Judge: Conroy cannot testify another teen stabbed Lucero

Christopher Overton appears in court in Riverhead on

Christopher Overton appears in court in Riverhead on Jan. 28, 2009. (Credit: AP)

Saying all evidence presented so far points to Jeffrey Conroy as the person who fatally stabbed Ecuadorean immigrant Marcelo Lucero, a state Supreme Court justice in Riverhead said Wednesday he would not allow Conroy to pin Lucero's death on another teen charged in the case.

Conroy's murder and manslaughter trial was abruptly adjourned Wednesday afternoon after extended discussions between the judge and attorneys in the judge's chambers regarding whether Conroy would take the stand.

Conroy's attorney, William Keahon of Hauppauge, wanted Conroy to testify in his own defense Wednesday afternoon, but only under certain conditions, Justice Robert W. Doyle told a hushed courtroom at about 2:30 p.m.

Among those conditions was that Conroy would be allowed to testify that another teen, Christopher Overton, had stabbed Lucero and then handed the knife to Conroy as they fled the scene.

In a 15-minute explication without the jury present, Doyle denied the motion, saying evidence previously admitted during four weeks of testimony did not support the assertion that Overton stabbed Lucero.

"There is no other evidence in this case that supports this version" of Lucero's death, Doyle announced from the bench. "On the contrary, all of the physical evidence and oral statements point to the defendant as the one who stabbed the victim."

The adjournment was announced shortly after 3 p.m. The trial was scheduled to resume at 10 a.m. Thursday in Suffolk County Court in Riverhead.

Conroy, 19, is charged with second-degree murder and first-degree manslaughter, as hate crimes, in Lucero's death on Nov. 8, 2008, near the Patchogue train station. Conroy has pleaded not guilty.

According to what Doyle said in court, Conroy's testimony would have implicated Overton, 17, of East Patchogue, in the stabbing itself. Overton has pleaded not guilty to first-degree gang assault and other charges in the Lucero case and is awaiting trial.

Doyle, Keahon and prosecutor Megan O'Donnell had huddled in the judge's chambers much of the morning and early afternoon.

In his ruling, Doyle also refused to allow Conroy to testify about statements Overton allegedly made to him before and after Lucero was killed.

According to Doyle, Keahon wanted permission to allow Conroy to testify about a dinner conversation he had with Overton earlier in the evening of Nov. 8, 2008, in which Overton allegedly told Conroy that he had been charged in connection with a slaying in East Patchogue.

In addition, Conroy would testify about a statement Overton allegedly made shortly after Lucero was stabbed, Doyle said.

Overton had pleaded guilty to first-degree burglary in connection with the May 2007 killing of Carlton Shaw, 38, in East Patchogue. He is awaiting sentencing in that case.

Doyle said anything Overton said to Conroy was "hearsay" and would be inadmissible during Conroy's testimony.

After the Conroy trial adjourned Wednesday afternoon, Overton's attorney, Paul Gianelli of Hauppauge, blasted the notion of Conroy taking the stand to blame his client for Lucero's stabbing.

"I think that Conroy must really be feeling very desperate at this time, and I think he's in la-la land here," Gianelli said. "It's just really desperate tactics."

Until Wednesday, Overton was a peripheral player in the trial. Although witnesses said he was part of a large group of teenagers hanging out together in Medford hours before Lucero was killed and he was one of the seven teens charged in connection with the slaying, no witnesses said he stabbed Lucero.

In his statement to police shortly after his arrest, Overton said three teens standing near Lucero suddenly ran away. "I saw that he had a lot of blood on the front of his shirt by his chest to his stomach," he said. "As we were walking back to the car, I heard one of the guys in my group say that Jeff stabbed the guy and that the knife was rinsed off in a puddle."

Gianelli said Overton had no comment. Overton is one of just two defendants in the case, other than Conroy, who have not pleaded guilty.

A Hofstra law professor took exception to the judge's ruling on Conroy's testimony, saying Conroy should be allowed to tell jurors his version of how Lucero was killed.

"I can't understand how the judge can preclude the defendant from saying someone else committed the crime," said Lawrence Kessler, a former federal defender. "Kindergarten law is that the jury makes credibility decisions, not judges, and it certainly seems to me . . . [Doyle] is making a credibility decision."

Kessler said Conroy could be barred from testifying about statements Overton made over dinner before Lucero was killed.

"On the other hand, there are many, many exceptions to the hearsay rule," and Overton's statements after Lucero was stabbed could be admissible, Kessler said.

Keahon, as a precondition for Conroy's testimony, also asked the judge to limit questioning of Conroy regarding other possible cases in which Conroy may have been involved before Lucero's death. Doyle granted that motion.

Doyle said he would allow prosecutors to question Conroy about statements he made to officials when he entered the Suffolk County jail after he was arrested in connection with Lucero's slaying.

In a routine security assessment, which is prepared for all incoming inmates, jail officials described Conroy as a "self-described white supremacist" who said he "was raised in a home where the parents expressed racist beliefs," Doyle said.

Conroy's parents, Robert and Lori, who have attended most of the trial, were not in court during Doyle's ruling.

The attorneys met again with Doyle after his ruling, and sources said it was possible he could alter his ruling when the trial resumes Thursday.

A large crowd, including Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota, other prosecutors and defense attorneys and court personnel, had packed the third-floor courtroom as word flew about the courthouse that Conroy might testify.

After the trial's adjournment, O'Donnell declined to comment.

With Kathleen Kerr

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