Monday, April 19, 2010

Guilty Verdict in Killing of Long Island Immigrant

Published: April 19, 2010

RIVERHEAD, N.Y. — The Long Island teenager accused of stabbing and killing an Ecuadorean immigrant in a racially motivated attack was convicted on Monday of manslaughter as a hate crime, a less serious crime than the initial murder charge — saving him from spending the rest of his life behind bars.

Seventeen months after the stabbing in 2008 and 24 miles from the parking lot in Patchogue where the victim left a 370-foot trail of blood, the jury forewoman rose in State Supreme Court here to read the verdict, ending four days of deliberations. The teenager, Jeffrey Conroy, was found guilty of first-degree manslaughter as a hate crime and gang assault in connection with the death of the immigrant, Marcelo Lucero, and guilty of attempted assaults on three other Hispanic men. He was acquitted of the most serious of the 20 charges against him, second-degree murder as a hate crime.

On the manslaughter charge alone, Mr. Conroy, 19, faces a minimum of eight years and a maximum of 25 years in prison when he is sentenced on May 26. As the verdict was read, the courtroom was virtually silent. When Mr. Conroy sat down, he bowed his head for a few moments.

Mr. Lucero’s death had become a symbol of the anti-Hispanic harassment and assaults that Latinos on eastern Long Island said they had been victims of for years, and it helped prompt an ongoing federal investigation into the Suffolk County Police Department’s handling of reports of racially motivated attacks against Hispanics. The Lucero family and their supporters, including a representative of the Ecuadorean government’s National Department of the Migrants, had expressed confidence in recent days that the prosecution had indeed proven that Mr. Conroy was guilty of murder.

The verdict came 11 days after Mr. Conroy took the stand to proclaim his innocence and blame the stabbing on another teenager, the most startling and puzzling moment in a trial that began nearly seven weeks ago with jury selection on March 2. Mr. Conroy said that moments after the stabbing, the other teenager, Christopher Overton, told him that he was the one who stabbed Mr. Lucero and had asked him to take the knife.

At the time, Mr. Overton was out on bail awaiting sentencing on a felony conviction for a 2007 home-invasion burglary in which the homeowner was shot and killed. Mr. Conroy said Mr. Overton told him, “I’ll be screwed if I get caught.”

Mr. Conroy testified that his five-page written confession to the police, in which he admitted stabbing Mr. Lucero as part of an attack he carried out with six friends, was a lie. He said in court that he lied to protect Mr. Overton, whom he had met for the first time earlier that evening, and because he did not realize at the time he was being questioned by the police that Mr. Lucero had died.

The 12-member jury was made up of seven men and five women. One was black, one was Hispanic and the rest were white.

The jury’s manslaughter verdict meant that they had agreed with one of the arguments made by Mr. Conroy’s lawyer — that his client did not intend to kill Mr. Lucero — and discounted the prosecution’s allegation that Mr. Conroy stabbed him in the chest seeking not to injure but to kill. To convict Mr. Conroy of second-degree murder, the jury had to have found that he intended to kill Mr. Lucero, and to convict of first-degree manslaughter, they needed to find that Mr. Conroy caused Mr. Lucero’s death while intending to cause only serious physical injury, not death.

Mr. Lucero was stabbed once in the chest, and the knife did not penetrate the chest cavity, did not strike any major organs and ran parallel to the skin, cutting his right axillary artery and an adjacent large vein.

In his closing argument, Mr. Conroy’s lawyer, William Keahon, told the jury that if Mr. Conroy had intended to kill Mr. Lucero, there should have been multiple stab wounds, and Mr. Lucero would not have been allowed to walk away as the altercation ended, as he did, though the lead detective in the case described it earlier in the trial not as walking but as staggering away. In her summation, the Suffolk County assistant district attorney prosecuting the case, Megan O’Donnell, said that Mr. Conroy’s intent to kill was evident, because the entire blade went into Mr. Lucero’s chest area and was stopped only by the handle, and because the knife went in, came partly out and went back in, in two separate thrusts.

Prosecutors said Mr. Lucero, a 37-year-old worker at a dry cleaning shop from Gualaceo, Ecuador, was surrounded and attacked by Mr. Conroy and six other teenagers in a parking lot of the Long Island Rail Road train station in Patchogue shortly before midnight on Nov. 8, 2008. Mr. Lucero and his friend were walking to another friend’s house. Mr. Conroy and his six friends were out walking, too, on the hunt, prosecutors said, for Hispanic men to beat up, a frequent activity that they referred to as “Mexican hopping” and “beaner hopping.”

Mr. Lucero took off his belt and began swinging it after one of the seven teenagers punched him in the face. Mr. Conroy said in his written statement to the police that the belt struck him on the head, and, as Ms. O’Donnell said, Mr. Conroy lunged at Mr. Lucero with a knife because he was angry and because Mr. Lucero had the audacity to fight back. Mr. Lucero died of a stab wound to the chest about an hour later.

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