BY ANDY HUMM
Community News Group
Abel Cedeno, set to be sentenced on September 10 after being convicted in July of manslaughter in the death of classmate Matthew McCree and of assault on another student, Ariane Laboy, is seeking “youthful offender” status since he was 18 at the time of the 2017 crime and had no previous criminal record. Cedeno’s testimony that he acted in self-defense when he used a knife to repel attacks by McCree and Laboy was rejected by the judge in the bench trial.
If he is granted youthful offender status by Justice Michael A. Gross, Cedeno could get a sentence of one and a half to four years. If not, the judge could — as he informed Cedeno in court when he declined a plea deal — sentence him to five to 25 years on each count.
Speaking to Gay City from Rikers Island, Cedeno said that while he had prayed for a not guilty verdict, he tried to be strong and not show emotion as consolation to his family members, who wept in the courtroom. His tears, he said, came later.
He added that on the witness stand he did not have a chance to say “that I think about what happened every single day and all the pain” it caused and that he continues to have nightmares about it. If he could speak to Laboy and the family of McCree, he said, “I would tell them how sorry I am. I never wanted this to happen. I wish I could have said this to them sooner,” but the court proceedings did not allow for it. He wishes he had found a “plan B” to escape the bullying in school, particularly that fateful day.
“I wished I had known about all the support systems in the LGBT community,” Cedeno said, noting that no one in his school told him about the Harvey Milk High School that serves LGBTQ students. He said he is being treated “okay” in jail and “going to school.” The support he is getting inside and out, he said, “has helped me go on. It has been touching.”
Youth offender status for Cedeno is supported by elected officials as diverse as the anti-gay campaigner Ruben Diaz, Sr. and out gay activist Daniel Dromm, both members of the New York City Council.
In a letter to Gross, Diaz wrote that Cedeno has been “sharing with me some of the incredible bullying and racially charged offenses he faced as a gay Puerto Rican” in school. “He is not and never has been in a gang, and many days he felt cornered in schools.”
Diaz also said that “teachers and guidance counselors ignored him” and he “continued to be bullied, ridiculed, and victimized. To him, there was no one to turn to, and in his teenage mind, he had no idea that the knife would do more than scare away his attackers.”
Diaz added that Cedeno is “devastated by what resulted in his terrible decision to bring a knife to school” and praised him as “extraordinarily compassionate for some of the weak and vulnerable members of society.”
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Dromm, who has been out since his days as a Queens public school teacher and is the former chair of the Education Committee, wrote that Cedeno “was just an LGBT youth trying to navigate the bullying, harassment, and threats of violence that still characterize too many of our schools and neighborhoods… An environment free of these problems is best to encourage the shaping of Abel into a productive member of our society. Prison is no such environment.”
He added that within the LGBTQ community, “Abel has a support network in place to ensure that his time away will be spent focusing on successful reentry.”
Dromm asked the judge “not to compound this tragedy.”
An online Change.org petition to the judge asking that Cedeno be given youthful offender status, started independently by Stephanie Perez, has garnered more than 1,100 signatures. It implores Gross to consider “all mitigating factors in the case” and to grant sentence Cedeno as a youth so that “when he finishes his sentence of state jail, [he can] live his life without the stigma of convicted violent offender to follow him forever.”
The social worker at Callen-Lorde Community Health Center who has worked with Cedeno since January of 2018 also wrote to the judge urging youthful offender status.
Sanford Rubenstein, who is representing McCree’s mother, Louna Dennis, in a $25 million civil suit against the city and Cedeno and who was at her side through the almost-two years of court proceedings, said, “My client made it clear that she opposes YO status because it is a serious crime for which Cedeno was convicted.”
That lawsuit and another brought by the seriously injured Laboy are about to get underway.
Dennis and Laboy, who testified at the trial, are expected to make victim statements to the court before sentencing.
Christopher R. Lynn, Cedeno’s attorney, noting that Cedeno is being held in a Rikers unit with other LGBTQ inmates, said his client used his time while out on bail “to grapple with the damage done to him leading up to the incident and how it contributed to it.”
Cedeno on several occasions told Gay City News how he had been relentlessly bullied since the sixth grade and that despite complaints from himself and his mother, Luz Hernandez, school authorities took no action to stop it or to grant him a transfer to a safer school. The school where the incident took place was shuttered shortly after the tragedy.
Lynn echoed Cedeno’s comments that he thinks about how the classroom fight led to the death of one student and serious injury of another “every day.” Cedeno deeply regrets listening to a friend who told him that carrying a knife would protect him against bullies, the attorney said. Lynn added that it was evident from Cedeno’s testimony — and video of the fight — that he had no experience using a knife and that rather than trying to stab his attackers, he was flailing with the knife as he was being punched. And while self-defense usually requires trying to retreat before using force, Cedeno said that he felt frozen in place and then “just snapped.” Lynn said that Cedeno “is resigned to doing time” and that he has not been mistreated in jail apart from his medication being withheld from him initially.
Kate Barnhart, executive director of New Alternatives for Homeless LGBT Youth (where I am on the board), said she often advocates for youthful offender status for her clients.
“It prevents a person’s entire future from being ruined by a conviction,” she said. “It makes it so once the person is an adult, they can apply for employment and housing without the convictions becoming an obstacle.”
Asked about the Bronx DA office’s stance on youthful offender status for Cedeno and the sentence it is recommending, Patrice O’Shaughnessy, director of communications, wrote, “We will speak about it in court on Sept. 10.”
Cedeno’s sentencing takes place at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, September 10 at the Bronx Hall of Justice, 265 East 161st Street near the 161st St. stop for the B, D, and 4 trains and the Yankee Stadium stop on Metro North.