June 10, 2004

Zongo shooter pleads innocent


Police Officer Brian Conroy leaves the Manhattan District Attorney's Office at One Hogan Place in Manhattan. (Photo by Robert Mecea)  

Dressed in a blue suit and holding his hands behind his back, a police officer who fatally shot an unarmed African immigrant last year pleaded not guilty Thursday to second-degree manslaughter.

Officer Bryan Conroy, who faces a maximum of 15 years in prison if convicted in the slaying of Ousmane Zongo, entered the plea at his arraignment before State Supreme Court Justice Brenda Soloff.

He was released on a $20,000 bond and ordered to return to court on July 8.

Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau called the May 22, 2003, shooting in the corridors of a Chelsea warehouse a "reckless act which was unjustified."

Morgenthau said the investigation leading to the indictment took so long because of sophisticated forensics tests performed by police and the FBI.

"Since there was no eyewitness to the shooting, we looked long and hard to locate possible forensic evidence and have it analyzed," Morgenthau said. He declined to elaborate on the evidence being sought.

A source close to the prosecution said investigators were looking for the transference of DNA samples from clothing to clothing. But the source said the laboratory tests apparently found nothing.

Conroy's attorney, Stuart London, said his client expected to be exonerated at trial and that forensics would not change the defense's version of the case — that Conroy shot Zongo in self defense.

"He clearly spoke in that grand jury of the life and death struggle that he was going through when Mr. Zongo went for that gun," London said. "He did what he had to do to defend himself."

According to police, Conroy, who was in plainclothes, shot Zongo in the chest, abdomen and upper back during a chase through the third-floor hallways of Chelsea Mini-Storage. Conroy was guarding a locker full of counterfeit compact discs seized in a police raid on the same floor and encountered Zongo, who worked in the warehouse.

Police said Zongo, 43, an art restorer who came here from Burkina Faso and did not speak English, became frightened on seeing Conroy and tried to flee. Conroy gave chase and in a scuffle fired five shots at close range.

London said Conroy was wearing a postal carrier's uniform as part of his undercover disguise and had his police shield fixed to his shirt.

"My client was left in a very difficult position and acted as best as he could," London said. "He is screaming at the top of his lungs that he is a police officer. My client mentioned that he was a police officer once, he mentioned it 25 times."

Outside the courthouse, the Zongo family's attorney, Sanford Rubinstein, said the indictment proves Conroy's guilt. "A grand jury heard the facts, and they issued an indictment," he said. "That indictment speaks for itself."

A friend of Zongo's, Cheick Maiga, said Zongo's widow, Salimata Sanfo, was told about the indictment in a telephone call late Wednesday. "She kind of was a little happy, but she still has her doubts," Maiga said.

When told of the indictment, Maiga said, "She paused a while and then said, 'It looks like it's headed God's way.'"

Staff writer Leonard Levitt contributed to this story.