Leonardo Valdez-Cruz, seen arriving at the Nassau County Courthouse on...

Leonardo Valdez-Cruz, seen arriving at the Nassau County Courthouse on the first day of his trial, was found guilty of first-degree murder and other charges on April 30 in the torture and stabbing of his estranged girlfriend, Jo'Anna Bird, 24, in her New Cassel apartment in 2009. (April 13, 2010) Credit: Howard Schnapp

The jury forewoman had barely begun announcing the verdict Friday against Leonardo Valdez-Cruz - guilty of first-degree murder - when an officer in the packed Mineola courtroom pulled the defendant's wrists behind his back and snapped handcuffs around them.

The court officers were ready for almost anything to happen after Valdez-Cruz's eruption on Thursday, when he shouted, "What about my feelings?" as the prosecutor showed the bloody aftermath of his attack on his estranged girlfriend, Jo'Anna Bird.

But on Friday as he heard the guilty verdicts, the Westbury man just bowed his head toward the defense table. He appeared calm, a slight smile tugging at the corners of his mouth, as the officers led him from the Mineola courtroom.

Five hours of deliberations

The jury deliberated about five hours over two days before finding Valdez-Cruz, 24, guilty of the top charge as well as second-degree burglary, aggravated criminal contempt and other charges. He faces a maximum of life in prison without parole when Judge John Kase sentences him June 11.

Prosecutors said Valdez-Cruz terrorized Bird, also 24, for months before finally breaking into her New Cassel apartment and stabbing her to death on March 19, 2009.

With the verdict, "She finally got justice," Bird's mother, Sharon Dorsett, 49, of Westbury, said outside the courtroom, tears rolling down her cheeks. "I'm just so happy because she can finally be put to rest."

Valdez-Cruz's lawyer, Dana Grossblatt of Jericho, said her client plans to appeal.

"Mr. Valdez-Cruz still professes his innocence and his love for Jo'Anna Bird," she said outside court. At trial, Grossblatt argued that police presumed that her client was guilty because he had a rocky relationship with Bird, and never thoroughly investigated other suspects.

But prosecutor Madeline Singas said Valdez-Cruz couldn't handle the fact that Bird wanted to end the relationship, and he threatened repeatedly to torture and kill her if she would not take him back.

Valdez-Cruz was charged with first-degree murder because, prosecutors said, he killed Bird "in an especially cruel and wanton manner . . . inflicting torture" on her until she died.

In her closing argument Thursday, Singas showed Bird's autopsy photos while playing tapes of telephone conversations Valdez-Cruz had with Bird from jail in the fall of 2008, in some cases threatening to mutilate her in the exact ways that he ultimately did.

"Nothing ever surprises me about what human beings are capable of, but this extent of savagery - his unrelenting pursuit of Jo'Anna Bird - is something I've never experienced," Singas said after the verdict. "I'm glad the jury saw it."

One juror, who declined to give his name, said reaching the verdict was not difficult.

"It was pretty obvious," he said as he walked to his car, accompanied by several court officers.

Asked what was the most damaging evidence against Valdez-Cruz, the juror said, "The defendant's own words," referring to the taped phone conversations.

One of Bird's sisters, Tanisha Johnson, 17, said she was satisfied with the verdict.

"I was excited. I was happy," she said. "I'd prefer he sits in jail for the rest of his life. He made my sister suffer, so he should suffer, too."

Bird's family has filed a federal lawsuit against both Nassau police and prosecutors, saying that they failed to protect Bird from Valdez-Cruz.

Police were called

Prosecutors said in court that police were called to Bird's home at least four times in the week before she was killed when Valdez-Cruz showed up there in violation of an order of protection. They did not arrest him.

The lawsuit alleges that Valdez-Cruz was working, either formally or informally, as a police informer, and that police were lenient with him because of that.

When the suit was filed, a Nassau police spokesman said the department does not confirm or deny the identity of informers.

Last year, Police Commissioner Lawrence Mulvey acknowledged that his officers had "failed . . . to do a thorough and comprehensive preliminary examination" in the case, and said that seven officers would be disciplined. An internal police review found officers did not properly investigate several visits by Valdez-Cruz to Bird in the days before she was killed.

- With Chau Lam

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