Officer Convicted in Shooting of Driver in Bronx
An off-duty police officer who said he shot a drunken driver to death to spare his own life was found guilty of second-degree manslaughter Friday in State Supreme Court in the Bronx.
Justice Margaret L. Clancy heard the case without a jury and reached the verdict after a two-week trial [pdf] in which the officer, Rafael Lora, 39, was the final witness to testify. He faces a sentence of up to 15 years in prison.
Officer Lora said that he fired his weapon to save his own life after the driver, Fermin Arzu, dragged him with his minivan. Mr. Arzu, 41, had a blood-alcohol content twice the legal limit for driving.
Prosecutors had argued that Officer Lora needlessly shot Mr. Arzu.
The case came down to what occurred during an encounter between Officer Lora and Mr. Arzu that lasted less than 10 seconds.
Both sides agreed that about 11:30 p.m. on May 18, 2007, Mr. Arzu was driving drunk in the Longwood section of the Bronx when he drifted over the median and crashed into two parked cars on Hewitt Place, near Longwood Avenue. He continued to roll his minivan toward Longwood, where he idled at a stop sign.
Officer Lora, who had been in his home when he heard a bang outside, raced to the scene in plain clothes, gun in hand. He approached Mr. Arzu’s red vehicle, and this is where the stories diverge.
James Goward, an assistant district attorney, said in court that Officer Lora asked Mr. Arzu for his license and registration. Mr. Arzu, a Honduran immigrant, reached for his glove box, Mr. Goward said, and then, inexplicably, Officer Lora fired five times in 1.2 seconds. Mr. Arzu was hit once, with the bullet going through his shoulder and piercing his heart, Mr. Goward said.
Even after Mr. Arzu was shot, his minivan continued rolling north on Hewitt Place before hitting another car, a fire hydrant and a utility pole, then driving up onto the sidewalk and into a wall at Westchester Avenue, where it burst into flames, Mr. Goward said.
But in his testimony, Officer Lora gave a different account of his encounter with Mr. Arzu and his reasons for shooting.
Officer Lora testified that he cracked open Mr. Arzu’s door after the crash and was trying to help him. He said he asked Mr. Arzu several times if he was O.K., but never got a response. He then asked him for his license, registration and insurance information, and again received no response, he said.
Mr. Arzu eventually leaned over to the glove compartment, Officer Lora said, and suddenly he threw something in the officer’s face. Almost in the same motion, Mr. Arzu tried to close his door and began driving, pinning Officer Lora against the minivan, the officer testified.
As the minivan dragged him, Officer Lora said, he yelled, “Stop the car!” and used an expletive. The only way he could get away, Officer Lora said, was to fire his weapon.
“At that time, my only intention was to get away” from the minivan, Officer Lora testified.
Although Officer Lora testified at trial that he fired his weapon while he was being dragged, Mr. Goward pointed out an inconsistency with his grand jury testimony in which he said, “Somehow, I broke loose and I fired the weapon.”
Officer Lora’s lawyer, Stuart London, said that forensic evidence proved it would have been impossible for his client to have shot Mr. Arzu after he broke free. The vehicle would have been too far ahead of him, Mr. London said.
Friday’s verdict came almost a year after a Queens judge acquitted three police detectives in the shooting death of Sean Bell, who was killed outside a strip club in Queens in the early morning hours of the day on which he was to be married.
That case incited a slew of passionate protests, drawing much more attention than Mr. Arzu’s case. Still, Mr. Arzu’s family was regularly in court, as were community activists. His family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city.