Abel Cedeno, 18, the bullied gay Bronx student who said he defended himself with a knife against an attack from classmate Matthew McCree September 27 in front of their fellow students and two teachers, testified in his own defense on Tuesday morning before a Bronx grand jury, and the second-degree murder charge sought by the Bronx district attorney was reduced by that grand jury to manslaughter.
Bail in the case was set at $500,000 and while Cedeno’s attorney Christopher R. Lynn called that outrageous for a class B felony, Lynn’s co-counsel, Robert J. Feldman, said they would try to raise it and that the reduced charge was “a huge victory. It opens the way for a plea deal,” though any plea would be up to Cedeno himself.
Earlier in the day, family and supporters of Cedeno and those of McCree, who died in their confrontation at the Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation, rallied outside the Bronx County Hall of Justice. Cedeno has said he acted in self-defense, using a knife to ward off a beating from two classmates he feared — leaving McCree dead and Ariane Laboy injured.
According to Lynn, there is still a risk that the district attorney will seek an attempted murder charge against Cedeno for using his knife in what he and his attorney described as an effort to stop Laboy’s attack.
Cedeno and his family spoke exclusively to the Gay City News about what happened and told the grand jury his story today.
Before the grand jury session, which is secret, Cedeno was due to briefly appear before a judge, and the courtroom was packed with supporters of both youths, separated by more than 10 court officers, one of whom warned that anyone who engaged in an emotional outburst would be arrested. But Ava Talley of the New York Transgender Advocacy Group (NYTAG) said that while she was sitting there, she was threatened by a McCree family member using terms like “batty boy,” “faggot,” and saying, “I will beat your ass, you he/ she.”
“His family keeps saying he was not a bully, but they use homophobic and transphobic rhetoric,” Talley said. “His whole group of supporters was doing it” until she alerted a court officer to the problem.
Lynn and Feldman, both of whom are gay, waived Cedeno’s appearance before the judge but called upon the district attorney to have the 25 students and two teachers who witnessed the fateful fight in their classroom on September 27 testify before the grand jury along with their client, who voluntarily chose to testify. Feldman reiterated his defense that Cedeno was suffering from “extreme emotional distress” and “snapped.” He told the court, “Cedeno was not in his right mind” due to relentless bullying and the classroom attack from McCree.
After the court proceeding, Lynn said, “Why did the deceased leave his seat in the back of the room and walk 55 feet” to confront Cedeno while McCree’s friend Frankie tried to restrain him once Cedeno took out his knife for everyone in the room to see?
McCree’s mother, Louna Dennis, said after the hearing, “I have confidence in the grand jury that I will get justice for my son. My son was never a bully, never had words” with Cedeno. Dennis also said, “Why was an 18-year-old adult [Cedeno] in school with my 15-year-old minor son?”
Mariah Miller, McCree’s aunt, said, “My nephew was never in a gang” and, asked by a reporter, said she was not aware of McCree complaining about a culture of violence in the school that many of its students have attested to.
Javier Maximo, who identified himself as McCree’s “big brother,” said, “He was always responsible. Matthew always showed respect for his elders.”
All of McCree’s family denied his possible involvement with a local gang, but supporters of Cedeno displayed screengrabs of online postings by gang members who claimed McCree as one of their own and vowed to avenge his death.
Cedeno’s sister Vanessa, who had spoken to Gay City News last week, spoke to the press.
“We’re getting threats now,” she said. “We just want justice for Abel. No one wanted for this to happen. He was bullied from the sixth grade and would come home with bruises. The schools failed him. My brother should not be in jail. We shouldn’t have to be afraid to be ourselves, especially in school.”
Another woman, who would not give her name, said, “I have known Abel since he was five. He is no calculating killer. He is one of the gentlest people I know.” She added that she home-schools her own kids.
Two of Cedeno’s classmates who told the press about how he was bullied relentlessly said they feel too threatened to return to school.
The two “sides” in this case agree on one thing: the New York City Department of Education (DOE) is failing to control bullying in the schools. McCree family attorney Sanford Rubenstein specifically faulted the schools for not enforcing the state Dignity for All Students Act (DASA). City Councilmember Daniel Dromm, chair of the Council’s Committee on Education, which is holding hearings on school bullying on October 30, said, “The DOE is failing miserably. It doesn’t seem anything was done to help Abel.”
“I condemn the violence,” Dromm said, “but I understand the rage about being bullied, having been bullied myself at St. Mary’s High School in Manhasset.”
He is asking Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña “to send a letter to teachers telling them to teach lessons on tolerance. The teachers also need to know that their administrations will back them up, especially when they specifically speak about LGBTQ issues.
Many of Cedeno’s supporters were from NYTAG and FIERCE, an LGBTQ youth group. Others were individuals who read about his case and wanted to show support because they, too, were survivors of school bullying — most recently and some from decades ago, but the wounds are hard to heal and it motivates them to stand by Cedeno.
Nayley Whittaker, 23, who lives near Cedeno’s school and was there with her infant child, said she was bullied by a neighbor while pregnant and wanted to fight back but “my boyfriend stopped me,” she said. “Abel didn’t just wake up and decide to kill someone.”
Kiara St. James of NYTAG said, “DASA is not being enforced. We have to have intensive trainings for staff and students.”
Marcel, 20, gay and with long hair, showed up after reading Cedeno’s story online. He said he went to a school where Wildlife is now located and that during his time there “there was bullying for everything — race, social class, money. There were fights every day.” He said kids as young as 13 get recruited into gangs by adults and that while school safety officers can limit fights in school, they then take place off-campus.
“I got taken out of school by my father and home-schooled at 14,” he said.
Tanya Walker, 54, who is outreach coordinator and co-founder of NYTAG, said, “I was bullied out of a college” — the College of Staten Island when she protested Borough President Guy Molinari for calling Karen Burstein, the 1994 Democratic nominee for state attorney general, “unfit for public office” because she is a lesbian.
“A group of students told me they were going to get me off campus or they were going to kill me,” she said, “and the administration did nothing about it.”
Sophie Cadle, the transgender activist who helped organize the rally, wants to make a difference for all students.
“We want to build bridges,” she said, starting with Cedeno’s school. “We want to do ‘know your rights’ workshops for students,” especially LGBTQ students.