December 6, 2007

New York cop pleads not guilty in fatal shooting


A New York City police officer pleaded not guilty Wednesday to a manslaughter charge in the shooting death of an unarmed man after a May car accident.

A grand jury's indictment of Officer Raphael Lora was unsealed in a packed Bronx courtroom. Wearing a dark blue suit and beige tie, Lora entered a not-guilty plea before State Supreme Court Justice Steven Barrett.

Lora, 37, a married father of one, was released on a $50,000 personal recognizance bond and automatically suspended 30 days without pay. He left in the company of members of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association to shouts of "justice" from the victim's family members and two dozen supporters.

The shooting occurred just before midnight on May 18 after Fermin Arzu crashed his minivan into a parked car on Hewitt Place, across the street from Lora's home in the Longwood section of the Bronx.

Lora, a traffic cop, left his house to see what was happening, and the men exchanged words. Witnesses told investigators that after the crash, the minivan backed up and drove about a block before Lora, who was on foot and out of uniform, caught up to it. He was standing at the driver's open door when the minivan lurched forward.

Lora's attorney, Stuart London, said after Lora identified himself as an officer, Arzu put the car into gear. Fearing he was going to be dragged under the vehicle, Lora opened fire, London said.

Police have said Lora discharged his 9-mm pistol five times, hitting Arzu once. He managed to drive a block before his minivan struck another vehicle and caught fire. He was killed when the bullet entered his back and pierced his heart, left lung and aorta.

Toxicology tests showed Arzu's blood-alcohol level was over the legal limit at the time of the crash, officials have said.

Bronx Assistant District Attorney Larry Hartstein said the grand jury heard from close to 60 witnesses, but did not find Lora credible.

"It is our position that Lora's statements do not jibe with the physical evidence and the statements of other eyewitnesses," District Attorney Robert Johnson said. "And ultimately, it is our position that this tragedy, the death of Fermin Arzu, a working man, was unnecessary, unjustified and therefore illegal."

Outside the courtroom, London said Lora felt sympathy for the victim's family, but ultimately his actions were justified.

"My client is remorseful for the fact that a life was taken, but not apologetic," he said.

Arzu's daughter, Katherine, 21, said the possible punishment of up to five to 25 years in prison was not enough.

"I think he should get the death penalty because he didn't kill a dog; he killed my father. He left me and my brother alone," she said.

Thomasa Sabio, Arzu's fiancee, said she was hurt to see Lora leave court.

"It was a pain so great that insulted everyone in my family," she said.

Patrolmen's Benevolent Association President Patrick J. Lynch said the indictment was not warranted.

"This off-duty officer took action to protect his community from an obviously dangerous drunken driver, who had already crashed into two parked vehicles," he said. "The officer, who never fired his weapon before on the job, was subsequently forced to fire in order to protect his own life and to prevent possible injury to others."

The next court date was set for Jan. 8.

This story was supplemented with wire service reports.