February 15, 2005

Cop's trial begins in fatal shooting of immigrant


The police officer charged with fatally shooting an unarmed African immigrant recklessly pointed his gun at the man, who posed no threat to him, a prosecutor said in his opening statement yesterday.

Officer Bryan Conroy had nothing to fear from Ousmane Zongo when he encountered the Burkina Faso native in a third-floor hallway of the Chelsea Mini-Storage facility on May 22, 2003, Assistant District Attorney Armand Durastanti told jurors in State Supreme Court in Manhattan in the officer's trial on reckless manslaughter charges.

"The man wasn't doing anything but looking at him," Durastanti said. "He could see the man's hands. ... By his own statements, he had no reason to believe Mr. Zongo was involved in any wrongdoing ... [or] posed any threat to him."

Zongo, 43, who came to the United States in 2001, according to the prosecutor, rented a space in the storage facility to repair African art objects.

Conroy was there for a raid on a counterfeit compact disc operation, working undercover, dressed as a postal worker and guarding counterfeit goods when he saw the unarmed Zongo 35 feet away.

Conroy, the prosecutor said, "took a nonthreatening situation and made it threatening by the introduction of lethal force." Instead of showing him his police shield, or asking him who he was, he said, he drew his 9-mm Smith and Wesson revolver.

By Conroy's account, Zongo's response was to walk toward him, palms open - then quickly make a move for Conroy's gun, failing to obtain it and fleeing, the prosecutor said.

The defense argues that Conroy was justified in chasing Zongo because of his alleged attempt to grab the gun. The defense also says Conroy was right to shoot him, saying Conroy chased the immigrant through the storage facility and apparently boxed in Zongo, who then charged at the cop.

"Officer Conroy was in a life-and-death struggle over his weapon," said defense attorney Stuart London.

London also told jurors that Zongo, who had overstayed his visa, wasn't in the country legally. He said Zongo was a "felon" to be pursued because he tried to grab Conroy's gun.

"Clearly he was a threat to him or anyone else," London said. "New York City police officers are allowed to pursue a felon. That's what Conroy was doing."

Durastanti said there were no hairs or fibers supporting Conroy's account of a struggle. Nor were there lead patterns suggesting he shot Zongo at close range. Five bullets were fired, hitting him several times.

Zongo's wife and brothers, who filed a $150-million lawsuit against Conroy and the city, flew to New York for the trial.

Conroy's parents and wife also were in the courtroom to support him.

Pat Lynch, president of the Policemen's Benevolent Association, said testimony about what happened was Monday-morning-quarterbacking.

"They have two years to look at what this police officer had to deal with in seconds," he said.