Details surrounding the friendly-fire death of Queens Det. Brian Simonsen during a botched 2019 robbery emerged for the first time this week at the opening of the trial of one of his accused killers.
Three years after Simonsen was killed, the murder trial of Jagger Freeman — the man who claims he was merely the lookout in the robbery of a T-Mobile store in Richmond Hill where the shooting occurred — began Tuesday in Queens Criminal Court.
Freeman, 28, claims he was unarmed during the robbery and fled the scene as soon as police arrived.
But he has been charged with felony murder, a centuries-old tenet of criminal law that allows prosecutors to charge defendants with murder if an innocent person dies in the commission of a crime — even if the accused was not directly involved in the death.
Freeman’s defense lawyer, Ronald Nir, is expected to argue to the jury that Freeman was across the street from the store during the robbery and did not know that his accomplice, Christopher Ransom, who was inside, was armed.
As it turned out, the firearm Ransom brandished at a store employee and then the cops was a fake.
On Sept. 12, 2019, Simonsen, 42, was among the first cops to respond to the call of a robbery in progress at the T-Mobile store on Atlantic Avenue and 120th Street.
When confronted by police, Ransom refused to drop his gun and pointed it at the cops, who opened fire on him. Eight officers fired more than 40 shots, according to the police account, seriously wounding Ransom. Simonsen and another officer, Sgt. Matthew Gorman, were caught in the barrage.
Gorman was wounded in the leg and survived. Simonsen, shot in the chest, died on the way to Jamaica Hospital Medical Center.
Prosecutor Shawn Clark told the jury this week that Freeman — whom he claimed planned the robbery — “set in motion the events that led to [Simonson’s] death.”
The Police Department has never provided a full explanation of what happened that chaotic night and claims it has never been able to determine which officer’s gun fired the bullet that struck Simonsen.
In the course of his hour-long opening statement, Clark disclosed new information about the shooting, including that Simonsen was standing on the sidewalk in front of the store when Ransom emerged from the back, his arm extended with the fake gun pointed at the detective “just feet away,” he said.
It was Simonsen who fired the first shots at Ransom, said Clark.
“Other officers thought Ransom was firing,” the prosecutor explained to the jury and began to shoot back.
As Simonsen moved to find cover, he turned into another officer’s line of fire and caught a police bullet under his right arm. The single chest wound was fatal.
Security cameras caught Freeman at first walking quickly away from the scene of the shooting, the prosecutor said. “A block away, he started to run,” said Clark.
Ransom, who recovered from his wounds, pleaded guilty late last year to aggravated manslaughter in a plea bargain and was sentenced to 33 years in prison.
Freeman’s case has been more problematic.
Most states have laws on the books that permit prosecutors to charge criminal accomplices with felony murder, though the concept has come under intense scrutiny in recent years for its uneven application.
For instance, it is possible, critics argue, to charge the owner of car used in a fatal holdup with murder under the felony statute even if the owner was nowhere near the scene.
To counter Freeman’s claim that he was a mere lookout in a petty robbery gone wrong, Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz’s office has scheduled an unusually long list of witnesses for his trial. Prosecutors plan to call 45 witnesses during a case that will last at least six weeks, a spokesperson for Katz estimated.
Finding enough jurors to sit for such a lengthy trial took several weeks.
More than 800 potential jurors were screened to come up with the jury of eight men and four women — plus five alternates — that will hear the case, Judge Kenneth Holder said in his opening remarks.
Clark told jurors Freeman and Ransom left a long trail of text messages and phone calls before the Richmond Hill robbery as well as a stick-up at another mobile phone store in St. Albans four days earlier.
Nearly all the available seats in the courtroom were occupied by NYPD detectives — perhaps 30 in all — on Tuesday to witness opening arguments.
Freeman, who has been held on Rikers Island awaiting trial for more than three years, glanced only once at the spectators when he was brought into the courtroom and turned away quickly.