Lawyer Raises Rare Defense in Harlem Murder Trial

By Maru Smith on Dec 16th, 2010

Israel pictured before his arrest with younger sister, Diamond. (Photo courtesy of Irvina Parker)

Shortly after midnight on June 23, 2007, Daniel H. Israel—intoxicated after a full day of drinking—stumbled upon a brewing street fight outside a Kennedy Fried Chicken restaurant on Fifth Avenue and East 111th Street.

As defense attorney David S. Hammer described the events in his opening statement in State Supreme Court, a crowd had gathered — eyewitness estimated 15 to 20 people or more.

A cluster of young guys were making sexually suggestive comments to someone’s girlfriend and, witness Michael Bloomfield later testified, someone broke a glass bottle over someone else’s head. Then gunshots rang out.

Israel had opened fire on the crowd, killing 26-year-old subway conductor Warren Justin Dandridge, also known as “Dust.” Bloomfield , now 25, was wounded. “I knew Dust since before puberty,” he told the jury with a half smile, but he soon began to tear up . “I saw him fall backwards,” said Bloomfield, turning his arms  in a motion usually seen only in action movies. “I tried to run towards him, but then… I was hit,” he said, choking back tears.

Most of the facts surrounding this murder trial, which began on November 30, are not in dispute. The area was well lit. Police officers witnessed Israel shooting at the crowd and ordered him to stop and drop the gun. Instead, he turned his weapon on the police and continued firing until an officer returned fire and wounded Israel in the abdomen. Israel sat sullenly during most prosecution witnesses’ testimony, hanging his head at the details of his victim’s injuries. There is no claim of innocence or mistaken identity.

What’s at issue, his lawyer says, is why Israel did what he did. “This wasn’t a cold-blooded murder for money,” Hammer said during a recess. “There has to be an explanation for why this happened.” Hammer believes the evidence shows that Israel did not have the required mental state to commit murder.

A spokesperson for the District Attorney’s office said there would be no comment on the case until after a verdict. The Dandridge family is also waiting until the trial ends to make a public comment.

The defense seeks to have Israel convicted on the lesser charge of manslaughter because at the time of the crimes, he suffered from what New York state law calls “extreme emotional distress”—namely, post traumatic stress disorder as a result of being brutally beaten and stabbed 18 months earlier.

Hammer explained to the jury that Israel had spent weeks in the hospital as a result of his injuries, which occurred during an escalated schoolyard fight. After his discharge, Hammer argued in his opening, Israel suffered depression and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and began drinking heavily to self-medicate.

President of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law Dr. Stephen Billick testified on Monday that Israel isn’t lying when he says he cannot remember the shooting, only the events before and after. Billick, a New York University professor, said the results of a psychological exam were “consistent with my clinical diagnosis that Danny was not malingering.” Israel didn’t stop firing until after he was shot by a police officer because, according to Billick, “being shot snapped him out of his blacked-out state.”

When he stumbled upon a street fight that he had nothing to do with and was told by someone in the crowd that his friend “Tink” was involved, Billick explained, the combination of PTSD and alcohol caused Israel to black out and respond to protect his friend. “He shot Dandridge, not necessarily with the intent to kill him, but with the intent to stop him from hurting Tink,” Billick said. Billick also told the jurors that, in his opinion, Israel was incapable of forming the intent to commit murder on the night in question.  “I think if he had received psychological treatment at the time of his injuries, it is likely he would not have committed the act that he did.”

On cross-examination, however, Assistant District Attorney Jeanne Olivio presented evidence that Israel had been involved in two fist fights and other disputes with authorities before the attack that allegedly caused his PTSD. In 2005, for instance, a police officer witnessed Israel punch a Kennedy Fried Chicken worker in the face for reportedly getting his order wrong. But Billick maintained that those examples, which took place “over the span of a decade,” did not rise to the level of the events of June 23, 2007.

In an interview in her home, Israel’s mother Irvina Parker  says that her son was different after the stabbing, but that she didn’t realize the extent of his problems. “I’m not a doctor,” she said.”I didn’t put two and two together, but when I did I said, Why didn’t I know he was sad? Why didn’t I know he needed help?”

Parker, who has seven other children,  says after her son’s arrest she found 20 empty vodka bottles behind his bed. She feels guilty, she says, when she sees members of the Dandridge family in the neighborhood. “You can’t tell them that you’re sorry,” she said through sobs. “What difference does it make?”

PTSD is a relatively rare defense, most often seen in military cases, although it has also been used in battered wife cases. “There isn’t a whole lot of case law in New York on PTSD,” said Hammer.

Under New York law, however, extreme emotional distress can be used as a partial defense to criminal charges, meaning that it doesn’t eliminate guilt but can reduce the level of the crime. In this instance, Hammer argues Israel’s post-traumatic stress disorder should reduce his murder and attempted murder charges to manslaughter and attempted manslaughter.

The difference in sentencing could be substantial. If convicted of second degree murder and attempted murder, Israel would likely be sentenced to 25 years to life. According to the defense, parole would be extremely unlikely for a convict who shot at police officers, so Israel would likely spend the rest of his life in prison. On the lesser charges of manslaughter and attempt, Israel would probably be looking at a determinable sentence of  22 to 25 years, although if the sentences run consecutively he could still face at least 40 years, possibly with credit for time served since 2007. Closing arguments are scheduled for Thursday.

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