State vs Det. Cesar Celestino: Jersey City cop stands trial for an off-duty altercation with a 17-year-old in which the officer discharged their firearm.
On the morning of December 3, 2019, Det. Cesar Celestino faced a Hudson County jury for the first time on criminal charges stemming from his firearm discharging during an off-duty altercation with then-17-year-old Carlos Martinez – who self-identified as an MS-13 gang member during the incident.
Originally charged with seven counts due to the encounter which occurred on July 28, 2018, the jury will ultimately decide Celestino’s guilt or innocence for three charges – possession of a weapon for unlawful purpose, aggravated assault, and false incrimination. A member of the Jersey City Police Department (JCPD) for nearly 15 years, Celestino, 47, could be facing decades in prison if found guilty.
The state is represented by Asst. Prosecutor Leo Hernandez of the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office (HCPO), while Celestino is represented by attorney Jeffrey Garrigan of Cammarata, Nulty & Garrigan, LLC. Full video of the opening statements can be found at the bottom of the article.
The State vs Det. Cesar Celestino: A walk in the park turns chaotic
While both the state and defense offered starkly different interpretations of how the events of July 28, 2018, unfolded in Lincoln Park (Hudson County), there’s three undisputed facts to the trial being held in the courtroom of Hudson County Superior Court Judge Patrick J. Arre:
1) Shortly after 2:00 PM on that fateful day, Celestino walked into Lincoln Park from the Kensington Ave. entrance with his then-13-year-old son. At the same time, Martinez was exiting the park with his then-15-year-old-sister.
Of note, the original indictment signed by HCPO A.P. Karyn Darish incorrectly identifies Martinez’s juvenile sister as a 13-year-old.
2) Martinez was leaving the park with his sister because he was upset that she was dressed inappropriately (too revealing) and apparently attracting attention from men in the park.
3) Words were exchanged and chaos immediately ensues when Celestino & his son cross paths with Martinez & his sister – all of which is captured on CCTV footage. That footage clearly shows Celestino’s firearm discharging, while additional cell phone video obtained during the investigation captures Martinez self-identifying as an MS-13 gang member after the gunshot.
Leo Hernandez: The cover-up is worse than the crime
“You will have an opportunity to determine whether the crime and the cover-up are inseparable, and one is just as bad as the other,” Hernandez said to the jury as he began his opening statement.
“The reason why you’re here is to determine what happened before and after that led to this defendant being charged with the crimes he’s charged with.”
Hernandez went on to tell the jury about some of the state’s witnesses they would hear from – including a firefighter that heard the initial commotion and someone yell “get the f*** back” multiple times before the gunshot, plus a mailman that defused the situation.
Additionally, Hernandez noted that the jury would hear from multiple law enforcement officers – including two from the Hudson County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO), a crime scene investigator from the HCPO, and a radio dispatch supervisor from the JCPD.
Hernandez noted that Celestino told the responding sheriff’s officer, Eric Hutchinson, to “arrest this kid,” but that Hutchinson merely “detained” Martinez and patted him down. The prosecutor added that “shortly thereafter, a number of Jersey City Police Department officers arrive on the scene and Carlos Martinez is placed into handcuffs.”
Furthermore, the prosecutor brought up a call Celestino made to the JCPD control desk during the incident. According to Hernandez, during the call the detective stated he needed a boss at the scene because of an accidental discharge and that he was robbed.
The prosecutor portrayed the allegation of a robbery as preposterous, noting that Martinez was working out in the park and wanted to go home so his sister could change. Hernandez added that the altercation was sparked by Martinez’s anger due to Celestino supposedly looking at his sister, and that the detective used his firearm unlawfully during the incident.
Moreover, the prosecutor added that they weren’t hiding from the fact that Martinez self-identified as MS-13 during the episode, but insisted that it wasn’t actually true. Hernandez stated that Martinez made the comment after the gunshot because “he wanted to scare him, you know why? He didn’t know he was a police officer.”
According to Hernandez, Martinez is no stranger to violence, having been raised in dangerous parts of Mexico and Honduras before immigrating to America, and that it contributed to the way he behaved during the confrontation with Celestino. The prosecutor also noted that Martinez actually called 9-1-1 after walking away from Celestino.
Hernandez concluded his opening by stating to the jury “in the end, ladies and gentleman, I’m going to ask you to trust your own eyes. Nothing more. Use your common sense to determine what happened.”
Jeffrey Garrigan: One video doesn’t tell the whole story
“Allow me to present the facts to you as they occurred on that particular day,” Garrigan told the jury. “Because when you hear the real facts, not what this prosecutor just told you, but the real facts in this case, you’re going to realize that he had every right as a police officer to take his firearm out.”
“To defend himself and his 13-year-old son, who he was walking through the park with at 2 o’clock in the afternoon on Saturday.”
According to Garrigan, the detective was out on medical leave on the day of July 28, 2018, and that he was at a doctor’s office appointment for a heart condition prior to the altercation.
When he arrived at Lincoln Park with his son, Garrigan said Celestino was headed to festivities related to the Jersey City Caribbean-American Carnival, but “little did he know that he was going to have a confrontation with an MS-13 gang member.”
Garrigan stressed the MS-13 angle throughout his opening, and claimed that Martinez actually sparked the physical confrontation by telling Celestino “I’m MS-13, I’ll f***ing shoot you.” It was at that point the detective supposedly announced he was JCPD and told Martinez to put his hands on the wall, but the 17-year-old disobeyed the orders and wanted to fight – which escalated the situation.
Regarding the false incrimination charge related to the robbery claim, the defense attorney countered that the attempted robbery occurred when Martinez said he would take his gun off him.
Garrigan concluded his opening statement by telling the jury, “being a police officer is a difficult job, and it’s easy to criticize… So I ask you to listen to all the evidence in this case… Make your assessments as to credibility, and I’m firmly convinced, ladies & gentlemen, that you’ll find my client not guilty of all three charges.”
WATCH OPENING STATEMENTS BELOW (45 Minutes):