Twenty-one months after a Bronx classroom fight that left one student dead, another slashed, and a third charged with manslaughter and assault, a trial judge has been assigned to the case of a 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.
Judge Michael A. 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.
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 DA Darcel Clark deploying some of her most veteran assistants on the case.
The defense wants to have 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 the ADA could be considered truly “voluntary.” Judge Gross ruled that he could. Goldsmith in a written report said Cedeno was suffering from Attention Deficit Hypersensitivity Disorder, or ADHD.
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 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 with one cut from Cedeno’s knife. It is the defense contention that McCree and LaBoy were known by Cedeno to belong to the same gang and that is why he pulled the knife to defend himself even though they had not had previous encounters with the two.
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.
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 — already widely seen in the media — will be introduced at trial as well as an exploration of how it was obtained.
McCree’s mother, Louna Dennis, was present as she has been for every court date. She 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 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 City Anti-Violence Project. Cedeno, who is out on bail, continues to be escorted to and from court by an NYPD detail due to threats on 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 Gross 30 years ago and has always found him “very fair.”
Lynn criticized Rubenstein for calling Cedeno’s statements to the police and DA “confessions.”
Lynn said, “They are narratives in response to police questioning about how this incident unfolded.”
Rubenstein acknowledged he has not seen the taped statements.
More motions will be entertained on June 20, with the case getting fully underway on June 27.
Cedeno has to make the big decision as to whether he will have a jury trial or a bench trial with Gross presiding.