The New York Times

October 21, 2005


Officer Guilty of Negligence in '03 Killing

By ANEMONA HARTOCOLLIS

AState Supreme Court judge in Manhattan convicted an undercover police officer yesterday in the killing of an unarmed African immigrant during a raid on a Chelsea warehouse two years ago.

Justice Robert H. Straus convicted the officer, Bryan Conroy, 27, of criminally negligent homicide for shooting the immigrant, Ousmane Zongo, 43, during a chase down a dead-end corridor.

Officers had just entered and secured what they believed was a counterfeit compact-disc operation on the West Side. Mr. Zongo, an immigrant from Burkina Faso in western Africa who spoke little English, was in the warehouse restoring African artifacts and was not involved in the suspected counterfeit operation.

Justice Straus cleared Officer Conroy of the more serious charge of second-degree manslaughter, which has a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison. The judge convicted him after a jury deadlocked, 10-2 in favor of conviction, on the manslaughter charge in his first trial in March.

It was the first conviction of an on-duty police officer in the killing of a civilian since Francis X. Livoti was convicted in 1998 on civil rights charges in the death of a Bronx man he had put in a chokehold.

Officer Conroy faces up to four years in prison when he is sentenced on Dec. 2. His lawyers said that they would argue for a lighter sentence, or possibly probation.

Mr. Zongo's widow, Salimata Sanfo, said she was "a little bit disappointed" by the verdict. Ms. Sanfo, dry-eyed, unsmiling and speaking her native language of Morre, said through a translator that she hoped Officer Conroy would go to prison.

"From where she comes from when you take a life, you go to prison for it," the translator quoted her as saying. Ms. Sanfo flew to New York from West Africa for the verdict.

The prosecution of the officer raised familiar questions about how the police make split-second judgments in tense situations, and, for some at least, the role that race may play in those judgments.

Indeed, for many New Yorkers, it carried echoes of the shooting of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed West African immigrant street vendor, by plainclothes officers as he stood in the vestibule of his Bronx apartment building in 1999. Mr. Diallo was killed in a hail of 41 bullets by the police, who said they mistook his wallet for a gun.

"Let the message go out that in this country, when a police officer kills an innocent victim, he will be held accountable," said the lawyer for the Zongo family, Sanford Rubenstein, standing outside the courthouse with Mr. Zongo's widow and older brother.

Patrick J. Lynch, president of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, was bitter about the conviction. Mr. Lynch, who had supported Officer Conroy's version of the shooting - that his gun had gone off during a fierce struggle with a frightened Mr. Zongo - said the decision would have "a chilling effect on all police officers who put themselves at risk."

In a written statement issued later, Mr. Lynch said the death of an innocent man was "deeply regrettable." But he added, "It would be a far greater tragedy to allow this city to return to a crime-ridden state because police officers don't trust the city to give them the benefit of a doubt when something goes wrong."

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg issued a restrained statement shortly after the verdict.

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

Paul J. Browne, the Police Department's deputy commissioner for public information, said that Officer Conroy, who had been on modified assignment since the shooting, had been suspended without pay. The felony conviction will lead to formal termination in days, Mr. Browne said.

The courtroom in downtown Manhattan was packed with supporters on both sides, including many police officers in street clothes, as Justice Straus announced his decision. When he acquitted Officer Conroy of manslaughter, an audible gasp of relief filled the courtroom.

At the guilty verdict, Officer Conroy's wife and mother, sitting in the audience, quietly wiped away tears. Officer Conroy shook hands with supporters after the verdict but did not comment.

When someone asked how he felt, his mother answered for him, saying, "It feels terrible." His father, Arthur, said only, "I'm very disappointed."

Officer Conroy's lawyer, Stuart London, said his client was "clearly gratified he is not facing up to 15 years in jail." He said that he would ask for a sentence of conditional discharge or probation.

But he said that Officer Conroy, who lives on Staten Island, "realizes his career as a New York City police officer is over." He had been on the force for two and a half years at the time of the killing.

Mr. London added: "The whole case is a tragedy. He is looking to move on with his life. He is looking to avoid incarceration."

Mr. Rubenstein, the Zongo family's lawyer, said the verdict cleared the way for a civil lawsuit, already filed in Manhattan federal court, charging the city with negligence and civil rights violations and seeking $150 million in damages for the pain, suffering and loss of income to Mr. Zongo's wife and two children, a 9-year-old son and a 6-year-old daughter. Mr. Zongo traded African art in his home country, and restored it in the United States.

At Officer Conroy's first trial, the jury considered only the manslaughter charge. The criminal negligence charge was added at the request of the defense for the second trial, which also asked for a trial by judge rather than by jury.

Both criminally negligent homicide and manslaughter are felonies. But under state penal law, manslaughter carries an element of recklessness, meaning that a defendant "is aware of and consciously disregards" the risk of death. Criminal negligence involves the failure to "perceive a substantial and unjustifiable" risk.

The second trial lasted 10 days, and there were more than 30 witnesses. There were no eyewitnesses to the actual shooting, except for Mr. Conroy and Mr. Zongo, and scant physical evidence. Mr. Conroy's grand jury testimony was read to the judge and jury at both trials.

On May 22, 2003, Mr. Conroy said he was guarding a bin of counterfeit CD's that the police had seized on the third floor of Chelsea Mini-Storage on West 27th Street when Mr. Zongo stepped into a corridor to turn on a light. Mr. Conroy, who was disguised in his father's postal worker's uniform and had a police shield pinned to his shirt, grabbed his gun with both hands, pointed it at Mr. Zongo, and yelled: "Police! Don't move!" He testified that Mr. Zongo lunged at him and twice tried to take his gun. The prosecutor said Mr. Conroy had failed to follow procedures and "inexplicably chose to challenge Mr. Zongo, not by showing him his badge," but by pulling out his 9-millimeter pistol and pointing it at him.

Mr. Zongo was shot five times and struck by four bullets. He died hours later in the hospital.