The trial of Joel Herrera for the tragic mistaken-identity murder of Glenn Wright, 20, is now in the hands of a jury. On Friday, both the defense and the prosecution presented their closing arguments, after which the judge charged the jury with their duties and sequestered them in the jury room, where they had the opportunity to examine witness testimony and other evidence presented over the past week.
On Thursday, the defense presented their entire case in one day, calling Herrera, who is accused of murdering Wright in a gang assault after mistaking him for a man who robbed and beat up the son of a high-ranking fellow gang member, to testify. Herrera's attorney, Paul Brenner, asked Herrera, 22, to explain the events of September 12th, 2009, as well as to give the jury some details about his background. Herrera, who lived with his mother, teenage brother and young sister on the Upper West Side at the time of Wright's murder, testified that in 2009 he had been attending college at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, and spent his summer working as a lifeguard at the Central Park pool. When questioned about his affiliation with the Latin Kings, the gang allegedly responsible for the assault on Wright, Herrera testified that he was in fact a member of the gang, but joined in order to become a role model within the Latin community and to change the gang's violent culture from the inside.
Herrera testified that on the day of Wright's murder, he went to the LES to meet up with other members of the Latin Kings and purchase marijuana. The arresting officers found him in possession of several bags of marijuana when they searched him later that day. He told the court he had heard that one of the sons of a high ranking Latin King member, a man identified in court as "Mr. Esquellin," had been robbed earlier that week, and that Esquellin was headed to the Baruch Houses on the LES in order to settle the score with his son's assailant.
Herrera testified that he decided to go to the projects to mediate the situation. He said he never had a weapon on him, and that he watched Esquellin stab Wright. Herrera told the court that he did not issue a statement when interviewed by the NYPD that Esquellin was the murderer because he did not want his family to be in danger.
On cross-examination, DA Michael McIntosh questioned Herrera's motives for joining the Latin Kings, pointing out that Herrera had gone on a trip to Jones Beach with high-ranking members of the gang, including Esquellin himself, despite alleging he was not friends with them. McIntosh showed the jury a video of Herrera's first admission during an interview at the precinct the night after Wright's murder. In the video, Herrera told a detective he believed Wright was the man responsible for the assault on Esquellin's son because he "fit the profile." "I felt it was him based on the vibe I felt," Herrera stated in the video. McIntosh also reviewed a phone call between Esquellin and Herrera that took place while Herrera was incarcerated at Rikers, in which Esquellin inquired about Herrera's mother repeatedly, and gave him advice about navigating life in prison.
Brenner revisited Herrera's testimony on the witness stand in his closing argument on Friday, alleging that Herrera's involvement in the murder was simply a matter of him being in the "wrong place [at the] wrong time," and that he had been present at Wright's murder with the intention of acting as a "peacemaker." He reiterated Herrera's statement that he had joined the Latin Kings in order to change them from the inside, and stated that Esquellin's inquiries after Herrera's mother in the phone call to Rikers Island indicated a gang threat was being made against the Herrera family, thus preventing him from snitching on the other gang members. Brenner reiterated some of the comments he made on Wednesday during his motion for dismissal, reminding the jury that no weapon had been found, and that the defendant was the only witness to the crime.
McIntosh also referenced Herrera's testimony from Thursday in his closing argument, but noted that the phone call between Herrera and Esquellin indicated the two were "brothers" rather than enemies, refuting Brenner's argument that Herrera was being intimidated by the high ranking gang member. In addition, McIntosh negated Herrera's statement that he had headed to the LES for the sole purpose of purchasing marijuana, pointing out the rapid series of short phone calls made to various other Latin King members on the afternoon of Wright's murder, and indicating that those proved he was trying to mobilize the members for an assault. McIntosh also revisited the DNA evidence provided by a criminalist on Wednesday—numerous spots of blood with Wright's DNA found on Herrera's clothing from the day of the murder—and showed the jury photos of the fatal wound to Wright's carotid artery, noting that the angle of the wound as well as its severity indicated an intent to cause serious bodily harm.
The jury began deliberating around lunchtime, and were excused in the mid afternoon. Deliberations continue on Monday. Two other men, Jason Quijano and Alan Silva, are both scheduled to go on trial this month in connection with the murder. (Silva is charged with Murder in the Second Degree. Quijano is charged with Manslaughter in the First Degree.)
(Additional reporting by Carrie Dennis)