The New York Times

June 10, 2004


New York Officer Pleads Not Guilty in Death of Unarmed Man

By SABRINA TAVERNISE and WILLIAM K. RASHBAUM

New York City police officer pleaded not guilty today to second-degree manslaughter in the death of an unarmed man he shot to death in a Chelsea warehouse last year.

The officer, Bryan Conroy, entered his plea in State Supreme Court in Manhattan this afternoon. Supporters of both Officer Conroy and the victims' family were in the courtroom — several officer and the police union president, Patrick J. Lynch, for Officer Conroy, and relatives of the victim, their lawyer, Sanford A. Rubinstein, and the Rev. Al Sharpton, who has been counseling the family.

The prosecution and the defense agreed on bail of $20,000, which Officer Conroy was expected to post later in the day.

A grand jury in Manhattan handed up the indictment on Wednesday.

Officer Conroy shot the victim, Ousmane Zongo, an unarmed West African immigrant from Burkina Faso, on May 22, 2003, in the corridor of a self-storage warehouse on 27th Street near the West Side Highway.

Officer Controy's lawyer, Stuart London, would not discuss the details of the case on Wednesday. Barbara Thompson, a spokeswoman for the Manhattan district attorney, Robert M. Morgenthau, declined to comment.

But Mr. Rubenstein, the lawyer for Mr. Zongo's family, said that they had been told of the grand jury's actions by reporters. "They feel they've been patient, waiting for justice," he said of the Zongo family. The charges, he said, would show that the "grand jury has done justice."

Mr. Rubenstein said that a civil case was pending, but that the family's "primary concern is the criminal case."

The shooting of Mr. Zongo drew significant criticism of the Police Department's practices. It came one week after a 57-year-old woman in Harlem died of a heart attack after the police threw a stun grenade into her apartment during an erroneous raid. It also evoked the fatal shooting of the unarmed African immigrant Amadou Diallo in 1999.

Mr. Lynch, the president of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, the police union, defended Officer Conroy's actions in a statement on Wednesday and said he expected him to be cleared. "We believe that the grand jury made a mistake indicting this police officer and are confident that he will be exonerated when all the facts are known," Mr Lynch said.

Police officials and investigators raised questions about the shooting shortly after it occurred in the warehouse's warren of hallways. There were no witnesses who actually saw the shooting, and no surveillance cameras, so the case hinged on Officer Conroy's testimony and on forensic evidence.

The key elements of Officer Conroy's testimony before the grand jury centered on when he drew his weapon and why, rather than the moment at which he fired during a struggle with Mr. Zongo, a person close to the case said.

The charges follow a yearlong investigation by Mr. Morgenthau's office, whose prosecutors began presenting evidence to the grand jury in April. Officer Conroy testified before the panel at length.

Officer Conroy was left alone in the warehouse to guard a storage room after the police executed a search warrant there as part of an investigation into a compact disc counterfeiting operation. Mr. Zongo had nothing to do with the counterfeit ring, but worked restoring African art and artifacts in another storage room at the warehouse.

After the shooting, police officials said at the time, Officer Conroy told supervisors investigating the incident that Mr. Zongo "tried to take my gun; I had to shoot him."

A person is guilty of second-degree manslaughter when he or she recklessly causes the death of another person. In such cases, the maximum sentence is generally 15 years.

In recent years, indictments of police officers on charges that they caused a death in the line of duty have been rare. Grand juries have been reluctant to find fault in instances when officers make mistakes in settings where they say they had reasons to be fearful or were acting in good faith.

In February, a grand jury declined to indict a police officer, Richard S. Neri, in the shooting death of an unarmed teenager on a Brooklyn rooftop.

In the case of Mr. Diallo, the officers were indicted on murder charges but ultimately acquitted of all criminal charges. Mr. Diallo's family later brought a civil suit, claiming racial profiling by the Police Department was a cause of his death. The city settled the case for $3 million.

While no New York City police officer has ever been convicted of murder for actions in the line of duty, Francis X. Livoti, a police officer who used a chokehold in 1994 to arrest Anthony Baez, who subsequently died, was convicted in a 1998 federal trial of violating Mr. Baez's civil rights.

In the Dongan Hills neighborhood of Staten Island, where Officer Conroy lived with his parents in a red-brick attached home, a neighbor expressed concern for the family.

The neighbor, who said he had known Mr. Conroy since he was born, added that Officer Conroy had moved into his grandmother's house in the past year. His father works for the Post Office and his mother for the school system, the neighbor said.

Speaking of the case against the officer, the neighbor said: "He was a little touchy about it. I don't even want to ask him how he's making out."

Susan Saulny contributed reporting for this article.