Twenty-one months after a Bronx classroom fight that left one student dead, another slashed, and a third charged with manslaughter and assault, bullied gay teen Abel Cedeno, who says he used a knife to defend himself against an attack from classmates Matthew McCree, the deceased, and Ariane LaBoy, told Judge Michael A. Gross that he is forgoing his right to a jury trial and will let the judge decide whether he is guilty or not.
Gross opened the trial on June 18 in Bronx Criminal Court by asking Cedeno’s counsels, Robert J. Feldman and Christopher R. Lynn, and prosecutors Nancy Borko and Paul Andersen if they were open to a plea deal, telling Cedeno that he faced a minimum of five years on each count and a maximum of 25 years on each and that they could run consecutively. Feldman said they would not accept a plea deal and would pursue a defense of “justification,” commonly known as self-defense.
Lynn said, “Under no circumstances would Abel get the max. He has no prior criminal record before or after this. He is not a violent person.”
Lynn is seeking youthful offender treatment for his client if convicted, in which case the maximum sentence is four and a half years. But all that is now up to the judge.
The June 18 proceeding consisted of tapes of Cedeno being read his Miranda rights by both police and by Assistant District Attorney Paul Rosenfeld, a 39-year veteran of the office, before interviewing him in the afternoon of September 27, 2017, hours after the morning incident occurred. Cedeno did not exercise his right to remain silent or to seek advice of counsel before speaking.
Intense media interest in the incident — the first fatal stabbing inside a school in New York in 40 years — has Bronx DA Darcel Clark deploying some of her most veteran assistants on the case.
The defense had psychiatrist Eric Goldsmith, who evaluated Cedeno for them, testify on June 20 as to the defendant’s state of mind to ascertain whether his statements to police and Rosenfeld could be considered truly “voluntary.” Dr. Goldsmith said that Cedeno was suffering from Attention Deficit Hypersensitivity Disorder, ADHD. In his evaluation, he wrote that Cedeno “was subject to long-standing bullying related to his presumed sexual orientation. He had experienced feelings of isolation, depression and reports making suicide attempts.”
Goldsmith recounted how Cedeno was “physically attacked” by McCree, who punched him “several times about the head.” When Cedeno defended himself with a knife, one stab wound caused McCree’s death.
“Mr. Cedeno experienced the attack against him and the stabbing as traumatic,” Goldsmith said. “His state of mind giving statements to police detectives and the ADA Rosenfeld was impacted by a trauma reaction. He was concerned for his own safety. His memory was not accurate.”
In light of that testimony, Gross will rule on June 27 as to the admissibility of the statements Cedeno gave immediately after the incident.
Goldsmith wrote that Cedeno told him that in the aftermath, “I remember being afraid, like mostly just afraid for my life, for my family’s life because I knew these people [McCree and LaBoy] were in gangs. I was afraid me and my family would get shot.”
Cedeno told Goldsmith, “I remember thinking that if I tell [the authorities] everything, it would be okay.” He also told the psychiatrist, “It was me defending myself.”
Lynn said, “As Cedeno told the grand jury, ‘I believed they were going to kill me. I believed they could have had weapons.’ And then he said, ‘Most of the kids in that school carry weapons.’”
Cedeno’s grand jury testimony got his charge reduced from murder to manslaughter.
Prosecutors turned over to the defense the witness statements from the 25 students and three teachers who witnessed the fight. The DA’s office has successfully kept the defense from identifying the students, but defense is moving to have them all called to testify along with the teachers. Feldman said that all the eyewitness statements — except that of LaBoy — support Cedeno’s version of events: that McCree charged from across the classroom to pummel Cedeno and that LaBoy piled on after McCree was felled and was slashed himself.
On June 20, the prosecution turned over its witness list and it did not include the teacher witnesses — only the school guidance counselors and administrators who dealt with Cedeno after the incident. Lynn said that Gross told Borko to subpoena the teachers and he would sign the orders.
The DA opposes admission of the witness statements taken by the police as “hearsay,” but Lynn has moved to introduce them “to show how thorough the police investigation was.”
The judge will also rule on that point on June 27.
Lynn said one of the prosecution witnesses is a “Miss Evelyn,” a guidance counselor across the hall from the incident.
“Abel went into her office,” Lynn said, “and just put the knife on the desk. This is the ‘counselor’ who gave him chores to do when he reported bullying previously instead of filling out the bullying reports.”
Regarding the prosecution’s proposed witness list, Lynn said, “Ms. Borko is depending on everyone but the actual witnesses.”
The defense is also challenging the access that detectives had to Cedeno’s cell phone.
Lynn said that witness statements just obtained show that “another student in the class had a knife and claimed it fell out of his backpack in the confusion and that’s why the janitor found it the next day.”
Cell phone video of the incident shot by other students — already widely seen in the media — will be introduced at trial as well as an exploration of how it was obtained. Lynn said the video is “exculpatory.”
McCree’s mother, Louna Dennis, is represented by Sanford Rubenstein in a $25 million lawsuit against the city and Cedeno for the attack that they contend could have been prevented if the school had metal detectors and if the Department of Education was adequately implementing the state’s anti-bullying law. Dennis this week expressed happiness that the case is finally moving forward and said she has “confidence in the DA to get the justice that my son truly deserves.”
Cedeno was supported in court by his mother, Luz Hernandez, as well as his sisters and grandmother. Also there for him were Bree Yearwood of FIERCE and Lynda Nguyen of the New York Anti-Violence Project. Cedeno, who is out on bail, continues to be escorted to and from court by an NYPD detail due to threats to his life.
Feldman said of Judge Gross, “We’re very pleased that we got a very experienced justice who rose through the ranks of the criminal court.” Lynn said he tried a case before him 30 years ago and has always found him “very fair.”
Lynn criticized Rubenstein for calling Cedeno’s statements to the police and DA “confessions,” arguing, “They are narratives in response to police questioning about how this incident unfolded.”
Rubenstein acknowledged he has not seen the taped statements.
The trial resumes Thursday, June 27 at 9:30 a.m. in Bronx Criminal Court.