Jury begins deliberations in trial of Canarsie man who allegedly shot an FBI agent
There is no dispute over the fact that Ronell Watson, a Canarsie man, shot two times at the car of an FBI agent on Dec. 8, 2018, in broad daylight, striking the undercover agent in the back and nearly killing him.
But during closing arguments Monday in Watson’s trial in Brooklyn Federal Court before District Judge William F. Kuntz, prosecutors and defense attorneys painted starkly different circumstances that led to the shooting of FBI agent Christopher Harper — with prosecutors describing Watson as a gun-toting terror looking for trouble, and Watson’s attorneys describing a man with vision problems who suspected he might be robbed, and reacted, leading to a tragic situation.
“Video recordings unequivocally show that Ronell Watson shot Agent Harper in the back at close range without provocation,” said Richard P. Donoghue, the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York. “Although this case is very important, it’s frankly not that complicated.”
Harper was on a covert operation that Saturday afternoon and had stationed himself in his unmarked, tinted-window Nissan Maxima outside Watson’s home — though Watson had nothing to do with the case the agent was working. The rookie FBI agent, who previously worked as a Philadelphia beat cop, was FaceTiming his wife and showing her Watson’s house, which he said stood out in the neighborhood for being a beautiful old Victorian house with a gazebo, porch and a Koi pond.
Watson pulled up in his BMW going the wrong way down one-way Canarsie Road and got out in front of Harper’s car, partially blocking the agent in, according to prosecutors. Harper, perceiving a threat and seeing Watson touch his waistband, sped away, and the Canarsie man began shooting at the FBI agent’s car.
Watson is charged with attempted murder of a federal officer, assault of a federal officer and possessing and discharging a weapon in the furtherance of a crime.
“The first round rips through the window, through the back of the driver’s seat, through the front of the driver’s seat and into Agent Harper’s back,” Donoghue said. “Inches, if that, from his heart.”
Harper drove to the nearest intersection, got out of his car, and returned fire, shooting 16 rounds at Watson and striking him in the hand, which Watson got treated at a nearby hospital.
While prosecutors did not claim to know exactly why Watson fired his gun at Harper’s car, or whether or not Watson knew that Harper was working for the FBI or any law enforcement department, they argued that it didn’t matter.
“Mr. Watson intended to kill when he aimed that loaded gun at Agent Harper’s back and shot,” Donoghue said. “When you aim at someone and pull the trigger, you’re aiming to kill.”
Watson’s defense attorney, Michelle Gelernt, argued that her client — who suffers from glaucoma and has vision problems — perceived a car blocking his driveway when he returned home from a barbershop using a “shortcut.” She called this misunderstanding a “tragic misperception.”
Harper’s car was not blocking Watson’s driveway, according to video footage.
“He saw an unfamiliar car with tinted windows and appearing to him to block his driveway,” Gelernt said. When Harper slammed on the gas, Watson’s vision trouble made it look like the car was speeding toward him, Gelernt argued.
“He was reacting to a perceived threat to his home and family,” the defense attorney argued.
Gelernt also argued that issues with Harper’s work as an FBI agent that day demonstrate that jurors should not rely on the agent’s memory. She spoke about the fact that Harper was FaceTiming his wife while on the job, that he was not wearing a bulletproof vest and that he was in a “bad tactical position” on the street.
Sitting in the first row of the audience at the trial, Harper was stone-faced as he listened.
“Does this seem to be the way you should conduct yourself when you’re on a covert operation?” Gelernt asked the jury.
Donoghue said that despite Harper being new to the FBI in New York, he was a “superbly trained agent,” as exemplified by his recognizing that he was in a dangerous situation that day, avoiding getting killed and still having the wherewithal to return fire.
Watson’s trial lasted one week, with jurors taken down into the parking lot of the federal courthouse to look at both the agent and the defendant’s cars which were both riddled with bullet holes from the winter firefight.
Jurors began deliberating in the case Monday afternoon.
Correction (July 16 at 12:41 p.m.): A previous version of this article misstated the title for District Judge William F. Kuntz. The story has been updated to reflect the correct title. The Eagle regrets this error.
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