New York Daily News

October 22, 2005

Guilty in Zongo slaying

But cop is acquitted of manslaughter rap in immigrant's death

By BARBARA ROSS and CORKY SIEMASZKO
DAILY NEWS STAFF WRITERS

       Police Officer Bryan Conroy is escorted out of courtroom yesterday after judge declared him guilty of criminally negligent homicide in shooting death of unarmed Ousmane Zongo in 2003.
  Police Officer Bryan Conroy is escorted out of courtroom yesterday after judge declared him guilty of criminally negligent homicide in shooting death of unarmed Ousmane Zongo in 2003.

The city cop who fatally shot an unarmed West African immigrant two years ago after a wild foot chase through a Chelsea warehouse was convicted yesterday of criminally negligent homicide.

But Police Officer Bryan Conroy was acquitted of the more serious manslaughter charge - leaving the possibility that he could get off with probation.

Conroy blinked hard when the judge announced the verdict, but maintained his composure. His shocked parents held each other while Conroy's supporters and those of the slain immigrant, Ousmane Zongo, sat in stunned silence.

"This will never bring back by husband, but now I will go back to Africa and I will tell everyone that justice can be obtained in the United States," Zongo's widow, Salimata Sanfo, said through an interpreter later.

Conroy could face up to four years in prison when he is sentenced on Dec. 2. But the cop's lawyer, Stuart London, said he will ask for a sentence with no prison time as he appeals the verdict by state Supreme Court Justice Robert Strauss.

"I will be disappointed if he does not go to jail," Sanfo said. "In our country, when you take a life, you go to prison for it."

After the verdict, Conroy shook hands with supporters - many of them cops in street clothes - and then headed to the probation department to schedule presentencing interviews. He remains free on bail and is suspended from the NYPD.

Conroy's father, Arthur, said his son was "very disappointed."

"It's a terrible feeling," the officer's mother, Vivian, said later.

Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, warned the verdict would "have a chilling effect on all police officers."

Conroy's first trial ended in a mistrial when the jury deadlocked 10 to 2 in favor of conviction. The officer chose a bench trial the second time around.

After listening to testimony from 30 witnesses in the 10-day trial, Strauss ruled Conroy "failed to perceive a substantial and unjustifiable risk" when he chased Zongo with a loaded gun through the hulking Chelsea Mini Storage on W. 27th St.

But in acquitting Conroy of manslaughter, Strauss rejected prosecutors' argument that Conroy had acted recklessly.

Now 27, Conroy was on the job for three years when he crossed paths with Zongo on May 22, 2003.

A 43-year-old father of two from Burkina Faso, Zongo had a workbench in the warehouse and made a living repairing African art. His visa had expired, and he was planning to return home soon.

Police had just raided the warehouse and arrested a pair of suspected CD bootleggers, neither of whom had any connection to Zongo.

The warehouse security cameras did not record Zongo's fatal encounter with Conroy. And as details of the killing emerged, angry Africans compared his death to that of Amadou Diallo, another West African shot dead by cops.

Conroy told a grand jury he fired four shots when Zongo lunged for his loaded 9-mm. gun and the two engaged in a life-and-death struggle. In his statement, London insisted that Zongo ignored the officer when he yelled, "Police, don't move!"

Assistant District Attorney Armand Durastanti said Conroy failed to follow proper procedures and "inexplicably chose to challenge Mr. Zongo, not by showing him his badge but pulling out his 9-mm."

Zongo family lawyer Sanford Rubenstein said the verdict means their civil case seeking $150 million in damages now can go forward in U.S. District Court in Manhattan.

"The death of Ousmane Zongo was a tragedy felt throughout our city, and today our criminal justice system has spoken," Mayor Bloomberg said. "Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family and friends during this difficult time."