges against the 62-year-old bodega employee.
“I find it outrageous that they are going to a grand jury with this charge,” she says.
“I think Alvin Bragg is making a big mistake here. We’ve got a town that’s been plagued by crime for the past two years, and we’ve got a store clerk — a guy who I’ve heard comes to work every day and has never had any trouble defending himself and the store when he is threatened over a bag of potato chips.
But due to her expertise, Mr Alba is likely to go free very soon as she believes the case will not even make it to court.
Evidence must first be presented to a grand jury, which will determine if there is enough evidence to charge.
Ms Fernandez says it’s “very rare” for a grand jury to overturn a case – but she believes this will be one of those exceptions.
“Usually it’s pretty easy [to be indicted by a grand jury]’ she says, as only 16 out of 23 members of the public need to find a reasonable cause for a crime.
“But I think if they play this video, I think there’s a very good recording, they’re going to break the murder case.”
Mr Alba could instead face lesser charges like reckless endangerment, she says.
However, this could also be a hard sell for a jury after they initially charged Mr Alba with second-degree murder, which is a charge the murder was premeditated.
“The grand jury could also use it to overturn the entire case against Mr. Alba [the DA] can’t bring even lesser charges,” she says.
“It happens very rarely, but my gut feeling is that if they’re going for murder two, I think it’ll be blown by the grand jury.”
The prosecutor’s office did not come back The Independent‘s request for comment.
For the time being, there is no positive outcome for either party in the tragic case.
Mr. Alba faces life imprisonment. And Mr. Simon’s life is over now.