Four ways the Lucero case has changed Suffolk

Jeffrey Conroy inside Robert W. Doyle's courtroom in

Jeffrey Conroy inside Robert W. Doyle's courtroom in Riverhead Criminal Court. (Feb. 2, 2009) (Credit: James Carbone)

Joye Brown

Newsday columnist Joye Brown Joye Brown

Joye Brown has been a columnist for Newsday since 2006.

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Jury selection is slated to begin Tuesday in Riverhead for Jeffrey Conroy, in what is believed to be the first trial for murder as a hate crime in Long Island history. But the case of Marcelo Lucero has grown to be about more than one Ecuadorean immigrant and a group of teenage defendants. Here are four ways the Lucero case has changed Suffolk County:

It exposed hate-fueled violence against Hispanics.

Until Lucero's death, the county district attorney usually handled three to five hate-crime cases a year. The biggest was in 2000, when two men lured two Hispanic day workers away to Shirley from Farmingville and beat them.

The men were charged with attempted murder as a hate crime. Among other allegations, Conroy, 19, is facing charges of murder and manslaughter as a hate crime.

In investigating the Lucero case, the D.A. discovered other victims. And then even more began to step forward.

"We knew that there were things going on, and sometimes we could get people to report them to police," Nadia Marin Molina, executive director of The Workplace Project, said Monday. "It turned out to be worse than we thought."

It changed policing.

The U.S. Justice Department is investigating allegations of discriminatory policing against Hispanics in Suffolk. Federal officials aren't talking, but some who have been interviewed told me investigators are looking into how complaints from Hispanics were classified.

Meanwhile, police brass is voluntarily remaking the department to be more Hispanic-friendly by posting signs in Spanish in precincts and offering Spanish lessons for officers.

The changes are significant for a department whose top brass repeatedly has insisted that existing procedures were adequate. Which raises the question of whether changes were made to blunt any anticipated criticism from the feds.

It changed politics.

County Executive Steve Levy - long a critic of illegal immigration, for too long of illegal immigrants themselves - took the unprecedented step of broadcasting a live address against racism and hate.

He's had mixed results on the follow-up. Levy's talked to teens about hate, but at a roast made a joke about "deporting the guys in the kitchen."

The county legislature has done far better. Lawmakers created a task force and held hearings on hate crimes throughout the county. And there has been no more legislation aimed specifically at Hispanics.

"Things did get out of hand," said Legis. Jack Eddington, who once queried a Hispanic speaker about his immigration status during a public hearing.

Eddington was hardly the only elected official not to consider the impact of his words. But he's the only one who apologized.

"There were overcrowding and traffic and other problems that were not being addressed out there, and that turned into frustration, and that frustration turned into anger, and that anger was turned against Hispanics. Nothing got done and things just spiraled down from there."

It changed the dialogue on hate and immigration.

In Nassau and Suffolk, a variety of groups launched efforts aimed at educating residents - especially students - about the Island's increasing diversity. And about hate crimes.

There was a time, Eddington said, when every community meeting he attended turned into a session about illegal immigrants.

"Nobody talks like that anymore," he said. "Everybody stays quiet."

Silence is not necessarily a good thing, he pointed out, because issues, like overcrowding and public safety, remain.

And because of Marcelo Lucero, there may be a way, finally, to get to even those issues.

In December, longtime residents and Hispanic newcomers in Farmingville came together for the first time to plan out the community's future, together.