A Long Island teenager has been convicted of manslaughter as a hate crime in the stabbing death of an Ecuadorean immigrant.
Jeffrey Conroy had pleaded not guilty to murder and manslaughter as hate crimes, as well as other charges, in the November 2008 death of Marcelo Lucero.
The verdict came after a four-week long trial and nearly 30 prosecution witnesses. Conroy was found not guilty of murder as a hate crime, but convicted of manslaughter as a hate crime, gang assault, conspiracy and three charges of attempted assault in other cases.
Conroy was implicated along with six others in the killing, but was the only one charged with murder because prosecutors say he was the one who stabbed the victim. Four others have pleaded guilty to hate crime-related charges; two are awaiting trial.
Prosecutors say Lucero's killing was the culmination of a campaign of violence against Hispanics in an avocation Conroy and his friends called "beaner-hopping" or "Mexican hopping."
Conroy, a three-star athlete at Patchogue-Medford High School, admitted to police he was responsible for the stabbing but took the witness stand last week to say he had taken the blame for one of his co-defendants — a teenager he had just met earlier that night.
Jurors had the option of choosing whether to convict Conroy of either murder or manslaughter as hate crimes; they also had the option to consider the charges without the hate crime accusation.
Since the killing, the U.S. Department of Justice has opened an investigation into hate crimes on eastern Long Island and the police response to such cases.
Prosecutors said many Hispanics attacked in the days before Lucero's killing were afraid to report the crimes to police, fearing questions about their immigration status. The teenagers, she said, were aware of that trepidation and took advantage of their victims' fears by operating with impunity.
Lucero, 37, was walking with a childhood friend, Angel Loja, near the Patchogue train station around midnight when they were confronted by the teenagers, who prosecutors say were strolling around town looking for targets.
The teens began yelling ethnic slurs and approached the men, authorities said. One of the teens punched Lucero in the face, and within moments, Lucero and Loja, were swinging their belts in self-defense, prosecutors say.
After Conroy was hit in the head with Lucero's belt, he lost his temper and stabbed the man in the chest, prosecutors say.
In heart-rending testimony delivered late last month, Loja described his last moments with his friend.
"I heard the blood rushing from my friend," Loja told a hushed Suffolk County courtroom. "It sounded like water from a faucet."
Although Loja, 37, described the teens as "animals" who beat and kicked Lucero, he did not testify about actually seeing the stabbing and he never identified Conroy as the man with the knife.
Loja also confirmed that prosecutors paid him up to $600 a month after the killing.
The Ecuador native testified he could not find work because of his connection to the Lucero killing and would have had to return to his homeland without the aid. Conroy's attorney had hinted the aid tainted his testimony.
Three of four alternate jurors who were released from duty as deliberations began said they were inclined to convict Conroy at least of manslaughter. Some also said Conroy hurt his case by implicating another teen at the end of his trial.
"He said nothing to change my mind. I did not believe the story that someone else did it after 17 months," Cathy Tidmarsh, one alternate, said at the time.
Another, Cosmos Hionidis, said Conroy "would have been better off not going on that stand and giving us that story."