RIVERHEAD, N.Y. — The fatal stabbing of an Ecuadorean immigrant in November 2008 on Long Island was the culmination of a campaign of violence against Hispanics, prosecutors told jurors Thursday at a teenager's murder trial.
Jeffrey Conroy, a 19-year-old accused of killing Marcelo Lucero, and his friends set out "to find a Hispanic person to randomly and physically attack," Assistant District Attorney Megan O'Donnell told jurors as Conroy's trial began.
"They were looking for blood, specifically Mexican blood," she said.
Conroy, wearing a black pinstriped suit and a blue shirt, nodded to about 30 friends and relatives who had come to court to support him Thursday.
He was among seven teenagers implicated in the killing, which sparked a federal probe of police responses to hate crimes on eastern Long Island, but the only one charged with murder. Prosecutors say he admitted plunging a knife into the victim's chest during a midnight confrontation near the Patchogue train station.
Conroy has pleaded not guilty to both murder and manslaughter as hate crime charges.
Four of his friends from Patchogue-Medford High School have already pleaded guilty to hate crime-related charges and agreed to testify against him. They face long prison terms – perhaps 10 years or more – but the exact terms will be decided after Conroy's trial, said state Supreme Court Justice Robert Doyle.
Prosecutors contend the teenagers targeted Hispanics for more than a year. The four teens who pleaded guilty admitted participating in assaults on Hispanics before the Lucero killing.
They euphemistically referred to the attacks as "beaner-jumping," prosecutors say.
Some of the attacks, including a drive-by shooting of an Hispanic man with a BB gun, happened the day Lucero was slain, say the four who pleaded guilty.
Lucero, 37, came to the United States when he was 21. He was walking with a friend when they were confronted by a mob of teens around midnight, just steps from the railroad station. His friend fled, but Lucero was surrounded, prosecutors say. He tried to fight back, flailing at the assailants with his belt. At some point, prosecutors say Conroy plunged a knife into Lucero's chest before running away.
In her opening remarks, O'Donnell conceded that Lucero had smoked pot earlier in the evening and had stopped at a bar, and had used cocaine in the past.
Afterward, Lucero's family and friends said they hoped the defense would not tar his reputation.
"We hope that the defense will not simply demonize Mr. Lucero," said Rev. Allan Ramirez.
In his opening statement, defense attorney William Keahon did not indicate what his strategy would be, but did tell jurors, "I promise you this, during cross-examination I will bring out important facts to you that the district attorney chooses not to bring out."
In an important pretrial ruling, Doyle said Conroy's statements to police after he and his friends were arrested would be admissible at trial.
"I stabbed him," Conroy reportedly told police moments after the killing while they frisked him blocks away. Doyle ruled that Conroy blurted out the admission while being searched for a knife and that "traditional Miranda warnings were not required."
But Keahon said his client never admitted guilt.
When Conroy was first arrested, "in a loud and clear voice, he said he was not guilty," Keahon said. "Those were his words then, and those are his words today."
The first witness Thurday was an emergency medical technician who testified it took about 20 minutes to get Lucero to a hospital. On cross-examination, Schiera said that his critical-care certification had lapsed, so he couldn't give Lucero intravenous fluids to combat blood loss.
In October, the U.S. Justice Department opened an investigation of hate crimes in Suffolk County and police response to them. Latino advocates had complained that prior assaults on Hispanics had not been treated seriously by the police.
After Lucero's death, dozens of Hispanics attended a community meeting at a Patchogue church, where they shared stories of assaults and other insults. Some said they feared reporting the crimes to police because of their undocumented status. Others said they did report incidents to police, but the response was tepid at best.
Police officials, who disputed those claims, are cooperating with the investigation, Justice Department spokesman Alejandro Miyar said Wednesday.
Suffolk County, which covers the eastern half of Long Island, has seen thousands of Hispanics settle there in recent years. U.S. Census figures show the number of Hispanics has nearly doubled, from 7.1 percent of the population in 1990 to 13.7 percent in 2008.
The Southern Poverty Law Center issued a report in September. Titled "Climate of Fear; Latino Immigrants in Suffolk County," it catalogued a litany of anti-immigrant attacks dating back a decade.
Conroy's trial is expected to last six to eight weeks. The two remaining defendants, who face hate crime assault charges, are expected to face trial after that.