Abel Cedeno, the gay teen who used a knife to defend himself from a Bronx classroom attack in September 2017— killing one classmate and slashing another — was pronounced guilty of manslaughter, assault, and weapons possession Monday by Judge Michael A. Gross in a bench trial, which the defendant chose over a jury trial. The case attracted a lot of press attention because it was the first killing in a New York City school in 40 years — and it involved a bullied gay student fighting back.
The top charges of first-degree manslaughter and first-degree assault carry sentences of five to 25 years each — but only one and a third to four years if Cedeno, who was 18 at the time of the crime, is granted youthful offender status given that he has no previous criminal record.
Gross rejected a defense request that their client continue to be allowed out on bail before sentencing on September 10 and remanded him to Rikers Island. Impassive throughout the proceedings, Cedeno was led out in handcuffs. His mother, Luz Hernandez, collapsed in tears and was escorted out of the court by her daughters.
Outside the courtroom, the family and friends of Matthew McCree, the 15-year old killed in the fight, shouted, “Justice for Matthew!” Louna Dennis, his mother, said, “I am gratified. I finally got justice for my son.”
Dennis is suing the city and Cedeno for $25 million as is the mother of Ariane LaBoy, who was slashed repeatedly by Cedeno. Dennis’ attorney, Sanford Rubenstein, said he opposed youthful offender status for Cedeno.
Rubenstein told Gay City News, “This is a tragedy for all the families that must not be repeated. It is due to the failure of the Department of Education [DOE] to enforce the Dignity for All Students Act,” or DASA, the state anti-bullying law for schools.
Cedeno testified that he had been bullied since the sixth grade and that school authorities would not confront his bullies or grant him the transfer to a safer school that he and his mother had sought. The Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation where the incident occurred was closed shortly after the deadly 2017 incident when school officials finally acknowledged that it had descended into chaos.
Rubenstein also said metal detectors — that would have detected Cedeno’s knife — were requested by the principal, but the DOE turned her down.
Out gay attorney Tom Shanahan, who is suing the city on behalf of the Cedeno family — also over the failure to enforce DASA — said, “I feel like I am in a Shakespearean tragedy. There are no winners. Ms. Dennis lost her son and Abel’s mom has lost her son in some respects, as well.”
Shanahan said of Cedeno, “This young man is not a danger to anyone and never was. To think of the taxpayers paying to incarcerate a victim like Abel is mind-boggling.”
Judge Gross was as impassive today as he was listening to the testimony of 19 prosecution witnesses and of Cedeno. He did not explain his decision — any more than a jury would have to.
Shanahan said, “The judge seems to be trying to send a message that under no circumstances may a student bring a weapon to school. I understand that. I also know there are hundreds if not thousands of Abel Cedenos who are being bullied in communities like Abel’s. What are these kids to do? The message is: no matter what, don’t defend yourself. What is the alternative? Drop out?”
Indeed, Cedeno was repeating the 12th grade because he had missed so much school due to bullying. He was relentlessly taunted as a “faggot” and “bitch,” he had testified — in some cases, just for having long hair. He was not made aware of alternatives available to him as a gay student, such as the Harvey Milk School.
Gross had warned Cedeno and his defense counsels, Christopher R. Lynn and Robert J. Feldman, at the start of the trial that he faced five to 25 years on each of the top counts and that they could run consecutively if they did not accept a plea deal of 10 years being offered by prosecutors Nancy Borko and Paul A. Andersen.
Lynn responded, “He’ll get that anyway if he is found guilty,” and rejected the deal.
Gross gagged the attorneys in the case after a day or two of the trial.
Lynn, devastated by the verdict, said, “If anyone is to blame, it’s me. When the case began, things only got better for the defense. We didn’t have the nine-second cellphone video of the fight until the end of January 2018. We now know the DA had possession of the video from Day One because a couple of witnesses mentioned it in police reports. Witness statements from the two teachers in the room made it clear that the kids who attacked Abel came from the back of the classroom to the front and attacked him. Teacher Paul Jacoby said, ‘Matthew pushed me aside, hell-bent on getting at Abel.’ Student friend of McCree’s, Frankie Santiago, said the knife didn’t come out until Matthew pushed Jacoby to the wall.”
But most all of the evidence of the bullying Cedeno had been subjected to and the long records of fighting and other school violence on the part of the victims that Cedeno claimed to be aware of were not admitted into evidence by the judge. The defense of “justification” or self-defense was rejected.
While the judge was indeed impassive through most all of the trial, he seemed moved by the testimony of slash victim LaBoy and reprimanded defense counsel Feldman for the hectoring tone of his cross-examination of the youth. The judge also saw several of the student witnesses break down in tears and require breaks from testimony as they recounted the fatal fight.
One student witness, however, had to acknowledge she had called on social media for harm for Cedeno when he was let out on bail.
But many student witnesses — most of whom corroborated Cedeno’s account of the fight — were not produced in court. The Department of Education opposed any and all defense attempts to locate them. And the DA would only concede who their witnesses were the day before their testimony, giving defense little time to prepare.
Under a new state law that goes into effect in January, prosecutors have to turn over everything they have in discovery within 15 days. While the defense sought the names and addresses of student witnesses in pre-trial hearings, the judge hearing those motions left it up to the trial judge. Lynn said when they sought subpoenas from Judge Gross for more of these witnesses, “He said, ‘You should have done this a long time ago.’ But the fact is, we did and were rebuffed.”
Cedeno requested to be sent to the LGBTQ unit at Rikers. The judge agreed to that and also to psychiatric supervision.
“I’m concerned about his safety,” Lynn told Gay City News. “It is important that the court grant him youthful offender status. It makes him eligible for alternatives to incarceration. He is in danger from gangs. If something happens to him in prison, a lot of people will share responsibility for it.”
Mustafa Sullivan of FIERCE!, an LGBTQ youth group based in the Bronx, had been monitoring the case from the beginning. After the verdict he told Gay City News, “It is so sad. There were three adults in that class. Abel is paying the price for the lack of a plan in that school to stop bullying and school violence. Both families are suffering now. Witnesses confirmed what Abel said — that he was terrorized in that classroom. The judge is saying to students being bullied that they can’t fight back — that they have to have their hands tied. Abel was trying to defend himself, but the DA wanted to make an example of him.”
Sullivan participated in City Council hearings after this incident before out gay Queens City Councilmember Daniel Dromm’s Education Committee in 2017, when Chancellor Carmen Fariña promised that more resources and more funding would be put in the budget to aid efforts to combat bullying and de-isolate LGBTQ youth.
Asked after Cedeno’s verdict was announced if things have gotten better since then, Sullivan responded, “No. The schools are out of control.”