RIVERHEAD, N.Y. – RIVERHEAD, N.Y. (AP) — The last of seven teenagers implicated in the hate crime killing of an Ecuadorean immigrant pleaded guilty on Wednesday.
Anthony Hartford's plea to gang assault and other charges closes the prosecution phase of a case that attracted international headlines and prompted an ongoing U.S. Department of Justice probe of police responses to bias crimes. The judge indicated Hartford likely would face 10 years in prison when he's sentenced July 20.
The 18-year-old admitted being with a group that targeted Hispanics for violence in November 2008. The attacks culminated in the stabbing death of immigrant Marcelo Lucero in Patchogue, a Long Island village about 50 miles east of New York City.
Defense attorney Laurence Silverman said Hartford had never denied involvement.
"He's never denied that it was wrong to be involved," the attorney said.
Hartford told state Supreme Court Justice Robert W. Doyle that since the killing he has thought about the consequences of his actions.
"Up to the day that I was arrested, I never thought a punch could cause serious physical injury," Hartford told the judge.
Besides gang assault, Hartford pleaded guilty to four counts of attempted assault as a hate crime for attacks on Hispanics preceding the Lucero killing.
A week ago, 19-year-old Jeffrey Conroy was sentenced to 25 years in prison for his conviction on manslaughter as a hate crime and other charges. Five other teens who previously pleaded guilty are awaiting sentencing.
Assistant District Attorney Megan O'Donnell said she believed the end of the case brings "a sense of relief and closure" to Suffolk County, where the killing occurred.
"We hope that the lessons learned here are in fact invoked in Suffolk County," she said.
The victim's brother, Joselo Lucero, said he felt justice had been served.
"The day my brother was killed, I was not there for him," he told reporters outside the courtroom. "That's why I wanted to be here for him, to demand justice, to demand what is right."
The killing focused attention on the county, which has seen an influx of immigrants from Central and South America in the past decade. In a September 2009 report, the Southern Poverty Law Center documented repeated attacks on Hispanics since 2000.
Prosecutors say many Hispanics attacked in the days before Lucero's killing were afraid to report the crimes to police, fearing questions about their immigration statuses. The teenagers were aware of that trepidation and took advantage of their victims' fears by operating with impunity, prosecutors said.
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.
During the midnight confrontation, Lucero hit Conroy in the head with a belt and the teen lost his temper, opened a folding knife and lunged at Lucero's chest. The teens fled after the stabbing but were arrested within minutes, just blocks from where the stabbing took place.
Although Conroy was given the stiffest sentence, the other teens are facing prison terms of at least five years, and in some cases the judge has indicated his intention to impose sentences of 10 years, depending on their level of culpability in the killing.
Only one of Conroy's co-defendants testified at his trial, admitting the teens regularly targeted Hispanics for violence in the months leading up to Lucero's killing.
Conroy offered an apology before being sentenced, saying he was "really sorry for what happened to Mr. Lucero."