Abel Cedeno, who says he had been bullied for being gay, took the stand in his own defence at his manslaughter trial.
Abel Cedeno said he never intended to use the knife he brandished in a Bronx high school classroom two years ago.
He had been pelted with broken pencils and wads of paper, and the knife "was only meant to deter — to scare people away," he said on the witness stand Thursday while defending himself at his manslaughter trial in state Supreme Court in the Bronx.
But minutes after taking out the knife, he had fatally stabbed Matthew McCree, 15, in the heart and had maimed Ariane LaBoy, 16.
It was the first homicide in a New York City school in two decades, a troubling episode that prompted protests from parents over the lack of metal detectors at the school and calls from the LGBT community to take action against the bullying of gay students, like Cedeno.
Cedeno, 19, has never denied he stabbed his two fellow students in September 2017 during a history class at the now-shuttered Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation.
The three-week trial, which ended with summations Friday afternoon, has included more than 20 witnesses, many of them students who said Cedeno started the fight, drawing a knife and stabbing the two unarmed students several times.
But Cedeno said repeatedly on the stand that he had feared for his life in the moment one of the students approached him. He had acted, he said, in self-defence after years of being harassed for being gay.
When pressed by cross-examination, Cedeno said he could not remember inflicting the wounds. He recalled only moving his arms, he said. "I don't know the specific moment when the blade entered their bodies," he said.
Nancy Borko, the lead prosecutor, has said that Cedeno was the aggressor and had come to school prepared "with a switch-knife in his pocket, ready to go." She said there was "no justification" for the stabbings.
On cross-examination, Borko said Cedeno had used the knife the first time he brought it to school.
Under questioning from his own lawyer, Cedeno said the episode started when students sitting in the back of the classroom started pelting him with broken pencils, eraser caps and balls of paper.
"I got to the door frame about to leave," he said. "And a group of objects hit the back of my head all at once."
Cedeno, who was then 18, said he recalled screaming, "Who's throwing these things at me?" The classroom fell silent. He repeated the question, he said, then used a slur for a coward that he claimed bullies had previously used against him.
He said Matthew stood up and said, "It was me." Then, Cedeno said, Matthew pushed past a teacher and moved toward him, and Cedeno took out his knife. "I undid the knife," he recalled, "and then I just waited."
Cedeno said Matthew punched him several times in the face. He recalled blocking some of the punches while "trying to defend myself." Students crowded around them, some with cellphones. A flash went off.
"With all the commotion, I remember somebody else coming to punch me and another person coming to punch me," he said.
Cedeno said he had hoped an adult in the classroom would intervene in the fight — but no one did.
Cedeno, who came out as gay after his arrest, has waived his right to a jury and put his fate in Justice Michael A. Gross' hands. The judge said he might render a verdict as early as Monday.
Under direct examination Cedeno told the court that he had been bullied in school and called slurs for years, after he grew his hair out for Locks of Love, an organisation that makes wigs for cancer patients.
Other students painted a different version of the stabbing over eight days of testimony. Some testified it was not clear whether the people at the back of the class were throwing wads of paper at Cedeno or at other targets, including a girl in the hallway and a trash can near where Cedeno was standing.
One student, Tyler Lilavois, testified earlier in the week that Matthew had apologised when the debris hit Cedeno, but that Cedeno had answered the apology with an epithet and a challenge: "What's up? What's up." Tyler said Cedeno then took a "fighting stance" as Matthew approached him.
Another student, Jomarlyn Colon, recalled on the stand this week that Cedeno "sounded like he wanted to fight." She said some students encouraged Matthew to sit down and ignore Cedeno, but Matthew moved toward Cedeno anyway and the violence started.
Ariane testified last week that he had been stabbed several times while trying to stop the brawl. He said he jumped over a desk to get to the front of the classroom and confronted Cedeno. Matthew, who had been stabbed in the chest, was already hunched over, he said.
"And I looked down and there was a hole in my chest," Ariane recalled. "I lost breath. I couldn't move."
Matthew Lawlor, the school's dean, testified Monday that shortly after the stabbing he heard screaming over his radio. He ordered a lockdown and rushed to the classroom, where he saw Matthew being helped out of the classroom, blood spurting from his chest. Lawlor, a former Marine, thought the boy had been shot.
Then he saw Ariane crouched on a seat. No one seemed to notice he was injured. Lawlor said he bandaged his wounds using paper towels, scissors and packing tape on the teacher's desk. A few minutes later, he saw Matthew take his last breath. "It was a kind of surreal moment right there," he recalled.
Dr. Jonathan Hayes, a medical examiner, said on the stand earlier in the trial that the knife had ripped a 5-inch diagonal gash along Matthew's chest that dug several inches into the heart, a fatal wound.
Shavon Evelyn, a guidance counsellor at the school, testified in June that shortly after Cedeno admitted to her he had stabbed the other students, he told her he was not sure why he had done it.
"'I guess I thought I was a badass,'" she recalled him saying.
Written by: Emily Palmer
Photographs by: Greg Vigliotti
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