CONCOURSE, the Bronx — Guilty!
Almost a year after the brutal slaying of 15-year-old Lesandro “Junior” Guzman Feliz outside a Bronx bodega, a jury on Friday returned a decisive verdict that was prayers answered for those seeking justice for Junior.
It took just about eight hours over two days for a jury of 11 women and one man to decide the fates of Jonaiki Martinez Estrella, Manuel Rivera, Elvin Garcia, Jose Muniz and Antonio Rodriguez Hernandez Santiago.
The five Trinitarios gang members were all convicted on charges of first-degree murder, second-degree murder, second-degree gang assault and second-degree conspiracy.
All face life in prison without parole for chasing down and dragging the terrified teen from the bodega on June 20, 2018, and brutally beating and stabbing him to death while he fought for his life.
The first-degree murder conviction meant there was intent to kill the teen and that killers tortured him prior to his death.
“I’m not going to have my son back but those killers, those murderers are not going to be outside killing other kids,” Junior’s mother, Leandra Feliz, said after the verdict was announced. “We have to stop the violence and we have to save the city.”
The mom, who appeared relieved Friday, like a weight had been lifted off her shoulders, opted to watch the last week of trial from a separate room after Judge Robert Neary warned her that her multiple emotional outbursts during court could affect the case.
Hundreds of “Justice for Junior” supporters inside and outside the courtroom cheered upon hearing the verdict. Many had tears steaming down their faces, others starting singing in Spanish.
A few of the defendants showed no emotion as the guilty verdicts echoed through the courtroom.
All except Jose Muniz, who was initially called “Machete man,” identified as the one in the video who slammed a machete down on Junior during the attack.
Muniz showed no remorse after learning his fate Friday, turning to smirk at the court and shouted, “Popote, hasta la muerte!” Spanish slang for “Trinitarios until death.”
Muniz’ defense attorney, Martin Goldberg, argued in earlier testimony, that his client flipped the machete so that it hit Junior with the flat side, instead of the sharp edge, with the intent to just harm him, not kill him.
“Turning that blade does not make him a hero,” Goldberg said. “But it also does not make him a killer.”
Dr. Sophia Rodriguez confirmed that it wasn’t the machete that killed Junior, but instead the fatal blow came from a “knife 4 1/2 inches in depth — cutting his jugular vein” and going completely through the teen’s neck.
Prosecution argued that it was Estrella who plunged the knife into Junior’s neck, killing him.
“Junior came to symbolize all of the young people who have lost their lives to brutal gang violence,” Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark said after the verdict. “We hope that the verdict today brings some consolation to the family, who have endured so much pain.”
Junior’s older brother, Manny Ortiz, also spoke after the verdict.
“I am very, very excited, very happy,” Ortiz said. “We want life without parole, as a family, life without parole for those rats.”
He hugged friends and family outside the courtroom after the verdict was delivered.
Another 10 men were arrested in connection with the teen’s June 20 death. A trial on murder and manslaughter charges is expected to begin soon for eight of them. They are: Frederick Then, Ronald Urena, Jose Tavarez, Danel Fernandez, Gabriel Ramirez Concepcion, Diego Suero, Danilo Payamps Pacheco and Luis Cabera Santos.
The teen was chased down by a group of Trinitarios gang members. He sought shelter in a bodega, but was dragged out and attacked with knives and a machete.
Video shows the bleeding teen stumble back into the bodega. Workers inside directed him down the street to a hospital, but he collapsed before he could get medical help.
Junior was a member of the NYPD Explorers program and dreamed of a future as a police officer.
#JusticeForJunior became a rallying cry for New Yorkers and people around the world as they demanded justice for the teen after his death.
“Today’s verdict fortifies the Bronx community’s stand against violence,” Clark said.