Teen accused of NY hate-crime stabbing takes the stand to blame acquaintance in the killing

By Frank Eltman, AP
Thursday, April 8, 2010

Defendant blames fellow teen in NY stabbing death

RIVERHEAD, N.Y. — A teenager accused of stabbing an immigrant to death testified Thursday that an acquaintance he had just met delivered the fatal blow and insisted he wasn’t even carrying a knife the night of the killing, despite admitting the crime to police.

Jeffrey Conroy, 19, was called as the first defense witness and proceeded to deny that he inflicted a fatal stab wound on Ecuadorean immigrant Marcelo Lucero on a Patchogue, N.Y., street in November 2008. He claimed he took the blame for the killing out of kindness to a teenager he met hours earlier.

Conroy is one of seven teenagers charged in the case but the only one accused of murder and manslaughter as a hate crime and other charges because prosecutors say he delivered the fatal wound. Four of the seven have pleaded guilty to gang assault and hate crime charges.

Prosecutors say the killing was the culmination of an ongoing campaign of violence by the teens against Hispanics. 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.

State Supreme Court Justice Robert W. Doyle had previously ruled that Conroy could not testify that another teen had stabbed Lucero, but he amended that ruling Thursday morning. He said the testimony was permissible to show jurors Conroy’s state of mind when he was questioned by police.

Lucero, 37, was walking with a friend near the Patchogue train station near 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. One of the teens punched Lucero in the face. Within moments, Lucero and his friend were swinging their belts in self-defense and began to pursue the teens to a parking lot.

Conroy testified that co-defendant Christopher Overton told him he had stabbed Lucero.

“He said, ‘Jeff, I think I just stabbed the guy in the shoulder,’” Conroy said Overton told him. “‘I really could get in trouble for this. Can you please take the knife? I only nicked him, and I’ll promise you he’s not hurt.’”

Conroy said Overton had told him earlier in the night that he had a burglary conviction in a case where the homeowner was killed and could not afford further trouble with the police. He also testified that the two had just met that night.

“I felt bad for him,” Conroy testified on cross-examination, adding he trusted Overton when he claimed Lucero had not been seriously hurt. “I figured he only scratched him.”

Overton’s mother and his attorney were in the courtroom to hear Conroy’s claims and derided the accusations after the testimony concluded.

“It’s absolutely horrible, and I know it’s not true,” Denise Overton said.

Attorney Paul Gianelli said Conroy was attempting to scapegoat his client.

“It just strains common sense. You cannot say that with a straight face,” Gianelli told reporters. “This guy wasn’t a friend of his. That’s probably the most unbelievable part of this thing that after seeing these people for a couple of hours that he’s going to go out on a limb to do something like this and admit to stabbing this guy?”

Overton has pleaded not guilty to hate crime charges related to the killing and is awaiting trial.

During the prosecution phase of the trial, two police officers and another of the teens involved in the killing testified that Conroy had admitted being the one who inflicted the final blow. Conroy said he signed a five-page written statement admitting the killing, but he insisted Thursday that he never read it.

The judge had also ruled that prosecutors would be permitted to ask Conroy about statements he made to jail officials when he was arrested, claiming to have been raised in a racist household and that he followed white Supremacist Web sites, although Assistant District Attorney Megan O’Donnell ultimately decided against questioning Conroy on that.

It also was revealed during testimony earlier in the trial that Conroy has a swastika tattoo on his leg. He told the prosecutor on cross-examination that he got the tattoo on a dare.

(This version CORRECTS spelling of prosecutor’s 1st name to Megan, not Meghan.)

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