Blog Archive

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

In Jury Selection for Hate Crime, a Struggle to Find Tolerance

The New York Times
March 8, 2010

RIVERHEAD, N.Y. — Over the last several days, Justice Robert W. Doyle has heard the typical excuses from potential jurors. One woman mentioned her husband’s medical problems. Another woman complained about her back.

But other prospective jurors, seeking to be excused, have brought up larger issues in the judge’s Long Island courtroom.

A young woman said that her father, a mechanic, has a “huge opinion about illegal immigration,” and that his views on the subject have “become my opinions as well.” A man told Justice Doyle that his house was broken into by illegal immigrants while he was sleeping, a fact that he said would affect his ability to be fair and impartial.

And there were those who took a different view, like the bank worker who said that because her husband is of Mexican and Italian descent, she might have difficulty being fair. And the woman who explained that most of the clients in her job are illegal Latino immigrants.

“I don’t think that because of that they should be killed,” she told Justice Doyle.

The prospective jurors were being asked to sit in judgment in the case involving the killing of Marcelo Lucero, a 37-year-old Ecuadorean immigrant stabbed to death in November 2008 in Patchogue, more than an hour’s drive from Manhattan.

Mr. Lucero was attacked by seven teenagers who, the police said, had made a sport out of assaulting Hispanic men, calling it “beaner hopping.” Mr. Lucero’s death prompted widespread outrage and exposed racial tensions in Patchogue, where a number of Latinos came forward after the attack to describe muggings and assaults that had them living in fear.

Now, as Jeffrey Conroy, 19, becomes the first defendant to go on trial in the case, jury selection has proven difficult, in part because of the views on Latino immigration held by some prospective jurors in Suffolk County.

Last week, after three days of jury selection, about 130 men and women were questioned by the judge, the prosecutor and Mr. Conroy’s defense lawyer here in State Supreme Court. Only five were selected; the rest were excused. On Monday, jury selection continued as another roughly 130 were brought in, and more than a dozen were excused by the end of the day.

Once the jury is seated, Mr. Conroy’s defense may be complicated by the fact that four of the seven teenagers have pleaded guilty and may testify against him. But something larger may be at play: the treatment of immigrants in Suffolk County and the allegations that have been raised that some residents there are biased against them.

At times, the jury selection had the feel of a call-in show on talk radio, as men and women sounded off on illegal immigration, hate crimes, their ethnic background and the American dream. Most of the comments made by potential jurors came in response to questions asked by Justice Doyle in a third-floor courtroom of the criminal courthouse in Riverhead, as Mr. Conroy sat motionless in a dark suit at a table next to his lawyer.

Mr. Conroy is accused of second-degree murder as a hate crime, among other charges, in Mr. Lucero’s death, as well as attempted assault as a hate crime in episodes involving other Hispanic men. He has pleaded not guilty. The other two defendants have pleaded not guilty to a hate crime and other charges and are awaiting trial.

Justice Doyle has said that some of the witnesses who will testify in the trial are illegal immigrants, and the potential witnesses he has named in court include three Hispanic men whom prosecutors say some or all of the young men also attempted to attack. Mr. Lucero, who worked at a dry cleaning store, had lived in the United States for 16 years at the time he was stabbed.

Several potential jurors were let go because they said they had strong views on illegal immigration and would be unable to be fair and impartial. Others were excused because they said they had Hispanic family members, or were Hispanic themselves, and would side with the victim and his family. And still others said they had followed the case in the news, and had already formed an opinion about Mr. Conroy’s guilt or innocence.

On Monday, a Riverhead man in his early 20s told the judge that he grew up in a racist environment in Pennsylvania and felt that he could not be fair. Another man said that a neighbor has been verbally abusing his son’s family for several years because his daughter-in-law is Puerto Rican and Peruvian. Justice Doyle asked him if this would affect his ability to be fair.

“It could,” said the man, who declined to elaborate after being excused.

Those who raised illegal immigration as a factor in their ability to serve chose their words carefully, so as not to condone the crimes for which Mr. Conroy stands accused.

One man, a school bus driver, said his Teamsters union had taken a stand on what he described as a lack of a federal immigration policy, and because some witnesses might be illegal immigrants, this would be a problem for him. Before he was released, the man said that what he has and what he has earned was gained legally, not illegally. “I’m the old-fashioned way,” he told Justice Doyle.

The majority of potential jurors, including the school bus driver, have been white men and women of all ages. Only a handful have been Hispanic, black or Asian.

The economic and social impact that Latino immigration and Hispanic day laborers have had on communities in Suffolk County has long been a polarizing issue. A report released following the death of Mr. Lucero by the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization that monitors hate groups, found that an environment of racial intolerance fueled dozens of attacks on Latinos in the county in the past decade.

“It is a little bit of a glimpse into the soul of a community,” Bruce Barket, a Long Island defense lawyer and a former Nassau County prosecutor, said of the comments being made in this case so far. “These kinds of issues and these kinds of tensions are always present in the courtroom. Race is probably the most dominant unspoken factor in almost every trial.”

Advocates for immigrants and the brother of Mr. Lucero criticized those who said their feelings on illegal immigration prevented them from being impartial. “We’re not talking about any issues about immigration,” Mr. Lucero’s brother, Joselo Lucero, 35, said in an interview. “We’re talking about justice and human rights. This is totally different.”

Several more days of jury selection are expected. Mr. Conroy’s lawyer, William Keahon, said he was not concerned about how long it was taking to select a jury. “It’s going to take us a couple days longer than unusual, but there’s no doubt that the result will be a fair and impartial jury to both sides,” he said.

There were times during the jury selection process when illegal immigration did not seem to be such a daunting issue. Last week, Megan O’Donnell, an assistant district attorney, asked prospective jurors sitting in the jury box if the victim’s immigration status mattered to them, and all assured her that it did not matter.

Carla Panetta, 60, a Patchogue mother of four and grandmother of six, was among a large group of prospective jurors that Justice Doyle excused at the end of the day on Thursday. Outside the courthouse, she said that illegal immigration had no bearing on the case, and that even though her 14-year-old grandson is Hispanic, she would have had no problem being objective. She criticized those prospective jurors who said they could not be fair because of their views on illegal immigration.

“I don’t care whether the man was legal, illegal, white, black, purple or green,” she said outside the courthouse. “There was a murder. It almost seemed like the poor victim was the one going on trial.”