RIVERHEAD, N.Y. – RIVERHEAD, N.Y. (AP) — A white former high school athlete was convicted Monday of manslaughter as a hate crime in the killing of an Ecuadorean immigrant, a case that sparked a federal probe of police investigations of bias attacks against Hispanics.
Jeffrey Conroy was one of seven teenagers implicated in the November 2008 stabbing death of Marcelo Lucero in what prosecutors say was the culmination of a campaign of violence targeting Hispanics on Long Island. The teens described the activity as "beaner-hopping" or "Mexican hopping."
Conroy, 19, shook his head slightly when the verdict was announced in the packed courtroom. He was acquitted of two counts of murder, including one count as a hate crime, but was convicted of manslaughter, gang assault and conspiracy in the Lucero killing.
He also was found guilty of three counts of attempted assault in an attack on Lucero's friend, as well as two other Hispanic men prior to the stabbing.
"The hunting season is over, at least for now," the victim's brother, Joselo Lucero, said later at a news conference with his mother and sister at his side.
The Rev. Alan Ramirez, a family spokesman and longtime advocate for Hispanics, commended the district attorney's office for obtaining the conviction.
"They have extracted a tumor, but the illness, the disease, the cancer of hatred in this community will remain, and it will be the responsibility of the political leaders to begin to extract it," said Ramirez, who has blamed an atmosphere of intolerance by elected officials for fomenting anti-Hispanic sentiment.
Four other defendants have pleaded guilty to hate crime-related charges, and two others are awaiting trial.
Conroy was the only one charged with murder and manslaughter; prosecutors said he was the one who inflicted the fatal wound in a midnight fight near the Patchogue train station. He faces eight to 25 years in prison when he is sentenced on May 26.
District Attorney Thomas Spota called the verdict fair, but defense attorney William Keahon said he would appeal.
"Unfortunately, in our system of justice, sometimes young men and women are convicted of crimes they did not commit," Keahon said.
Pablo Colle, of Ecuador's National Department of Migration, said Ecuadorean officials weren't satisfied with the verdict.
"We did expect to have a charge for murder," he said.
The killing sent shock waves far beyond Long Island's Suffolk County, where animosity over the influx of thousands of immigrants from Central and South America has been on the rise for nearly a decade.
Latino Justice-PRLDEF repeatedly lobbied for a federal investigation of hate crimes on Long Island following the killing.
The U.S. Department of Justice announced last fall it would investigate hate crimes and the police response to them. Spokesman Alejandro Miyar said Monday the investigation remains "open and ongoing." Suffolk police have said they're cooperating with the probe.
Conroy, a three-sport athlete at Patchogue-Medford High School, told police he was responsible for the stabbing but took the witness stand to say he had taken the blame for one of his co-defendants, whom he had met earlier that night.
Lucero, 37, was walking with a friend when the teenagers confronted them. Prosecutors say the teens were walking around town looking for targets, began yelling ethnic slurs and approached the two men. One of the teens punched Lucero in the face. Lucero and his friend swung their belts in self-defense and began to chase the teens.
Prosecutors said that Lucero hit Conroy in the head with the belt and that the teen lost his temper, opened the folding knife and lunged at Lucero's chest.
Conroy, who has been held without bail since his arrest the night of the killing, testified that co-defendant Christopher Overton told him he had stabbed Lucero. He said Overton had told him earlier in the night that he had a burglary conviction in a case in which the homeowner was killed and could not afford further trouble with the police.
Overton has pleaded not guilty in the Lucero case. His attorney has derided Conroy's claims as scapegoating by someone facing a long prison term.
Jurors took four days to return their verdict, including a 13-hour session on Friday.
"There's a young boy's life hanging in the balance, so we wanted to make sure that we looked at every piece of evidence until everybody felt the same way," juror Linda Giani said, noting that none of the jurors gave credence to Conroy's testimony.
Conroy has a swastika tattoo and a lightning bolt tattoo intended to symbolize white power, according to trial testimony. On the stand, Conroy said he allowed a friend to place the swastika tattoo on his upper thigh on a dare.
Many Hispanics attacked in the days before Lucero's killing were afraid to report the crimes to police, fearing questions about their immigration statuses, prosecutors said. A September 2009 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a national civil rights organization, included the Lucero killing in its decade-long timeline documenting anti-immigrant attacks throughout the country.
Many people in Ecuador followed the trial.
"We Hispanics are so unsafe when we go elsewhere, and let's hope that everyone involved in that group that mistreats Hispanics is punished," said Nimia Villacreces, a 33-year-old auditor.
Maria Espinosa, a 41-year-old beauty products vendor, said: "It's very good that they have convicted him, but it would be better if they give him the maximum penalty for being a criminal and a racist."
After the Lucero killing, Suffolk police assigned an Ecuador-born officer to work as a liaison between police and the Hispanic community in Patchogue. Some Hispanics say conditions have improved, but advocates contend much work still needs to be done to ease fears.
Associated Press writers Tatiana Cobas and Gonzalo Solano in Quito, Ecuador, contributed to this report.