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JUNIOR TRIAL SENTENCING DAY:
Supporters of the murdered Bronx teen, Lesandro Junior Guzman-Feliz, gathered outside of Bronx Supreme Court early Friday morning. Court officers allowed everyone into the courtroom before noon. Junior’s convicted killers were already seated by the time the media was allowed in.
Seated right to left: Jonaiki Martinez-Estrella, Jose Muniz, Manuel Rivera, Antonio Rodriguez Hernandez Santiago and Elvin Garcia. It was the first time all five of them sat in Supreme Court since they were found guilty of murder in the first degree, murder in the second degree, conspiracy in the second degree and gang assault in the second degree in June.
The Honorable Judge Robert Neary entered the courtroom at 10:40 am. The judge opened his statement by thanking all parties who cooperated to bring to culmination a “difficult case.” Neary talked about the defense motions he denied which resulted in the sentencing being postponed three times. Junior’s parents then began their impact statements.
Lisandro Guzman went first. “After the loss of my son, I’ve changed so much,” he read in Spanish from a paper in his hand. "I struggle daily to find meaning in my life… There are days I cannot sleep. I toss and turn in bed thinking about my son… I recognize in my heart that weekends are particularly difficult because those are the days I spent the most time with my son, Junior… I will never forgive you for deciding to murder my son,” Guzman said directly to the men convicted of Junior’s murder. “You deserve to be punished for causing so much pain…you are and always will be a danger to society…my hope is that another family will never have to live with the pain of a losing a child.”
After Guzman finished, Muniz -- infamously caught on surveillance video hacking at Junior with a machete -- cracked a smile.
COMPLETE COVERAGE: Justice For Junior
Leandra Feliz, Junior’s mother, got up next to read her impact statement, also in Spanish. “Here I am, a mother without my son, Lesandro Junior Guzman Feliz,” she began. “An innocent, 15-year-old boy, who was not a gang member… These criminals ripped him away from me… They killed an innocent child with all these men – not a single one – said, ‘No, no, don’t do it,’” she said in a defeated tone. “That night there were two deaths, Junior and I, left dead inside… The same way they made this video go viral with their violence, their punishment should be equal… As a young boy, my son dreamed of becoming a detective so he could defend and protect this city,” Feliz said as she noted his time spent in the 45th Precinct Explorers program – calling him an active member. “Unfortunately, that dream was crushed by these insane, murderous gang members… As Junior’s mother, I am hoping that you would please make my son’s dream come true.”
Feliz called for life without parole in order to maintain a safe society. “This way they will not pose a threat to our neighborhoods any longer, my son will never come back from his grave…I no longer have my little boy, I don’t have anyone to talk to, to kiss and to hug.” Feliz noted that Junior should have been a junior in high school. “They have filled the people of our city with absolute terror,” Feliz said of the killers. “I, myself, am afraid these killers will be back on the street murdering more young children… My son was an innocent boy, too young to have malice in his heart… If I had the power to sentence these murderers, I would sentence them to 300 years in prison to make an example of them worldwide.”
All of the convicted murderers were escorted to a back room except for Martinez-Estrella, who was up first for sentencing. Muniz appeared to be singing to himself on his way out. Assistant District Attorney Morgan Dolan opened up by saying Martinez-Estrella “put Trinitarios before all else… and because of the decision he made before that date [of Junior’s death], a 15-year-old boy had a knife plunged into his neck,” Dolan went on to say.
Dolan referenced Martinez-Estrella’s alleged remarks about hitting Junior in the neck so he wouldn’t eat for a long time, which cooperating witness Michael Sosa Reyes testified on. Dolan then told the court that correction officers found a 1-inch sharpened object in Martinez-Estrella’s shoe at Manhattan Detention Complex before his sentencing.
Kyle Watters, Martinez-Estrella’s lawyer, spoke next – telling the judge that his client had expressed remorse to him – appearing to blame his actions on too many of the youth seeking brotherhood in gang culture. Watters asked for 20 years to life – saying his client had engaged in programs to improve himself since being incarcerated. Martinez-Estrella then began to read a prepared statement. “First of all, I want to say I am sorry… No one can take someone’s life if it is not God’s will… It wasn’t an order or something planned like you guys think… My intention was not to cause the death of this kid or that the injuries would result in the loss of his life… I was under the influence of alcohol and drugs, I didn’t know what I was doing,” Martinez-Estrella said before admitting he killed Junior.
Judge Neary then addressed Martinez-Estrella – calling his actions “senseless, savage and cowardly.” “Why? To be hailed as a big shot...,” the judge asked. Neary then listed the reasons he sentenced Martinez-Estrella to life without parole, saying that he had not disavowed his gang ties, had a prior record and acted as Junior’s executioner.
Jose Muniz entered the courtroom next. ADA Dolan brings up “Canelito’s” last words after he was handed a guilty verdict back in June: “Popote hasta la muerte,” or Trinitario till death. “This is not a man who has learned from his actions,” Dolan said. Muniz’ lawyer, Martin Goldberg told the court about Muniz’ upbringing. When he was 3 years old, his mother was convicted of a felony and imprisoned. Muniz was raised by another woman. When his mother got out of jail, she had a stroke. Goldberg said Muniz worked two jobs in the U.S. to pay for his mother’s medicine, spending time homeless, until the alleged leader of the Sures set of the Trinitarios, Diego Suero, offered him a place to stay. “That’s what created this loyalty to this gang because they helped him when no one would,” Goldberg said.
The lawyer then questioned how Kevin Alvarez and Michael Sosa Reyes could both get plea deals when he believes they were just as responsible for Junior’s death as Muniz was. Muniz then read a prepared statement in Spanish. “During the last 14 months and 20 days, I got down on my knees and asked God to give the family of the life lost strength,” he said. “ I don’t know what it’s like to lose a child… It might not be today, but that one day you can say, ‘Jose, you are forgiven,'” he went on to say. “This wasn’t about a supposed video of a woman… I don’t fight over women…I did not kill him and that’s why I have a clear conscience… I was there but did not have that intention which is why I used the other side of the machete… A lot of times, parents don’t know what their children are up to… It may be true he is not a gang member, but the day my friend was shot, he was there,” Muniz said of Junior. Muniz asked for forgiveness from all Dominicans, his family, Junior’s family, and the state of New York. “The greatest forgiveness I ask is from the mother of my son… Every tear shed by my family takes part of my heart away…I lost my sister, my nephews, and the opportunity to see my mother again.” Muniz questioned the justice system, asking how 14 men can pay for a murder when one person was responsible. Muniz closed by telling Judge Neary to “pay attention during the next trial.” Muniz’ lawyer said he was the only one to write his letter himself. “I am not sure you understand the magnitude of what you did,” Judge Neary answered. Muniz was sentenced to 25 years to life.
Manuel Rivera entered the courtroom next. “This defendant repeatedly stabbed in the direction of Junior,” ADA Dolan said – also pointing out that Rivera’s lawyer, Toni Messina, wrote a letter on Sept. 9 stating that Rivera was working to stay clean while in prison. Dolan said when she checked on Sept. 12, only a few days later, Rivera had eight infractions while locked up. Messina argued back that he was not responsible for bad behavior in each of those incidents, saying Rivera had been attacked twice in jail and poisoned by something he ate at one point.
Messina provided me with a press release: (all words are hers): “Manuel Rivera, only 18 years old, at the time this crime was committed, never intended that ‘Junior’ Lesandro Feliz-Guzman be killed. He had only been in the U.S. three years when his event occurred. He moved from the Dominican Republic with his dad and sisters, but his mother, with whom he was very close, stayed behind in the Santa Domingo. Manuel, short and skinny, found himself in a new country, unable to speak the language, without friends. He was torn between wanting to still be a child but needing to be a man. In school, he was jumped by fellow classmates and beaten. Members of the Trinitarios offered him a place to belong, protection of the group, and a hang-out spot away from the small apartment where he, his father and two sisters lived. He looked up to Diego Suero, the Trinitarios leader, who took Manuel under his wing, let him sleep over, and gave him gifts. It was empowering to be amongst a group of men from the DR who could relate to his upbringing, spoke the same language and laid out specific rules to follow. If the rules weren’t followed, punishment would follow in the form of beatings. On the night Junior was killed, Manuel met up with his friend Elvin and, along with other cars which had left a party at Diego Suero’s, went to the area where Sunset members were known to hangout. Junior was known to be a member of the ‘Baby Sunsets.’ Close to the date of Junior’s murder, members of the Sunsets had attacked and seriously injured a member of the Sures, the Trinitarios’ subgroup which Manuel belonged. Once Junior was spotted, Manuel blindly followed the group as they chased him. He pointed to overhead cameras to warn people from doing anything criminal and stayed back at his car until the last moments of the event when he ran across the street. His participation was all of three seconds. Nothing he did injured Junior. This was born out of the coroner’s report which showed only minimal injury to Junior apart from the wound to his neck. Manuel was running back across the street when Jonaiki Martinez-Estrella, unbeknownst to Manuel, put a knife through Junior’s neck. Video of the event was immediately seized by police and released to the community and the media. The emotionality of the video overrode all possibility of a fair trial. The trial was held within a year of the event, in the same borough where a street had already been named after the murdered boy. The case was over-indicted as ‘torture’ murder, as opposed to Murder in the Second Degree. It’s questionable whether any of the defendants, apart from Jonaiki Martinez-Estrella, had the intent to murder Junior. They left the scene that night without even knowing he had been killed. No one derived any ‘pleasure’ in Junior’s killing as is required for the crime of torture. There was no conspiracy (pre-arranged plan) to kill anyone. Based on the People’s own witnesses, no one had been instructed to kill anyone. That was not their mission. The goal was to find a Sunset for a tit-for-tat reprisal after a Sunset had shot a Trinitarios gang member from a different sect. Manuel is many things, but a murderer is not one of them. He is loved by his family. His mother may never see him again. A sentence of anything-to-life means just that: A sentence that could last the entire duration of his life. Neither the facts nor the punishment match the responsibility Manuel had in this crime. The case should not have been tried in the Bronx, nor should it have been tried together when clearly one was more responsible than the others. Manuel is sorry for the role he played and could he take back that day would never have gotten involved. He will appeal his conviction, learn as much as he can while in prison, and hopes someday to return to his family,” Messina wrote.
In court, Messina argued, “This idea that when you’re 18 years old you’re a full-fledged man does not hold with science.” She went on to say he is in a different situation than other defendants. “I don’t want him to be the scapegoat to cure New York’s problems…he is not a monster, judge.” As for Rivera himself, he read his statement. “My intention wasn’t for what happened to your son to happen,” Rivera said to Junior’s parents. “I know that when I get out of jail, I’m going to become a person that’s good…I’m a good person, I come from a good family…please consider what I’m saying because what I’m saying comes from my heart.” Judge Neary responded: “I’m inclined to show you something that you and your friends declined to show Lesandro Junior Guzman Feliz that night.” Neary sentenced Rivera to 23 years to life, the least sentence out of all the men. Neary took Rivera’s age of 18 at the time of the crime into consideration.
Next up was Antonio Rodriguez Hernandez Santiago. ADA Dolan began by saying, “This is a man who loved being Trinitario… Although he sits here in orange, he still bleeds green.” Hernandez Santiago’s lawyer, Amy Attias, told the court that her client left the gang when he became a father. But, Attias said after Diego Suero was arrested in 2017 on a gun charge, there was disorder because the gang believed Suero might be cooperating. The gang demanded Hernandez Santiago re-enter the gang because he was needed. “He came back because he was pressured and because he was threatened,” Attias said. “He did not want to, he had to.” Hernandez Santiago was the only convicted killer who did not read a statement. As he was escorted out of the courtroom by court officers, he looked at his mother who was sitting right in front of me, and appeared to mouth, ‘No, no.’ She got up screaming – and in tears – and had to be escorted out of the room. His mother said in Spanish, “My son did not kill him, he is innocent.”
The final killer to be sentenced – Elvin Garcia. “Mr. Garcia – since the inception of this crime – has done everything to disguise his affiliation with the Trinitarios,” Dolan said. The prosecutor pointed out Garcia hid his face with a shirt while he was stabbing Junior, fled the scene, and had his girlfriend falsify a police report after he had been stabbed by one of his fellow gang members during the Junior attack. Garcia’s lawyer, Edward Schneider, said: “He put his hand in the way when he saw a shot coming to the victim’s neck and that’s how he got stabbed.” Dolan said not one report showed Garcia consumed narcotics the night he stabbed Junior. Prosecutors believe he was fully in control of his decision making and his actions. “I’m sorry…I feel horrible for the things that happened and the things I have done but I did not want to injure anybody…I’m asking God to forgive me, my family and Junior’s family,” Garcia read in Spanish from a written statement. During the judge’s sentencing -- he pointed out Garcia’s brother is an Uber driver, his sister, a doctor, and his ex-girlfriend a medical student, questioning why Garcia would trail so far off the path into a life of gang violence.
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