Sixteen months ago, seven teenagers set out for Patchogue in search of Latinos, Suffolk prosecutors say, on a night that culminated with the stabbing of Ecuadorean immigrant Marcelo Lucero, a death in which repercussions are still being felt.
On Tuesday, Jeffrey Conroy, now 19, of Medford, sat in State Supreme Court in Riverhead, the first defendant to go on trial in a case that attracted international headlines and is believed to be the first alleged hate killing to be tried on Long Island.
Conroy is charged with second-degree murder and first-degree manslaughter, both as hate crimes, for the Nov. 8, 2008, killing of Lucero. Authorities say he and six other former Patchogue-Medford High School students surrounded and taunted Lucero, who defended himself with a flailing belt before, police say, Conroy fatally stabbed him.
As jury selection for Conroy continues this week, Patchogue is bracing for another turn in the spotlight from what is expected to be a closely watched trial that could last up to two months.
"It's the opening up of a wound that has to be reopened again," said Patchogue Mayor Paul Pontieri. "This is a scar and a mark that we'll carry."
The killing shone a bright light on racial and political tensions in Patchogue and Suffolk County, sparking a federal probe into Suffolk police practices after the defendants were accused of numerous other attacks against Latino victims.
"Someone lost their life and their families will never be the same again, and a whole community is terrorized," said Luis Valenzuela, executive director of the Long Island Immigrant Alliance. "The larger social context that gives rise to people thinking they can go out and hunt Latinos bears responsibility and those issues have to be addressed."
Legal experts say the defense will have to deal with numerous challenges, including a confession in which Conroy admits to the stabbing in a written statement and sketch. Defense attorney William Keahon, of Hauppauge, has said police were "creative" in taking the statement, and his client never made some of the remarks.
Additionally, four co-defendants have pleaded guilty to first-degree gang assault and agreed to testify against Conroy, if necessary.
But Tuesday, as Justice Robert W. Doyle read the names of about 30 people prosecutors may call for testimony, only one co-defendant, Nicholas Hausch, was on the list.
Assistant District Attorney Megan O'Donnell said that doesn't mean prosecutors won't call other defendants to testify. But experts say that remains unlikely if they weren't named Tuesday. "It's always potentially problematic when you have more than one person giving an account of the same event," said Eugene O'Donnell, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "Less is definitely more."
Experts also said prosecutors might not need the other co-defendants because they are expected to call former classmates who were with Conroy and his co-defendants just before they set out for Patchogue that night.
Day one of jury selection ended with 26 potential jurors excused, many because they said media exposure left them with a bias. No juror was selected.
"I feel like I've judged the case before it even started," one potential juror told Doyle. He was excused.
Keahon seemed undaunted. "I do believe that we will be able to get a fair and impartial jury," he said.
With Denise Bonilla
THE LUCERO CASE
Seven former Patchogue-Medford High students were charged in the 2008 hate killing of Marcelo Lucero, and in attacks on other Latinos that night and earlier.
JEFFREY CONROY, NOW 19, MEDFORD: Faces charges of second-degree murder and first-degree manslaughter, both as a hate crime, and lesser charges for attacks on Nov. 8. He is going on trial for those attacks, and for one the preceding week. If convicted, he faces 20 years to life on the murder charge and 8 to 25 years on the manslaughter charge. Jury selection began Tuesday.
NICHOLAS HAUSCH, 18, MEDFORD: Pleaded guilty last year to the top count of first-degree gang assault in Lucero's death, among other charges, and agreed to cooperate with authorities. He faces 5 to 25 years in prison.
JOSE PACHECO, 19, EAST PATCHOGUE: Also pleaded guilty last year to the top count of first-degree gang assault, among other charges, and agreed to cooperate with authorities. Faces 5 to 25 years in prison.
KEVIN SHEA, 18, MEDFORD: Also pleaded guilty last month to the top count of first-degree gang assault, among other charges, and agreed to cooperate with authorities. State Supreme Court Justice Robert W. Doyle agreed to give him no more than 10 years in prison if he continues to cooperate.
JORDAN DASCH, 19, MEDFORD: Also pleaded guilty last week to the top count of first-degree gang assault, among other charges, and agreed to cooperate with authorities. Doyle agreed to give him no more than 10 years in prison if he continues to cooperate.
ANTHONY HARTFORD, 18, MEDFORD: Faces charge of first-degree gang assault and others. Next in court March 31.
CHRISTOPHER OVERTON, 17, EAST PATCHOGUE: Faces a charge of first-degree gang assault, among other charges. Next in court March 24.
- Compiled by Sumathi Reddy