The New York Times

March 5, 2005


Verdict Eludes Jurors in Trial of Officer Who Shot Man

By SABRINA TAVERNISE

Wearing frustration on their faces, jurors in the trial of a police officer who killed an unarmed man in a Chelsea warehouse said yesterday they had reached a deadlock and could not go on.

At 4 p.m., the foreman passed the judge a note that said, "after five days of deliberations, we have come to the point where we cannot reach a unanimous decision."

But the judge, Justice Daniel P. FitzGerald of State Supreme Court in Manhattan, told them his response was "not what you're going to want to hear."

He ordered them to return on Monday, when he was expected to give them what is known as an Allen charge, directions to try once again to reach a verdict.

The officer, Bryan A. Conroy, is charged with manslaughter in the 2003 shooting death of Ousmane Zongo, an immigrant from West Africa.

"At the very least you'll get a weekend away from the case and the tensions of it," Justice FitzGerald said. The break, he said, would do the jury good, considering that, "you are frustrated, looking for resolutions and running up against walls."

The jury began hearing testimony on Feb. 14 and started deliberating Monday. The foreman's note, handed over at about 4 p.m. yesterday, followed a week of tense haggling, in which jurors asked the judge to read back a section of the law twice, and also asked to hear Officer Conroy's account of the shooting again.

Though the single charge - second-degree manslaughter - is relatively straightforward, the decision is difficult, because hard evidence at the trial was scant, and the only firsthand account of the shooting came from Officer Conroy.

What is more, jurors must struggle with the statute under which Officer Conroy is charged. It states that a police officer is justified in using lethal force if he is trying to arrest someone he thinks has committed a crime or someone he thinks is about to use lethal force against him, even if his assumption is mistaken.

Defense lawyers have worked hard to portray a struggle that Officer Conroy said preceded the shooting, in which Mr. Zongo, according to the officer, tried to grab his gun. Officer Conroy did not testify, though his account of the shooting to a grand jury last year was read at the trial.

The account, part his own telling and part answers to questions by a prosecutor, included a dramatic description of the struggle that Officer Conroy said would have ended in his own death if he had not prevailed.

"If you look at the specificity of detail," said Stuart London, Officer Conroy's lawyer, "it shows there was a fight over that weapon," and the shooting, therefore, was justified under the law.

The prosecutor, Armand Durastanti, took issue with that version, portraying Officer Conroy as an ambitious rookie, who aggressively drew Mr. Zongo into a conflict that might not have included a life-or-death struggle as he claimed. The jury - five men and seven women - are struggling to sort out which version is true. All are Manhattan residents. More than half of them have some higher education, and all but two are in their 40's or younger. Two of the jurors are black, one is Asian and the rest are white. Few had been the victim of a crime, according to answers they gave on a questionnaire.

"With juries you never know," said Patrick J. Lynch, president of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association. "The only ones that know are those folks that are in that jury room."

Convictions in police killings are rare. Of the handful of shooting death convictions since the 1970's, none were for charges as serious as homicide.

The most recent case was in 1997, when Officer Paolo Colecchia was convicted of second-degree manslaughter for fatally shooting an unarmed man on a Bronx subway platform.

He was sentenced to one and a half to four years in prison.

Convictions are rare partly because police officers must make split-second decisions, and juries tend to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Officer Conroy's case has been compared to the Amadou Diallo case, in which four plainclothes officers shot Mr. Diallo, an unarmed African immigrant, in the vestibule of a Bronx apartment building in 1999. All four officers were acquitted. Even so, the charge against Officer Conroy is less serious and a lower hurdle that this jury could decide to clear.