A River Of Tears: Happy Land
The trial of Julio Gonzalez, which was held in the Bronx in the summer of 1991, was a formality. That's not to say it was unjust. Rather, in a testament to the principles of due process of law, Judge Burton B. Roberts bent over backwards to ensure the proceedings were conducted in a fair and legal manner. Of course, the evidence against Gonzalez was overwhelming: his gasoline-soaked clothes, his many admissions to friends on the night of the event, the recovered container, multiple statements of witnesses and his own lengthy and detailed confession to Moroney and Lugo. Testimony as to Gonzalez' sanity was allowed and although that avenue of defense was explored, it was ultimately rejected by the court.
On August 19, 1991, the same day that the notorious anti-Jewish Crown Heights riots began in Brooklyn, Julio Gonzalez was found guilty in one of the worst mass murders in American history. After four days of jury deliberations, he was convicted of arson charges and 174 counts of murder, two for each victim killed in the fire. The verdict, which took over 5 minutes to read, was announced at 1 PM when the jury foreman, Luis Rodriguez repeated the word "guilty" an unprecedented 174 times. Relatives of the victims present in the courtroom, solemn at first, gradually fell apart as the verdict proceeded. Many screamed in grief as the dazed families held onto each other, sobbing uncontrollably. Gonzalez sat transfixed in his chair, a pathetic figure of defeat and despair, his facial expression rigid and unforgiving.
On September 19, 1991, Gonzalez was sentenced to 25 years to life on each of the 174 counts of murder, a sentence that was without equal in New York State history. However, he could still be released after 25 years since in New York, any sentence for an act committed during a single offense must be served concurrently, not consecutively. In the courtroom, hundreds of relatives and friends cheered the sentence as Judge Roberts gave Gonzalez the maximum allowed by law. Of course some relatives saw this sentence as an injustice since 25 years equals only 3 months for each murder. In the courtroom, Gonzalez refused to make any statement in his own defense. For whatever it was worth to the families, he would not be eligible for parole until March 2015.