In an attempt to persuade a jury that he did not stab Ecuadorean immigrant Marcelo Lucero, Medford teenager Jeffrey Conroy testified Thursday that he took the blame for a killing he said was committed by a teen he'd met only hours earlier.
During more than three hours on the witness stand, Conroy, 19, said he took a black-handled folding knife from Christopher Overton, 17, of East Patchogue, as the pair fled following the stabbing near the Patchogue train station on Nov. 8, 2008.
He said he agreed to confess to the stabbing because he did not initially believe Lucero was seriously injured and because Overton had told him hours earlier that he had been charged in connection with an earlier unrelated murder case.
"I felt bad for him because of the murder charge he had before him, so I took the knife from him," Conroy said during questioning by Assistant District Attorney Megan O'Donnell. "I figured he only nicked him."
In a case that has drawn international attention, Conroy has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder and first-degree manslaughter, as hate crimes, in Lucero's death. The trial is in its fourth week of testimony.
As Conroy testified Thursday, members of Lucero's family - including his mother, sister and brother - were among about 100 people who crowded the courtroom.
Conroy, wearing a white, open-collared shirt in the packed third-floor Riverhead courtroom, figuratively walked the jury through that night, when he was part of a large group of teens who had met earlier at a Medford train station and a park, where they drank beer.
The Medford teenager's version of events differed starkly from that of other witnesses - including prime prosecution witness Nicholas Hausch, 18, who testified earlier in the trial that Conroy had shown him a bloody knife and said that he, Conroy, had stabbed Lucero, 37.
Thursday, Conroy said he had planned to go to a friend's house for a birthday party, but instead rode with six other teens to Patchogue, where police said they attacked Lucero and two other Hispanic men.
"I wasn't going to fight anybody that night, and I didn't fight anybody that night," Conroy said at least three times during his testimony.
No other witness has pinned the stabbing on Overton, who is one of two teenagers still facing trial in the case. Four others, including Hausch, have pleaded guilty.
After the stabbing, Conroy said, Overton approached him as they fled.
"Jeff, I think I just stabbed the guy in the shoulder," Overton said to him, Conroy testified during questioning by his attorney, William Keahon of Hauppauge. "I really can't get in trouble for this. Can you please take the knife?"
Conroy said he then showed the knife to other friends and told them he stabbed Lucero. Minutes later, he said, he told a police officer he had committed the stabbing.
He said he had met Overton earlier that day. Over dinner at Conroy's home, Overton told him he had been charged with burglary in connection with a 2007 murder stemming from an East Patchogue home invasion, Conroy said.
Following Conroy's testimony, Overton's mother, Denise, told reporters it was "horrible, absolutely horrible" that Conroy tried to pin Lucero's death on her son.
Christopher Overton has pleaded not guilty to gang assault and other charges in connection with Lucero's death and is awaiting trial. He had pleaded guilty to second-degree burglary in connection with the 2007 case and is awaiting sentencing.
During questioning by an apparently incredulous O'Donnell, Conroy said he was not truthful when he told Det. John McLeer, the lead investigator in the case, that he had stabbed Lucero. He said he did not write or read the statement he signed for police in which he confessed to the stabbing.
"Do you know what the word 'truthful' means?" O'Donnell asked.
"Yes," Conroy said. "I told Detective McLeer that I stabbed him, but did I really do it? No."
"You wanted to help Christopher Overton out, so you kept the evidence of a crime?" O'Donnell said, referring to the knife.
"Yes," Conroy said.
"And you kept it why?" she asked.
"Because Christopher Overton asked me to take it because of the other case."
O'Donnell pointed out that another teen charged in connection with Lucero's stabbing, Jose Pacheco, threw a white-handled knife he was carrying into a trash can as they fled. Police later found the knife in the trash can.
"Did you ever think to toss that knife?" O'Donnell asked, referring to the black-handled knife.
"No," Conroy said. "'Cause Christopher Overton told me to take the knife."
Conroy testified that he had a friend make a tattoo of a swastika on his leg "as a joke" and said two lightning-bolt tattoos on his body are not meant to represent white power.
"I am a San Diego Chargers fan," Conroy said. The Chargers have lightning bolts on their helmets.
"The first one didn't look anything like it, and neither did the other one, but we tried," Conroy said.
A friend Alyssa Sprague of Bellport, had testified that Conroy told her the lightning bolt stood for white power.
Conroy said he had a photo of the swastika tattoo in his cell phone "because I wanted to see what it looked like."
Under questioning from Keahon after he first took the witness stand, Conroy recounted how he met up at a park with other teenagers on the evening Lucero was stabbed. Two in the group, Hausch and Anthony Hartford, 18, had said they wanted to go to Patchogue to fight Hispanics.
"Let's go -- up some Mexicans," Hausch said, Conroy testified.
A girl at the park, Michelle Cassidy, said, "Chill, don't go with them. You might get in trouble,' " Conroy said.
"I said, 'I'm not going with them,' " Conroy testified, later adding he never intended to fight anyone that evening and had planned to go to friend's house. Another friend, Jordan Dasch, agreed to drop him off at the friend's house, Conroy said. But instead, Dasch drove to Patchogue with Conroy, Hausch, Hartford and three other teens as passengers in his red sport utility vehicle.
In Patchogue, Conroy testified, four of the teens got out of the SUV and chased a Hispanic man. Conroy said he stayed behind at the vehicle and watched.
He said no one beat the man.
He said they drove several blocks and parked in a parking lot, then walked south on Railroad Avenue, where they encountered two Hispanic men, apparently Lucero and his friend Angel Loja, 37.
After words were exchanged between the men and the teens, one teen, Kevin Shea, punched the smaller man in the nose, Conroy said.
Then Lucero and Loja swung their belts at the teens, he said.
"When we saw that, we just start running," Conroy said.
Conroy said that Shea said, "Surround him," referring to the smaller man, but no one did.
"No one wanted to get hit with the belt," he testified.
He said the man with the belt ran toward Dasch.
"As the guy went toward Jordan Dasch, I saw Chris Overton run toward the guy," Conroy said.
He said Overton had his sweatshirt in one hand and nothing in the other.
"I heard screaming," Conroy said.
Then, Conroy said, Overton said, "All right, let's go."
As the teenagers fled, Conroy said, Overton came to him.
"He said, 'Jeff, I think I just stabbed the guy in the shoulder. I can't get in trouble for this. Can you take the knife?' " Conroy testified.
Overton said he "nicked" the victim, Conroy said. Overton reminded him he faced charges in a previous murder case, he said.
Conroy said he took the knife, showed it to the other teens nearby and said, "I stabbed the guy."
Soon, the seven teens were stopped by police. As an officer frisked him, he said, he asked the officer to speak to him privately.
"I said, 'I got the knife on me,' " Conroy testified.
Shortly after Conroy began testifying, State Supreme Court Justice Robert W. Doyle gave the jury specific instructions regarding the defendant's testimony about Overton.
Because Conroy's testimony stemmed from "hearsay" - that is, what Conroy said Overton had said to him, not something Conroy himself observed - the judge instructed jurors that they are not to weigh the "truth or falsity" of Conroy's testimony about Overton. The judge said he permitted the testimony so the panel could assess Conroy's "state of mind" at the time of the stabbing.
The judge's decision to allow Conroy to testify about Overton's alleged involvement in the stabbing was a switch from his earlier ruling that he would not allow that testimony.
On Wednesday, Doyle ruled that any alleged statements by Overton to Conroy were hearsay and inadmissible. He ruled that no other evidence presented at the trial supported the contention that Overton stabbed Lucero.
Until Wednesday, Overton was a peripheral player in the trial.
Overton, in his statement to police shortly after his arrest, 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."
With Kathleen Kerr