Queens man acquitted in Officer Figoski case

Court officers escort Michael Velez, center, into a Court officers escort Michael Velez, center, into a courtroom during his trial in Brooklyn Supreme Court. (Jan. 28, 2013). Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

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A Queens man was acquitted Wednesday on charges that he served as the lookout and getaway driver in a robbery scheme that ended with the fatal shooting of NYPD Officer Peter Figoski, a West Babylon resident, 14 months ago.

The Brooklyn jury of seven men and five women, by implication, accepted the defense of Michael Velez, 22, of Ozone Park, who testified that he was just giving a ride to a friend and never knew that the other four men in his car were going to rob a drug dealer.

He had been charged with burglary, although he remained at his car. He also faced a charge of murder in the second degree because police said he took part in a felony -- a burglary in this case -- in which Figoski was killed.

It was the second setback within a week for the prosecution and the second verdict in the case to enrage the NYPD police union and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. A separate jury in the same courtroom convicted Lamont Pride, 28, of North Carolina this past week of murder in the second degree for shooting Figoski in the face when he found him blocking his escape from the basement where the robbery took place on Dec. 12, 2011.

However, that jury acquitted Pride on the most serious charge, the intentional murder of a police officer, punishable by life without parole. Pride faces 25 years to life when he is sentenced Feb. 28.

Members of both the Velez and Figoski families -- including the officer's mother, father and four daughters -- broke down in tears when the verdict was read shortly after 4 p.m. Wednesday in state Supreme Court in Brooklyn. The jury had begun deliberations just before 11 a.m. following three weeks of testimony.

Figoski's mother, Mary Anne, approached the courtroom railing after the jury left the room, reached her hand over to prosecutor Kenneth Taub and told him: "You did the best you could."

The Figoski family left the courthouse without comment. Members of the Velez family also declined to comment.

Defense attorney Damien Brown said later that Velez, who remained in custody on a parole violation from an earlier crime, had asked him to convey his sorrow to the Figoski family.

The president of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association criticized yesterday's verdict, as he had the Pride verdict last week. "This jury didn't show an ounce of the courage that Peter Figoski did . . . This verdict says that they're willing to have a killer live next door to them," PBA president Patrick Lynch said. " . . . This cop killer will now walk out these doors. He'll walk out these doors to commit crimes again. "

Kelly released a statement saying: "When juries fail to comprehend the monstrous scale of a police officer's murder, they fail society itself . . . It's shameful that the family of Peter Figoski must be crushed again by another incomprehensible verdict."

Two other alleged members of the robbery crew are awaiting trial and another pleaded guilty and will get a reduced sentence in return for his testimony. That accomplice testified that Velez heard the men in the car talking about the robbery, and that Pride chambered a round in the murder weapon while still in the car.

The prosecution presented phone records showing Velez had made two cellphone calls to the robbery crew in the basement around the time Figoski and other officers were arriving in response to a 911 call of a robbery in progress.

Velez testified he was only calling to tell them to hurry because he wanted to get home to his young daughter.

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