A panel of judges vacated a first-degree murder charge Thursday against the man convicted of delivering the fatal blow in the killing of Lesandro ‘Junior’ Guzman-Feliz in the Bronx in 2018, a court filing shows.
The man, Jonaiki Martinez Estrella, will face new sentencing based on charges of second-degree murder, second-degree conspiracy and second-degree gang assault that still stand.
A member of the Trinitarios gang, Estrella joined in on the beating and stabbing of 15-year-old Guzman-Feliz, who was chased into a bodega and dragged outside by gang members, according to officials. Prosecutors said the Trinitarios mistakenly targeted the teen, believing he was member of a rival gang.
Estrella was sentenced to life in prison without parole in October 2019.
“Video footage captured the assault and clearly depicted the moment when defendant, holding Junior by his sweatshirt, thrust his large knife directly into Junior’s throat,” the judges wrote, describing Estrella’s actions. “It is undisputed that the resulting wound, which was 4½ inches deep and severed the jugular vein, was the sole cause of death.”
At question was whether Estrella “inflicted torture” on Guzman-Feliz, the five-judge panel from New York’s Appellate Division wrote. That threshold, required for the first-degree murder case prosecutors made at the original trial, was not met, the judges ruled.
According to the panel - Justices Rolando Acosta, Barbara Kapnick, Sallie Manzanet-Daniels, Martin Shulman, and John Higgit - prosecutors pursued the charge against Estrella using a statute that defines first-degree murder as when a person, intending to “cause the death of another person, he causes the death of such person or of a third person,” and “the defendant acted in an especially cruel and wanton manner pursuant to a course of conduct intended to inflict and inflicting torture upon the victim prior to the victim’s death.”
Estrella’s stabbing of Guzman-Feliz was a single act, not a course of conduct that went beyond the single blow, the panel ruled. And despite prosecutors introducing evidence Estrella bragged about the attack afterwards, the panel said they did not meet the statutory standard that he “relished” or “evidenced a sense of pleasure in the infliction of extreme physical pain.”
“The evidence established that defendant committed an extremely heinous second-degree murder,” the judges wrote. However, they ruled to vacate the most severe charge against Estrella “because the evidence did not establish the very specific elements of that crime.”
“The Appellate Division did what the law required,” Estrella’s attorney Steven Feinman said in a statement. “There was simply no evidence that could have possibly satisfied the elements of first-degree murder on the theory of torture.”
Feinman added that “it is extremely difficult to satisfy the elements of first-degree murder under the theory of torture” and said only three cases in New York have been tried under the statute since its creation three decades ago.
In a statement, the Bronx district attorney's office noted that Estrella remains convicted on the three other charges, and that the sentences of the other defendants will not be affected.
"We are carefully reviewing the Appellate Division's decision and considering all of our options," the statement goes on to say.
The judges said they considered the defense’s arguments against other convictions, but were unconvinced.