In 1999, 23-year-old Kian Khatibi was wrongly convicted of a 1998 stabbing actually perpetrated by his brother. He served nine years in prison before his brother confessed to the crime and Khatibi’s conviction was vacated. After his release, he went to law school and started his own law practice in New York City. 

Today, in his capacity as an attorney, Khatibi serves Covid essential businesses in obtaining special construction permits. He also owns and operates a restaurant, Hopkins and Hawley, currently on lockdown due to the pandemic.

Amanda Knox 

In brief, could you tell me the story of your wrongful conviction and exoneration?

Kian Khatibi  

Yeah, sure. We’ll take it back to 1998. So, not even in this century, right? I was a young man in Westchester County in community college. My hometown of Pleasantville, it’s a small village out there in Westchester. Really beautiful, beautiful place with rolling grass and trees. And it was January ’98. There was a college party, a get together at a local pub called Lock, Stock and Barrel. And I guess there were some folks in there from out of town. Another football team or whatever. And they were just pushing some folks around, you know. They had beer muscles or whatever you call it. And one of them got stabbed several times outside and almost bled to death. And another one had a few lacerations on his shoulder that night. And they were heavily intoxicated. They could not recall what had happened to them. And that left a big gap for these small town police officers. This is probably the biggest thing that happened in our town in so long, you know? So they built the case around me, falsely, and they had informed the two victims that I had been the one that stabbed them and they just have to pick out these two pictures and sign here. Next thing you know, they got a warrant and grand jury and I was indicted. I went to trial. And then I was convicted and sentenced to 14 years in prison. And it took me several shots trying to prove that the victims were coerced by police to identify me. Eventually, about 10 years later, after gathering a bunch of evidence from the police and the District Attorney for the freedom information law, which I studied in the law library in prison every day, I accumulated a bunch of documents. We had acquired the confession from my brother that he had been the one that stabbed the two victims. And together with all of that information, I put together a 440 motion in New York, and the conviction was overturned. That’s the story in a nutshell.

Amanda Knox

When I first heard your story, the thing that shocked me the most was the police had the evidence of your innocence all along. You had gone to the police station that very night at the time that the crime occurred. What do you make of that?

Kian Khatibi 

Yeah, the question is like, why? Officers always deny that they knew they did something wrong, you know? And no one can ever clear it up. Like, why did you do this to me? But at the same time, we know what we know. And we know that there was a videotape of me entering into the police station complaining about a ruckus a couple blocks down. What happened was, when the detectives got a hold of that videotape, they had hidden the tape, and they had hidden the records of the tape. Nobody knew it existed. And I didn’t find out it existed until I was in prison.

Amanda Knox

Whatever happened with your brother in regards to this crime?

Kian Khatibi

There was a lot of legal maneuvering going on from theDistrict Attorney. They had consented to a 440 hearing, and one of the witnesses was my brother, so he can testify about his involvement in the stabbing. He got up on the stand and right when he was about to speak, the judge said, “Wait, are you represented by an attorney?” He said, “No,” and then they had to take him out. And he went down to legal aid, he came back to the stand, he started talking, and then every time a question was asked the legal aid raised a piece of paper, and it said, “I object based on my fifth amendment rights.” And that went on and on and on and on. Then the judge asked the District Attorney, “Is the statute of limitations up on this? Can you prosecute?” They stated to the judge, “His fifth amendment right is legitimate here, therefore, we ask for dismissal.” The statute of limitations was up, actually. And the reversal was granted by the skin of my teeth. And they cannot charge him. 

Amanda Knox 

What did you think when you first heard that he had confessed?

Kian Khatibi

It was a moment of revelation. I was waiting a long time in prison. A long time collecting evidence and facts and there were indications that he was involved. So, for me, it was a relief. When you’re in prison, it’s not like, “Does it make you feel better or worse that Joe Schmo did it or your brother did it?” It doesn’t change the sentence. It doesn’t change the fact that the police fabricated evidence against me. It doesn’t change the fact that they botched the whole investigation and that’s why I was in prison. It doesn’t change the fact that they chose me, an innocent person, to put away. It doesn’t matter that they chose me instead of my brother.

Amanda Knox

But did the fact that your brother withheld this knowledge from you affect you in any way?

Kian Khatibi

What you got to really look at here is: Who was withholding the most knowledge? Who was the one constructing a false narrative of events? Who was the one ripping up evidence? That wasn’t my brother. That wasn’t his role here. It looks really easy in hindsight to say, “Oh, well, if he only confessed, then everything would have been alright, and then the series of events that led to my wrongful incarceration would not have happened.” None of that is true, either. Because the officers understood that I didn’t do it. The victims didn’t know what the hell happened. The whole community knew I didn’t do it. You know, they were threatening my brother. They were threatening to charge us both. What do criminal defense lawyers in New York call trials? Trial by ambush. Trial by ambush. The narrative that you’re really asking logically is what would have happened if my brother confessed in 1999? Should I have preferred him to do that?

Amanda Knox

Right.

Kian Khatibi

I would not have preferred him to do that. Would I have preferred him to go into the police station after they had built a magnificent false case against me? Of course not. The police would have had two brothers in prison. They really would not care which one did the stabbing. 

Amanda Knox

Did your relationship with your brother change as a result of everything that happened?  

Kian Khatibi

My relationship with my brother had changed prior to that. I had already taken the choices in my life, which had led me into the direction of stability and higher education. He didn’t choose that path. I’d be in college while he was doing whatever. I don’t know, not my business. I certainly wasn’t following his lead as an older brother, that’s for sure. So yeah, did it affect, like, I don’t know. Sure. Certainly one more reason not to hang around him.

Amanda Knox 

So you served nine years in prison. Is that right?

Kian Khatibi 

Yeah. 9.5 about.

Amanda Knox

Where were you imprisoned?

Kian Khatibi  

Initially, I went to Westchester County Jail. And for some reason I got lost there post-sentencing. I stayed there for like a year until I wrote them and they were like, “Yeah, I don’t know what happened.” So they sent me to Downstate Correctional Facility, a maximum security reception facility in Fishkill. Stayed there for about three and a half years and worked in the kitchen for the civilians, cooking real food, not prison food, from scratch. That was my getaway eight hours a day, you know? Didn’t feel like I was in prison when I’m in the kitchen, chopping garlic and marinating chicken. Then I went to Hudson Correctional Facility for a few years there, about four. And then I was at Sing Sing, which was a brutal prison. It’s up the Hudson River from New York City, right on the water. It’s a really crazy place, Sing Sing, because it’s so close to the city. Unlike all the other prisons where all you see is a wall or trees or something like that, this one is sloped down on the Hudson River and you can see the glow of the city at nighttime. It looks like mountains, you know? And you can see the bridges. And then there’s a train that goes right through the center of the prison. They built this tunnel high above the train and to go to the yard every day you have to walk over the four train tracks as trains are passing by and you can look right down and see them. It’s a really bittersweet place because you’re so close to the city, but you can’t get at it. But at the same time, there was stabbings there every day, and brutal, brutal gang retaliations. A hell of a lot of drugs. I’m just glad I did not do too many years there, because I probably would not have been right. There’s so much violence there.

Amanda Knox 

How did you adapt to prison life?

Kian Khatibi 

Well, when I first went in, I didn’t know what I was doing. And obviously, I mean, from your own experience you can understand how, when you go into prison where people do serious crimes, they see us like fresh meat. They test you out. They’ve been working out for three years. They learned the jail hustle. It’s hard to mess with those folks. But initially, folks told me, “Listen, if you don’t gamble, you don’t do drugs, you’re going to be alright.” And I followed that all the way through my prison term. I saw that a lot of the problems in prison were caused by drugs and gambling. I spent my time in the law library, in the kitchen. And then I just learned what this prison culture was about. And eventually, and I think you can appreciate this, Amanda, eventually you get to a space where you can get well respected in the prison, even without being a gangster. I made some good friends. I cooked some good food. People perceived me as a neutral person, so they largely left me alone after a while, and I just went about my business, and maybe that’s a miracle, you know?

Amanda Knox  

I kind of did a similar thing where I stayed out of the beefs and the gossip, and I tried to make myself useful so that I wasn’t useful as a punching bag.

Kian Khatibi  

That’s the thing you know, the biggest gossipy drama community out there is a prison. That’s what folks do all day. They talk crap all day, and then it turns into real beefs as people think they have to react, because, if someone disrespects you, and you don’t react, people are watching, and they will not hesitate to then jump on the bandwagon. I just kind of stayed away from all the opportunities where folks would have an opportunity to react to me negatively. I just largely stayed out of trouble. Of course, nine and a half years is a long time. I got into a few fights. There wasn’t much choice, you know? You get surrounded. One event I was in, I was in the kitchen cooking, and I sneezed, and the guy next to me said, “What’d you say to me?” And I said, “Oh, I just sneezed.” He’s like, “No, you just cursed me out.” Like, “No. I really sneezed.” And I knew this guy. He was my friend. The problem is, all these other people in the kitchen heard, and they start looking over and they start surrounding, and then it was too late. We had to fight. And we fought for a little while. Luckily I didn’t get hurt. Luckily he didn’t get hurt. That was one incident. There was another when I first went into Westchester County Jail. I was like 145 pounds at 5′ 8″, which is like a noodle. I’d never worked out before. Everyone else, some of these folks in there had arms the size of my leg. They were working out so many years. And one guy comes up to me, and I guess he smelled like fresh meat, right? Because it’s my first day. And I’m scared. You go behind those big metal doors. It’s like, Clang! Clang! And then you see folks in there that look like they actually did kill five people. They’re in the same room as you and there’s no guard. That’s a reality of prison. I go into my cell, and he follows me in, and next thing you know, he touches some of my food. I’m like, “What are you doing?” And then he choked me. He chokes me. I go down to the ground like toothpicks. And I’m sitting there like, “Ah!” And then he let go. He says, “Come with me. Come with me in my cell right now.” And so I get up, I walk out of the cell, and he’s walking right next to me, and as soon as we get out of the cell, and I’m scared for my life, so I take a swing with my elbow for the life of me on the side of his head, and it gets him dizzy, and then an officer comes running over and locks us both up. This was my first experience with prison violence. And it didn’t quite end like that. It went a little further. One of the folks in the unit, he had done 25 years for murder. I guess he did it when he was like 18. Prison life is what he knows. Tough dude. And he came over to my cell, and he’s like, “Yo, what happened?” I was like, “I don’t know. This dude just choked me out, and he took a piece of my food, and I hit him.” And he’s like, “What?” And he ran up to the person’s cell, put him in a sleeper hold, knocked him out, took my food back, came and delivered it to me. And he says, “Yeah, I just wrapped him up. That was really weak, picking on the smallest person.” The moral of the story was nobody gets credit in prison for picking on those weakest link. Right? But it happens a lot. It happens a lot. I’m sure you know some folks would have probably ran up and saved you if you were getting taken down by more than one person. Not everyone in there is a vulture, or not everyone in there is out to get you.

Amanda Knox  

I agree. I had this one incident happen where I was out in the yard walking with one of my cellmates, and another woman who had a beef with my cellmate attacked her, and it happened right next to me and my reaction to all things violence is to become a dead possum. 

Kian Khatibi  

Right.

Amanda Knox 

I can’t move and I can barely breathe. And what ended up happening was, of course the guards don’t intervene when girls start attacking each other. So my legs give out from underneath me and other women from the yard go in to break up the fight and one woman specifically went to pull me away from the violence. She just saw me collapse. And she was like, “Get the baby out of there,” and just kind of dragged me away.

Kian Khatibi 

Right? Because things can turn up really fast. And that could have turned into a brawl between 20 different factions. And you know when that happens, everything just gets hurt. It doesn’t matter if you’re involved or not. I got through it. So did you. No broken bones, no scars. 

Amanda Knox  

Internal scars.

Kian Khatibi 

For sure, for sure.

Amanda Knox 

How did you reintegrate into free society after nine and a half years of imprisonment?

Kian Khatibi 

I didn’t really integrate into society in the way I wanted to before I went to prison. It was not like I was a complete nerd, but I was not that socially savvy. I lacked confidence at that time. I learned how to socialize a lot in prison, and the manner that you socialize in prison is not the manner that folks are used to out here. Like, always saying witty things to snap back at someone. In prison that works, because people talk crap all day, and people back off when you snap. But out here it was very difficult to talk to folks. I wanted to date and going in at 21, you know, I didn’t understand what women wanted. It was very, very difficult and I think I just ended up putting myself out there in different circumstances and then figuring out that folks really just want to have fun out in a world and be safe, make a career and earn money, all the good stuff. So I joined in, and it took a little while and eventually, after about a year and a half, I got more comfortable being around people who weren’t hardened. I learned that you can actually treat people nice without them taking advantage of you. That was a big stepping stone. You don’t always have to be on the defensive. It’s brutal. It’s 24/7 on the defensive. You never get a moment of peace. Eventually it worked out for me because I ended up going back to school and getting my associates degree and then my bachelor’s degree and my law degree. And right now, I have the restaurant. It’s about six weeks away from opening. We got our essential construction permits. I’m in downtown Lower Manhattan. So obviously, we got hit pretty hard at the epicenter. Everyone I know has someone who was either in the ICU, is in the ICU, or has died. The city shut down and I’m trying to make it work. This is another battle. This time the whole world is going through it. 

Amanda Knox

Right. 

Kian Khatibi  

It’s an equally big game changer. People’s dreams got taken away. Everyone. All the, imagine the college seniors. They graduate, the debt is crazy, they spent their whole life building up for that one moment, and then boom, it went away. I actually hear a lot of folks, formerly incarcerated, compare the shutdown with prison. 

Amanda Knox  

The thing that I think is most similar, at least for me, is the uncertainty. Like, suddenly there’s a dramatic shift in the way that your life is supposed to go. And you don’t know if and when it’s going to go back to what you had been working towards all this time.

Kian Khatibi  

Right. That is the feeling in prison. The uncertainty that hangs around you in prison because we’re not in control. 

Amanda Knox  

So I know you also have a law practice. Is the pandemic affecting your clients?

Kian Khatibi 

The courts have actually closed and they’re only taking emergency cases right now. So my clients, everyone is on pause, even the folks that have pending charges. It’s a wait-and-see. I get a lot of calls from clients who tell me, “What about these bills that are coming in?” This is not legal advice, but right now, I personally don’t think anyone should be paying outstanding debts. That should be on pause right now because nobody has a job. So I advise them, “Just hold off.” A person can’t come after you in court in New York, and I think it’s really bad judgment for folks to be pressing people, especially in the epicenter after losing a job. It’s actually a real health issue to go after sums of money that folks owe.

Amanda Knox

It feels odd to me that debt collectors should be feeling very essential right now.

Kian Khatibi  

Yeah, exactly. But they are and it’s bad posture. It’s bad positioning. Reality is, nobody knows what’s gonna happen over the next couple months. People’s paychecks might not come back for a very long time. It’s like the restaurant opening. I planned the whole thing out. It’s my dream to open up in downtown Manhattan at Hopkins and Hawley Large Grocers. We built the whole thing out up until March. I had 67 seats. We were going to open to great fanfare. And now, everything is changed. People can’t come inside. When I open, it’s not gonna be like a restaurant anymore. It’s gonna be delivery and take out and more like a grocery store. And I don’t know how I’m going to take care of my workers, because I have to protect them from the COVID. These are unanswered questions for everyone, especially in New York City. I don’t have those answers yet, but I know that people still need to eat. And so, I know that I just have to find a way to feed people.

Amanda Knox

What terrible luck to be opening up your dream restaurant right now. 

Kian Khatibi  

I thought about that. “Wow, it must be the worst luck in the world. This is nuts.” I put my life savings in it already. And then I realized something. I was like, “Well, this is actually the entire world that just had their dreams cut off.” So I can’t really say that it’s particularly brutal to me because folks are actually telling me that I’m lucky I didn’t already open up. Because then I would have all the staff and all this liability and all these expenses and food rotting. I just realize, it’s everyone. It’s really odd to see New York empty. It’s like a ghost town. I know that there’s 8 million other folks going through this exact uncertainty and damage.

Amanda Knox  

And that’s how it’s different from your wrongful conviction.

Kian Khatibi  

Yes. Like, why me? When you’re in there, and you go look at the papers and you’re like, “Why would someone say that? Why would someone do that?” Sometimes it seems unreal that they get up there and they testify, and with such confidence. But you know, and they know, that it’s not true. That was actually a much more, much more brutal emotional roller coaster because someone traps you in a box of concrete, and throws away the key, and you don’t know why. That’s just one of the worst things that could happen to someone. 

Amanda Knox 

I agree. Do you think your incarceration experience prepared you in any way for the challenges you’re facing today?

Kian Khatibi  

I do. No matter where we are, as humans, we tend to adapt. After 10 years in prison, I adapted to handle situations, how to communicate effectively. Because if you can’t communicate effectively in prison, you’re probably going to get hurt. So I think it really gave me confidence. I planned the whole time I was in prison. I planned and I planned and I planned for coming out here. I made plans for different businesses, food service businesses, and I just studied, studied, studied. 

Amanda Knox  

What advice would you give to people who are struggling through quarantine?

Kian Khatibi 

Just dream that the light is at the end of the tunnel, and what can this be used for now in a positive? It can be used to grow yourself. It’s also an opportunity to sit back and say, “What do I want to do long term in my life?” Folks can be using this time to write business plans, to study subjects, to line up with other like-minded individuals. So when this pause gets lifted, or when the vaccine comes, when we have a better understanding of how to move forward, those plans can be put into action. And a person could actually come out better than they were before, if they use this time appropriately, with hope that eventually we’re going to be able to set our plans in action. I don’t know when that would be, though. Folks are talking about a second wave.

Amanda Knox 

And you know what, we didn’t know if and when we were going to get out of prison, either. 

Kian Khatibi  

Exactly. 

Amanda Knox 

You can make plans and you can prepare, even if you don’t know what the final outcome is going to be. I think a lot of people, because they don’t feel like they have any control over what’s happening to them, they also feel like they can’t make plans. And I think that what you’re saying, which I agree with, is, “Well, you can make plans. You can just make contingency plans. And you can make more than one plan.” 

Kian Khatibi  

Sure. 

Amanda Knox 

I had plans, too. Like, I had plans for if I had to spend 26 years in prison. 

Kian Khatibi

Right.

Amanda Knox 

I had plans if I was going to get out before. 

Kian Khatibi

I was thinking the same thing. If I get out in my twenties I can do this, but not if I get out later. So.

Amanda Knox 

Do you have any final thoughts? 

Kian Khatibi  

I do. I want to end it on a little positive note. I want you to recall, when you were in prison as well, when someone comes in with like ten or 20 years, where it’s like, “Oh, that’s it, that’s a long stay, right?” 15, 20. And then folks come in with two years and we call that skid bits. Skid bits. And those folks we considered just visiting, just passing through. The lucky ones. “Don’t worry. By the time you even figure out how to get your eating habits right, you’re going to be looking at your release date.” So, yeah, we’re on lockdown. It’s a game changer just like as if someone went to prison. But what people are going through right now is, not to minimize, but really is going to be like a skid bit. Because in two years, we’re going to be okay. By the time folks get their plans in right, get your eating habits right, figure out the new wardrobe and the business plans, we’re gonna be looking at the light at the end of the tunnel. 

Amanda Knox

I love that. Thank you, Kian.