The New York Times

March 8, 2005


Jury Deadlocks on Shooting by an Officer

By SABRINA TAVERNISE

Having come within a single vote of conviction, a Manhattan jury declared yesterday that it was hopelessly deadlocked and could not reach a verdict in the trial of Bryan A. Conroy, a police officer who killed an unarmed man in a warehouse in Chelsea in May 2003.

Just after noon on their sixth day of deliberations, 12 weary jurors declared in a note to Justice Daniel P. FitzGerald of State Supreme Court that "no further deliberations will resolve our differences." Justice FitzGerald then excused the panel, which formally ended the two-week trial of Officer Conroy, who was charged with manslaughter in the shooting death of Ousmane Zongo, an unarmed African immigrant. The case will be tried again.

Two jurors interviewed yesterday said that the jury had recessed on Friday with one lone holdout, a man who had a question of reasonable doubt. But by the time they reconvened yesterday, that juror was joined by another juror, a woman, effectively destroying the hope of the 10 other men and women to reach a unanimous verdict, according to the jurors who were interviewed. They spoke on the condition of anonymity, saying only that they were among the majority who voted to convict.

"Everybody likes resolutions, but some issues just don't lend themselves to it," Justice FitzGerald told the jurors at the end of the trial. "This event is probably one of them."

The emotional trial brought into a public courtroom questions about policing, excessive force and race. In many ways, it ended in frustration for everyone, from Officer Conroy, whose fate will continue to hang in the balance until the outcome of a second trial, to prosecutors, who came close but ultimately fell short of proving that he recklessly caused Mr. Zongo's death.

The outcome was perhaps bitterest for Mr. Zongo's widow, Salimata Sanfo, who had come from her home in Burkina Faso, West Africa, to be at the trial. Mr. Zongo, who worked as an art restorer in the warehouse, was 43 at the time of his death.

Surrounded by relatives and supporters, her face streaked with tears, Ms. Sanfo stood in the sun outside the courthouse and told reporters through a translator that she did not "have a husband," and that her "children don't have a father."

The translator, Cheick Maiga, said Ms. Sanfo "has confidence in God and the judicial system; everybody knows the truth, and the truth will come out." Officer Conroy, she said through Mr. Maiga, "is a killer."

Her lawyer, Sanford Rubenstein, who is representing Mr. Zongo's family in a $150 million civil suit against the city, said, "There is an obligation on the part of the district attorney to retry this and the family will be back for that."

Prosecutors argued that Officer Conroy, 26, was an ambitious rookie anxious to make an arrest and that he aggressively drew Mr. Zongo into a lethal conflict when he encountered him in the warehouse on West 27th Street during a raid on a counterfeit CD operation on May 22, 2003. Officer Conroy, who did not take the stand, contends that he became locked in a struggle over his gun with Mr. Zongo and was justified in shooting.

In interviews after the case was dismissed, several jurors described how close they came to convicting Officer Conroy.

The case was a difficult one, they said, because hard evidence was scant and the officer was the only witness. Jurors were forced to rely on Officer Conroy's testimony to a grand jury in 2004, which they sifted through.

One juror said much of that account simply failed to convince them. For example, he said, none of the jurors believed the officer's description of a first encounter with Mr. Zongo in which he said the art restorer had lunged at him and then run away.

"We knew he was lying," the juror said. "Some of us used other words. You know, like embellish. One of the holdouts liked that word a lot. On the other side, a lie is a lie and if you don't believe that, then how can you believe anything else?"

In his testimony, Officer Conroy said that he then pursued Mr. Zongo to a different part of the warehouse, where a life-or-death struggle took place.

Another sticking point for the majority, that juror said, was why the officer had chased Mr. Zongo to within an arm's length of his gun, even though he acknowledged knowing that Mr. Zongo was not armed. Officer Conroy testified that he fired twice just as he managed to jerk away from Mr. Zongo, and that seconds later, he fired two more shots. "He never lost control of his gun," the juror said. "Why are you still shooting at someone who doesn't have a weapon?"

The direction of the gunshot wounds in Mr. Zongo's body also seemed to clash with Officer Conroy's testimony, the juror said. Ballistic evidence indicated that the bullets tore into Mr. Zongo's body and traveled downward, indicating that Officer Conroy did not fire at Mr. Zongo from his hip, as he said. Jurors said they were also troubled that at least one bullet hit Mr. Zongo in the back.

Even the central pillar of Officer Conroy's testimony - his account of a life-or-death struggle in which he said Mr. Zongo had fought to get his gun - was not believable for most of those jurors who said they had voted for conviction.

"The majority of us thought he made an error in judgment," another juror said. "We feel on that day he acted unreasonably in causing the death of Mr. Zongo."

"We feel bad for him," the juror added about Officer Conroy. "We think he feels bad about it. And he's just a kid. He's a young man."

Race barely came up as an issue in deliberations, jurors said, though it was very much on the minds of some people in the audience and outside the courthouse on Centre Street in Lower Manhattan. After the jury was dismissed, supporters of Mr. Zongo chanted just outside the courthouse and at least one person, Cynthia Davis, of the National Action Network, headed by the Rev. Al Sharpton, left the courtroom in tears.

"I'm upset because I'm a black woman in America," Ms. Davis said. "I'm just tired. This is always happening. The poor man was minding his own business and was shot down like an animal."

The shooting also drew attention from critics of city policing tactics, in part because it came just weeks after Alberta Spruill, 57, died of cardiac arrest after a botched police raid in which officers broke down the door of her Harlem and hurled a concussion grenade inside.

It has also been compared to the case of Amadou Diallo, in which four plainclothes officers shot Mr. Diallo, an unarmed African immigrant, in the vestibule of a Bronx apartment building in 1999 after mistaking him for a rape suspect.

"When they shot Mr. Zongo, we were getting ready to bury Alberta," said Cynthia Howell, a relative of Ms. Spruill who attended a portion of Officer Conroy's trial. "It was like, they did it again."

But Patrick J. Lynch, president of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, defended Officer Conroy. "It is never the intention to take a life, and there is no script when we go out on patrol," he said outside the courtroom yesterday. "Difficult things happen, and many times there is a tragedy, and this time there was a tragedy all around."

Officer Conroy's lawyer, Stuart London, said: "There was a life taken in this case, so there are no winners. I don't think it's a victory for either side."

The deliberations were tough, but the tone was always civilized, the jurors said. Even so, it was an emotional six days, and some jurors appeared visibly upset - one was crying - after they were dismissed and walked through the warm afternoon to lunch in a Union Square restaurant.

"We kept a calm mind," one juror said. "We respected everyone's decision. This wasn't anything personal."

As for Mr. Conroy, "I feel badly for him," the other juror said. "I don't believe he's a horrible person. I don't believe he's a racist. He made a reckless mistake, but I respect the other jurors for their opinions, too."

Reporting for this article was contributed by Janon Fisher, Johanna Jainchill, Lily Koppel, Jennifer 8. Lee and Colin Moynihan.