A brief cell-phone video released two weeks ago captures (above) a harrowing September 27, 2017 assault on gay student Abel Cedeno in his Bronx high school class by Matthew McCree, joined by his friend Ariane Laboy, as Cedeno defends himself with a knife, fatally wounding McCree and slashing Laboy.
But a second video that surfaced after the first one puts the matter in a different light, McCree’s mother maintained.
[Editor’s note: This story has been revised since its initial posting in light of the second video’s emergence.]
In the first video, McCree, in a white T-shirt, can be seen charging across the classroom and pummeling Cedeno, in a pink shirt, with his fists, and Laboy joining in the fray, as well, while students are screaming in horror. As the nine-second video concludes, McCree is still standing and an adult in a red shirt has pulled Cedeno away.
Attorneys for Cedeno, Christopher R. Lynn and Robert J. Feldman, are calling for the manslaughter charges against Cedeno to be dropped in light of the evidence in the first video, which backs up what Cedeno told the grand jury as well as what student witnesses told the police.
Neither video was presented to the grand jury, nor is it clear how much of what student witnesses told police was. The first video was turned over to Cedeno’s defense team by the district attorney at his February 1 court appearance before a new judge, State Supreme Court Justice Armando Montano, who will rule on multiple motions on March 6.
A week after the February 1 hearing, McCree’s mother, Louna Dennis, obtained a second video of the incident — or perhaps a longer version of the video defense lawyers were given — that she said shows Cedeno to be the initial aggressor, though witness statements to the police dispute that.
Even prior to the first of the videos surfacing, Lynn and Feldman had a motion pending to drop the charges against Cedeno, Lynn telling Gay City News, “The case presented to the grand jury did not establish the crimes charged — manslaughter, assault, and criminal use of a weapon.”
Assistant District Attorney Nancy Borko told the court on February 1, “We don’t believe it [the first video] is material” since it was received anonymously. She insisted it was turned over to Cedeno’s attorneys “in a timely manner,” though her office had it since Christmas, according to Lynn.
Patrice O’Shaughnessy, director of public information for the Bronx DA, said that the office did not come into possession of the video given the defense attorneys until after the grand jury indicted Cedeno for manslaughter, adding that they promised to turn it over to the defense at the next court date, which they did. In response to the Cedeno defense team’s call for charges to be dropped in light of the video, she said, “We can’t comment on evidence. He was indicted because he used deadly physical force.”
Cedeno has testified and told Gay City News that he acted in self-defense and thought he was going to die when McCree rushed him since he believed him to be a member of the 800 YGZ gang who could have had a weapon.
Lynn said, “It is clear to me that McCree is throwing these punches with his right and his left furiously at Abel Cedeno, who is obviously terrified and putting up both his hands in defense of McCree.”
Lynn said that the video will be admissible once Cedeno and other witnesses “authenticate” it as a recording of what happened in the classroom at the Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation in the Bronx, which has since been closed by the city Department of Education due to this incident and other reports of chaos in the school.
According to a police interview with one of two teachers in the classroom at the time of the incident, that teacher “states that Matthew suddenly stood up at the back of the class and began to walk toward the front while yelling at Abel” and the teacher unsuccessfully “attempted to hold Matthew back.” He stated that McCree was joined by Laboy “and they both met Abel at the door simultaneously” and “all began throwing punches” before someone shouted “knife.” The teacher, according to police, said that when he saw all the blood “he started to go into shock” himself.
In the police summary of their interview with Laboy, when Cedeno demanded to know who had thrown a pen or pencil at him, Laboy “states that Matthew stood up and said, ‘Sorry,’” and that Cedeno “responded for Matthew to stand up, ‘I want to fight.’” The summary of Laboy’s account continues that Cedeno “swung at Matthew but Matthew slipped it and punched the subject in the face.” Laboy said he then saw Cedeno “punching Matthew in the chest and walk away” and that he, Laboy, “jumped over the desk, grabbed the subject to prevent him from following Matthew and attempting to grab the knife” only to be “sliced” several times, at which point he “felt a pain in his chest.”
Lynn called Laboy’s version “laughable.”
A student witness told police that before the fight, McCree, Laboy, and others were throwing things around the classroom. According to the police summary of the student’s statement, “Something gets thrown at Abel. He believes it is a pen or pencil. Abel turns around and says, ‘Who the fuck threw this paper? You guys are pussy.’ Matthew stand up and replies, ‘I threw it. What’s up, nigger? I threw it.’ Abel then replies back and says, ‘What’s poppin.’ Matthew approaches Abel by the front door, close to where he was sitting. Mr. [Paul] Jacobi [one of the teachers] tries to intervene and gets in front of Matthew, but Matthew gets around him, and [Jacobi] tries to pull Matthew back but Matthew pushes Mr. Jacobi up against the wall to get to Abel. He then punches Abel in the face. Ariane gets up and tries to pull Matthew back by pulling his arm. Mr. [Nicholas] Kennedy [the other teacher] now comes over and tries to get in between Abel and Matthew and is holding Abel back. He [the witness] sees Abel with his right hand in his pocket pulling out an object. He does not see what it is but sees Abel lunging at Matthew and striking him in his chest with a ‘poke’ so he realizes that Abel has a knife but doesn’t actually see it. He then sees Ariane coming at Abel and Abel swinging the object in his hand at Ariane’s shoulder. This time Abel’s right hand came above his shoulder and in a downward motion strikes Ariane’s shoulder. Matthew at the same time just drops to the floor and lands on his stomach. Ariane retreats back and sits in a chair. Abel runs out of the classroom through the front exit door.”
On February 9, Louna Dennis said she obtained her video (above) in a Facebook message from someone she said was a student witness. At a news conference with her attorney, Sanford Rubenstein, she said that Cedeno was acting like “a Tasmanian devil” and that the video “shows Abel charging at the boys with the knife from the hallway.” The video does not show Abel charging from the hallway, but does show him crouching and moving from right to left across the video screen toward McCree. Eyewitness testimony, however, has McCree charging from across the room and striking Cedeno before Cedeno pulls out the knife to, in his telling, defend himself.
Lynn said, “The expert we hired to review the autopsy found that the deceased has extensive bruising on both hands indicating he was hitting someone. He also had body bruises which show that whoever he was punching was punching back, but not with a knife. The autopsy also shows one knife wound. The amount of PSI [pounds per square inch] needed to inflict that single blow had to be inflicted by someone fighting for their life, according to our expert. That’s the science of the matter. Our expert saw the video and said it shows McCree throwing haymakers right and left. It also shows Ariane hitting Abel on the side of his head and Abel, in response, pushing Laboy’s arm away with his entire arm and shoulder in a single swinging motion — again in a defensive act. Our expert said the district attorney must know this as well because they see a lot of this in their experience.”
It will be up to a judge and jury to sort out all this evidence in court. There were 20 students as well as the two teachers present in the classroom when the fight took place.
Immediately following Cedeno’s February 1 court date, Louna Dennis said, “Matthew was not a bully, Ariane Laboy was not a bully, and with [Cedeno’s] lawyers going around saying they’re in a gang? None of my kids was ever in a gang. And with them saying that, they have gang members approaching my older son… There are going to be consequences if anything happens to my son.” Rubenstein, her attorney, quickly added, “…from the criminal justice system.”
Rubenstein, on behalf of McCree’s family, has filed a $25 million suit against the city for his death.
Cedeno attorney Feldman responded, “I have nothing but sympathy for that mother. She is defending her son like all good mothers. But we have proof he [McCree] is a gang member.”
Cedeno, who is out on bail, told Gay City News before the court proceeding, “I’ve been anxious. I’m going to focus on school. I’m anxious about going back to jail. I trust my lawyers who are saying everything is going to be okay. I’m concerned about the threats I’m getting. I’m going to therapy for the mental health help I need.”
He was led from court on February 1 by a police escort.
The McCree family was there in court as were LGBTQ community supporters of Cedeno, including members of the youth-led advocacy group FIERCE. Also on hand was Michelle Fine, a professor of psychology at the CUNY Graduate Center, whom Cedeno’s defense intends to use as an expert witness on anti-LGBTQ bullying and how to create safe and “just” schools for all students through having out LGBTQ teachers, inclusive curricula, staff training, and restorative justice practices aimed at mediating reconciliation between bullying offenders and their victims.
“It’s not difficult to create a context that supports everyone around race, gender, and sexuality,” Fine said.
The defense team also wants transgender activist Sophie Cadle, who has interviewed many of the students at Cedeno’s school, to testify about what she learned about the environment there.