June 20, 2016, 6:00pm
By MARK TOOR
A Brooklyn teenager who set a mattress fire in a Coney Island housing project that killed one police officer and severely injured another was sentenced June 14 to 19-years-to-life in prison.
Marcell Dockery, 18, was convicted of murder, arson and assault in a two-week trial before Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Danny K. Chun, who was also the judge in the trial of former Police Officer Peter Liang, found guilty in February of negligently shooting a man at another housing project.
Cops First to Respond
Police Officers Dennis Guerra and Rosa Rodriguez, assigned to a Housing Police unit, were the first first-responders to arrive at the scene of the fire April 6, 2014.
They took the elevator to the 13th floor, where the mattress was burning in the hallway. On exiting the elevator, they were overcome by thick, black toxic smoke and lost consciousness. They were hospitalized for smoke inhalation and carbon-monoxide poisoning.
Officer Guerra, 38, died three days after the fire. The officer, who was posthumously promoted to Detective First Grade, left four children between the ages of 7 and 20.
Officer Rodriguez, 36 years old at the time of the fire, suffered damage to her lungs and was hospitalized for six weeks. The officer, who also has four children, remains on modified duty in the Police Department. It remains unclear whether she will ever be well enough to return to work.
“The elevator filled with smoke,” Officer Rodriguez testified at Mr. Dockery’s trial in April. “We were able to walk out of the elevator, but had difficulty breathing…I tried to find the exit door, but it was difficult to breathe. We were feeling on the walls. I remember holding on to Guerra’s shoulders. I didn’t want to lose him.”
Because of her injuries, she said, “I can’t breathe. I can’t walk. I can’t climb stairs. I can’t play with my kids anymore.”
In a victim-impact statement, Detective Guerra’s widow, Cathy, said that she often went to sleep crying and that her children missed their father. “The family acknowledges that when Marcell Dockery set fire to the mattress he didn’t mean to hurt anyone that day, but others suffered by his actions,” she said.
Dozens of officers in the courtroom stood and applauded when Justice Chun announced the sentence.
The office of Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth P. Thompson recommended a sentence of 18 years to life, noting that Mr. Dockery had a history of arson since he created a makeshift blowtorch in the cafeteria of his junior high school.
No Sign of Remorse
Prosecutor Howard Jackson said Mr. Dockery had neither taken responsibility nor shown remorse.
Mr. Dockery’s lawyer, Jesse Young, said his client was innocent and would appeal. The defendant did not make a statement at sentencing.
“A senseless act of arson cost a very courageous police officer his life and destroyed the health and career of another heroic officer,” Mr. Thompson said in a statement. “The sentence imposed by the court today reflects the severity of the crime committed by the defendant.”
In a videotaped confession played during his trial, Mr. Dockery said, “I was just bored. When I set a fire a little bit, I swore I just blew it out.” He said he was surprised when it spread and tried to warn neighbors by banging on their doors. He said in his confession that he had been setting fires since the age of 9.
‘Chamber of Hell’
Mr. Young said the confession was coerced by officers interviewing him in a “chamber of hell.”
Patrick J. Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, said after sentencing that “in 19 years, when this mope comes up for parole,” the families as well as other officers will “make sure he stays behind bars.”
Though it’s questionable that Officer Rodriguez will ever fully recover, she has been unable to afford to retire due to a quirk in the pension laws. Gov. David Paterson in 2009 vetoed a bill, passed routinely every two years since 1981, that extended disability benefits provided under Tier 2 of the pension system to newly hired police officers and firefighters.
Those hired before July 2010 were granted 75 percent of final average salary free of state and local taxes if they were disabled because of an injury in the line of duty. Because of the veto, those hired since are eligible for only half their final average salary, subject to all taxes, with half of their Social Security disability benefits subtracted. The unions say this means disabled officers could receive as little as $27 a day.
The cut in the disability benefit has been widely criticized, and even Mr. Paterson conceded after Officer Rodriguez was injured that she deserved more money. But local disputes have kept the State Legislature from restoring the benefit for cops.
Firefighters hired since 2010 got legislative approval to be eligible for the old Tier 2 three-quarters-pay disability benefit after the City Council passed a home-rule message. Governor Cuomo is expected to sign the bill. The city and the Uniformed Firefighters Association had agreed in contract talks that city officials would support the restoration. The city also reached agreements a couple of weeks ago covering Sanitation Workers and Correction Officers, which don’t need state approval.
But police officers were left out. The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association went to arbitration, unsuccessfully hoping for a better raise than the city offered, and the arbitrators’ award did not address the disability benefit. The union balked at a recent city proposal on the upgraded disability benefit that sources said it considered unfair in comparison to the deal covering Firefighters, who have a significantly greater rate of disability retirements.