As the jury forewoman pronounced the verdict for first-degree manslaughter as a hate crime - the first of six times the word "guilty" sounded yesterday in a packed Riverhead courtroom - Jeffrey Conroy slumped slightly as he stood next to his attorney.
The former high school athlete was convicted of fatally stabbing Ecuadorean immigrant Marcelo Lucero, 37, on Nov. 8, 2008, in Patchogue and of second-degree attempted assault as a hate crime in attacks on three other Hispanic men, including Lucero's friend Angel Loja.
Conroy, 19, of Medford, avoided a murder conviction and the possibility of life in prison. Still, he faces 8 to 25 years behind bars in what District Attorney Thomas Spota's office said is the first hate-crime conviction in Suffolk County in a case involving a death.
State Supreme Court Justice Robert W. Doyle set sentencing for May 26.
The case that focused international attention on Suffolk County stemmed from that autumn night when, officials say, Conroy and six other teenagers hunted down Hispanics for sport, finding their victim near the Patchogue train station.
Lucero swung his belt as the group moved in, hitting Conroy's head. Conroy then stabbed Lucero with a saw-toothed knife, cutting an artery and a vein. He told police in a written statement he had stabbed Lucero, but recanted when he, in an uncommon legal move, took the stand in his own defense.
The manslaughter conviction means the jury found that Conroy intended to cause serious injury to Lucero, but his actions resulted in death. A conviction of second-degree murder as a hate crime - the top charge - would have meant that he intended to kill Lucero and did.
William Keahon, Conroy's attorney, said he would appeal. "Unfortunately, in our system of justice, sometimes young men and women are convicted of crimes they did not commit," he said. "That's why we have an appeals process."
Jurors said later they did not believe Conroy when he claimed the stabbing was done by another teen, Christopher Overton of East Patchogue, who awaits his own trial in the case. They also said they did not believe Conroy intended to kill Lucero.
The jury "almost disregarded his testimony and made its decision based on the prosecution's evidence, " said Paul Gianelli, Christopher Overton's lawyer.
Lucero's mother, brother and sister arrived at court after the verdict. His brother, Joselo Lucero, praised the district attorney's office for its work on the case. "The hunting season is over, at least for now," Lucero said. "I've been here every day because I wanted to see how the justice system works in this country."
Conroy's parents, Robert and Lori, sat quietly in the courtroom and then walked to an elevator, where Conroy's father began to cry. A sister and a brother were in tears.
Conroy's family had no comment after the verdict. Only Conroy was charged with the stabbing. Four teens have pleaded guilty to first-degree gang assault and have not yet been sentenced, and two, including Overton, await trial.
With Carl MacGowan