The verdict is in, the crush of television crews have left the Riverhead courthouse and the 19-year-old Medford man convicted of killing an Ecuadorean immigrant in Patchogue is waiting at Suffolk County jail for his sentencing day, but just because the case that recast the national spotlight on Long Island’s troubled race relations is over does not mean the tension is going away anytime soon.
On Tuesday, the day after Jeffrey Conroy was found guilty of manslaughter as a hate crime for fatally stabbing 37-year-old Marcelo Lucero in the chest in November 2008—Suffolk County’s first hate crime death conviction—prosecutors announced two teenagers were charged last month with robbery as a hate crime for allegedly targeting Hispanic men in violent street muggings (The announcement was held off until after the trial so as to not influence the Lucero jury). Investigators say the suspects called the victims “Papis,” Spanish for father.
Two of the seven teens charged in the Lucero attack who haven’t pled guilty to gang assault and conspiracy—Christopher Overton, 17, of East Patchogue and Anthony Hartford, 18, of Medford—are still awaiting their day in court. Conroy had testified last week that Overton was the killer, not himself.
The findings of the Suffolk County Hate Crimes Task Force, created to encourage reluctant hate crimes victims to come forward, are expected to be released in August. And it is not clear when the U.S. Department of Justice will complete a probe into hate crimes in Suffolk and police handling of those investigations.
Despite the intense pressure on the detective in charge of the unit tasked with making the sometimes controversial determination if allegations are motivated by hate or not, Monday, the day the Lucero verdict came in, was just another day on the job.
“We’ve been in business for 30 years, this is not something that popped up on Nov. 8 ,” the night of the Lucero stabbing, says Detective Sgt. Robert Reekes, referring to the Suffolk County police squad he leads, the Hate Crimes Unit.
“Contrary to some of the advocates that have said that the police department is not sensitive, certainly [the verdict] shows that the police department did an amazing job,” he continues, adding that the seven teens were arrested minutes after the attack.
While many agreed that police and prosecutors did their job to the best of their ability, critics took issue with the jury not finding Conroy—who killed Lucero during a regular outing of what the teens called “beaner-hopping,” in which they assaulted Hispanic men—guilty of the top charge.
“I personally was looking for a murder as a hate crime,” says Rev. Allen Ramirez, pastor of Brookville Reformed Church and an immigration advocate, who is a spokesman for the Lucero family. “I think it would have been the only clear signal to send in a community such as this.”
Anti-illegal immigration activists did not speak highly of the verdict either, but on that side of the aisle, the point of contention is the fact that the teens were charged with hate crimes to begin with.
“When you’re dead you’re dead, whether the person killed you screaming out racial epithets or whether they shouted, ‘I love you,’” says Margaretann Bianculli-Dyber, a New York City schoolteacher with the Farmingville Civic Association, a group that has been at the center of the immigration debate in Suffolk for a decade.
“I’m sorry [Lucero’s] mother is crying, but that is the consequence of her actions of not telling her son to stay home where he belonged,” says Bianculli-Dyber, who also believes the federal government shares blame for not better enforcing immigration laws.
Suffolk County police have repeatedly emphasized that they do not check the immigration status of crime victims, so it is not known if Lucero was here legally or not. Those charged with attacking Hispanic men are not known to check green cards prior to their crimes, either.
“I hope it’ll be a long time before I stand before you announcing another hate crime prosecution,” Suffolk County District Attorney Tom Spota said at the news conference announcing the robbery arrests of Sean Allen, 19, of Middle Island, and Felicia Smith, 18, of Selden the day after the Lucero verdict—both of whom allegedly told police they were banking on Hispanic victims not reporting the crimes. “I know it will probably not be long enough.”