Melee disrupts, briefly shuts down Hempstead court

The arraignment of murder suspect Pedro Merchant, 20, was disrupted by a courtroom melee that included the brief shutdown of First District Court in Hempstead on Friday. Videojournalist: Jim Staubitser (Sept. 20, 2013) 

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The arraignment of a young murder suspect ended in chaos inside a packed Hempstead courtroom yesterday morning as supporters of the suspect and his alleged victim suddenly began trading punches.

Officers managed to clear the courtroom, only to have the melee continue in the hallway and the streets around Nassau's First District Court at 99 Main St.

A voice could be heard over the court officers' radios yelling "10-13!" -- code for an officer needing help. That sent a bevy of police officers, sheriff's deputies and state troopers racing from the building to lend a hand.

Six people who participated in the brawl were arrested and charged with rioting and criminal contempt, authorities said. A court officer and a civilian were taken to a hospital, where they were treated and released.

About 100 people were in the courtroom at the time of the melee -- filling the benches to capacity. Nothing separated the warring groups: friends and relatives of the 17-year-old victim; and those who came to show support for the 20-year-old suspect.

The proceeding started quietly, with Pedro Merchant of North Valley Stream arraigned on a second-degree murder charge in the Sept. 11 shooting of Dante James Quinones-Wright of Hempstead.

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Merchant pleaded not guilty and his attorney asked for bail, but Judge Eric Bjorneby ordered him remanded, noting the seriousness of the charge and the fact that Merchant is on probation for robbery.

As officers led Merchant away, someone shouted, "I love you, Pedro!"

The outburst triggered more shouting and, moments later, fighting.

As court officers rushed over, a sergeant yelled back toward the judge, "Off the bench! Off the bench!"

Bjorneby left with a court officer escort and didn't return until about two hours later, at 12:30 p.m., when the arraignment courtroom reopened. The entire courthouse was briefly shut down as a precaution.

"The court officers were professional and kept it from becoming even worse than it was," said court spokesman Daniel Bagnuola. "It really had the potential to become something much worse."

In court on an unrelated case, Kew Gardens attorney Albert Dayan watched the fracas unfold from the front row. "In 15 years of practicing law, I've never seen anything like this," he said.

The felony complaint filed against Merchant accuses him of firing seven shots at the victim with a .25-caliber semi-automatic pistol. According to witnesses, the shooting occurred during a confrontation on Dartmouth Street in Hempstead as Quinones-Wright was hanging outside with friends.

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Shot three times, he died later that night at Winthrop-University Hospital in Mineola. Merchant was arrested without incident on Thursday.

The victim's mother, Chrissie Quinones, was in court Friday but could not be reached. She said earlier this week that her son recently told her he feared someone was out to get him. Quinones said she struggled to keep her son, who last attended Malverne High School in 2012, out of trouble.

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