Trial of Five Gang Members: Was the Murder of a Bronx Teenager Planned?

Photo of Lesandro "Junior" Guzman-Feliz provided by the New York City Police Department

Photo of Lesandro “Junior” Guzman-Feliz provided by the New York City Police Department

The murder trial accusing five gang members of brutally killing a 15-year-old Bronx boy outside of a bodega last summer began on Monday afternoon in a Bronx courtroom.

Lesandro Guzman-Felix, known as Junior, was attacked by several men wielding knives and a machete outside of a bodega on East 183 Street and Bathgate Avenue on June 20th—the boy died later outside of Saint Barnabas Hospital, according to police and the prosecutors. His death received a lot of attention after surveillance video of the attack captured by cameras inside and outside of the bodega went viral last year. On Monday, the trial began for five defendants —Elvin Garcia, Antonio Rodriguez Hernandez Santiago, Jonaiki Martinez Estrella, Jose Muniz and Manuel Rivera —who all have been charged with first and second degree murder, manslaughter, conspiracy, gang assault, and criminal procession of a weapon.

During opening arguments in the Bronx Supreme courthouse, the prosecutor Morgan Dolan argued that the gang-related death of a 15-year-old boy in front of a Bronx bodega last summer was pre-mediated. The defense disputed the charge and told the jury that the killing of the teenager was not planned.

Prosecutor Dolan started her opening statement by describing Junior as a 15-year-old boy who was unarmed, defenseless, out-manned, out-armed and “brutally murdered by a pack of men.” Dolan told the jurors that the five defendants’ actions were premeditated and accused the men of intentionally seeking to kill a member of a rival gang, known as the Sunset gang, which they mistakenly thought Junior was a part of.

Dolan said the gang members carried knives and machetes as they chased Junior for blocks until they finally pinned him in a corner inside of the Bronx bodega where they began to attack him. Junior fought and pleaded for his life as the defendants dragged him outside, Dolan told the jury.

Then the prosecutor turned and pointed to the defense accusing Martinez, Rivera, Santiago, and Garcia of using knives and Muniz of wielding a machete during the attack. Dolan also accused the men of striking Junior repeatedly as he fought for his life until one of the men inflicted the fatal 4 ½-inch wound through his jugular. Dolan said that the man went on to brag about killing a member of the Sunset gang after the attack.

In closing, Dolan asked the jury to “use the street smarts that you all have” when they reviewed the evidence in the case.

The five defense attorneys spoke separately after the prosecutor closed her comments. Defense attorney Toni Messina, who represents Manuel Rivera, set the tone of her argument by explaining that Rivera was only 18 years old at the time of the murder and how he became a member of the Trinitarios gang, a Dominican American gang in New York City. Though the prosecution objected to many parts of her argument, Messina insinuated that Rivera joined the gang because he didn’t know how to speak English, the gang gave him a sense of belonging and he eventually got trapped in a situation he could not control.

“It get’s ugly because you realize you can’t get out,” Messina told the jury.

Messina argued, as did the other attorneys who spoke after her, that her client only participated in the horrible attack because he would have been severely punished if he hadn’t. Messina told the jury that there wasn’t any evidence to prove the men went out that night hunting for someone to kill from the Sunset gang.

Lastly, Rivera’s attorney asked the jury not to believe the surveillance video—which was widely shared on social media and one the news—that they would later review during the trial, but to carefully consider the scientific evidence and implied Junior barely suffered any other serious injuries beyond the fatal stab wound that she alleged wasn’t inflicted by her client.

Another defense attorney, Kyle Watters acknowledged the severity of the case before the court and but noted that his client, Joanaiki Martinez Estrella, wasn’t responsible for Junior’s death. “A number of individuals, they’re not actively participating but they’re present,” said Watters.

Defense attorney Martin Goldberg, who represents Jose Muniz, asked the jury to dispute the notion that his client intentionally sought to kill a member of the Sunset gang as the prosecutor argued earlier.

“It’s so hard to wrap your head around the incredible amount of stupidity needed to make this happen,” said Goldberg during opening arguments. Goldberg described his client as the “poster boy” in Junior’s horrific death but said that he didn’t cause physical injury to the victim because, he claimed, Junior effectively blocked his blows.

And like the other defense attorneys before him, Goldberg also said that his client only participated to avoid the potential consequences. “Yes, justice for Junior,” Goldberg pleaded with the jurors, “but also justice for those who aren’t responsible.”

Defense attorney Amy Attias, the lawyer for Antonio Rodriguez Hernandez Santiago, told the jury to pay particular attention to the actions of each of the defendants in a surveillance video that would be shown during the trial. The video, she argued, provides evidence that discredits the prosecutor’s theory that Junior’s murder was a carefully executed plan. “A pack thinks together,” said Attias who argued Santiago wasn’t a part of the pack.

Once opening arguments were completed, the prosecution called its first witness to the stand, Tamika Jones, who witnessed the vicious attack from a 5th floor bedroom window in the apartment building across the street from the bodega. Jones recalled hearing the men shouting outside and acting suspicious. “At first, I thought they were fighting until I saw all the knives,” said Jones.

Jones testified that she witnessed the attack and tried to help Junior while he was bleeding out in front of Saint Barnabas Hospital, just a block away from where Junior was attacked. She testified she and her friends found Junior bleeding in front of the hospital.

Jones recalled Junior’s last words. “His last word was water,” said Jones. “He asked for water.”

Junior’s older brother Manny Ortiz said it’s very painful for his family to got through the trial and described it as an unnecessary “clown circus.”

“Listen, everybody watched those videos on social media. I don’t know why they’re taking so long. They know what they did,” said Ortiz in response to the defenses arguments. “What they claim is nonsense to me because we all saw the video, we all know what happened.”

The court was adjourned at 2:06 p.m. and the trial continues this week.