Jeffrey Conroy did not sleep at all Monday night after a jury convicted him of first-degree manslaughter in one of the most notorious hate crimes to go to trial in Suffolk County.
"He was visibly, emotionally upset," said Conroy's defense lawyer, William Keahon of Hauppauge, who visited his client in the Suffolk County jail first thing Tuesday morning. "At one point we just sat there for five minutes and he didn't say a word. He was trying to compose himself."
Conroy became a symbol of Suffolk County's racial tensions after prosecutors said he and six other teenagers went on a hunt for Hispanics to beat up - a hunt that led to the death of Ecuadorean immigrant Marcelo Lucero late on the night of Nov. 8, 2008, in Patchogue.
Conroy, 19, of Medford, was acquitted Monday of second-degree murder as a hate crime and second-degree murder, the two top charges against him. But when the jury found him guilty of first-degree manslaughter as a hate crime in wielding the knife and stabbing Lucero, it was Suffolk's first-ever conviction in a hate crime involving a death. He faces 8 to 25 years in prison when he is sentenced May 26.
Keahon, known for brazen techniques in the courtroom, mounted a defense he acknowledged was risky by allowing his client to take the stand and testify another teenager was the stabber. In 25 years as a defense lawyer, he said, he's put his clients on the stand less than 10 times.
"There are risks of doing what I did but I felt it was the right thing to do," he said, even if the jury ultimately did not believe Conroy's story that he took the rap for the real killer, Christopher Overton, because Overton was facing charges in an unrelated home invasion case.
"If you accept that Overton did have an open charge involving a home invasion, and that he communicated that to Jeff, could a young kid stupidly take responsibility? I say yes," Keahon said.
"The jury has the right to reject it, and they did, but juries aren't always right."
Keahon's defense strategy put him in the awkward position of having to argue both that his client was innocent, and that, if Conroy was guilty of stabbing Lucero, the crime committed was manslaughter, not murder.
Overton's lawyer, Paul Gianelli, said he was surprised that the jury rejected Conroy's story but still acquitted him of murder.
"I thought the jury would have less desire to look at the evidence if they felt they'd had been lied to by him [Conroy]," said Gianelli, whose client has pleaded not guilty of gang assault and other charges and is awaiting trial.
Keahon said he was disappointed that Conroy was not acquitted, but also relieved that his client was not convicted of the top charge, especially given what a political hot potato the case became. "People in Suffolk County wanted a conviction because they want closure," Keahon said, an opinion he said he had shared with Conroy. "They want to say, 'We've taken care of this. It's over. Everything is OK.' "
"How could they [jurors] face the criticism from friends and family that weren't in the courtroom and didn't hear the evidence?" Keahon said. "How do they not give in to that?"
Keahon recalled the jury forewoman's reading of the verdict. He had his hand on Conroy's back and felt him begin to tremble as first two "not guilty" verdicts were read, followed by a string of "guilty" verdicts.
"I don't think you're ever calm again," Keahon said of Conroy. "There's a terror and a fright that accompanies a verdict like this that stays with you, and it's very difficult to mask." With Carl MacGowan