Opening statements were expected Thursday in the murder trial of a teenager accused of fatally stabbing an immigrant from Ecuador, a case that sparked a federal probe of police responses to hate crimes on eastern Long Island.
Prosecutors say the killing was the culmination of a campaign of violence by teenagers against Hispanics.
Jeffrey Conroy, 19, was among seven teenagers implicated in the November 2008 killing of Marcelo Lucero, but the only one charged with murder. Prosecutors say he admitted plunging a knife into the victim's chest during a midnight confrontation near the Patchogue train station.
Conroy has pleaded not guilty to both murder and manslaughter as hate crime charges.
Four of his friends from Patchogue-Medford High School have already pleaded guilty and agreed to testify against him. They face long prison terms -- perhaps 10 years or more -- but the exact terms will be decided after Conroy's trial, said state Supreme Court Justice Robert Doyle.
Prosecutors contend the teenagers targeted Hispanics for more than a year. The four teens who pleaded guilty to hate crime-related charges admitted participating in assaults on Hispanics before the Lucero killing, attacks they euphemistically referred to as "beaner-jumping."
Some of the attacks, including a drive-by shooting of an Hispanic man with a BB-gun, happened the day Lucero was slain, say the four who pleaded guilty.
In an important pretrial ruling, Doyle said Conroy's statements to police after he and his friends were arrested would be admissible at trial.
"I stabbed him," Conroy reportedly told police moments after the killing while they frisked him blocks away. Doyle ruled that Conroy blurted out the admission while being searched for a knife and that "traditional Miranda warnings were not required."
In October, the U.S. Justice Department opened an investigation of hate crimes in Suffolk County and police response to them. Latino advocates had complained that prior assaults on Hispanics had not been treated seriously by the police.
After Lucero's death, dozens of Hispanics attended a community meeting at a Patchogue church, where they shared stories of assaults and other insults. Some said they feared reporting the crimes to police because of their undocumented status. Others said they did report incidents to police, but the response was tepid at best.
Police officials, who disputed those claims, are cooperating with the ongoing investigation, Justice Department spokesman Alejandro Miyar said Wednesday.
Lucero, 37, came to the United States when he was 21. He was walking with a friend when they were confronted by a mob of teens near midnight, just steps from the railroad station. His friend fled, but Lucero was surrounded, prosecutors say. He tried to fight back, flailing at the assailants with his belt. At some point, prosecutors say Conroy plunged a knife into Lucero's chest before running away.
Suffolk County has seen thousands of Hispanics settle there in recent years. U.S. Census figures show the number of Hispanics has nearly doubled, from 7.1 percent of the population in 1990 to 13.7 percent in 2008.
The Southern Poverty Law Center issued a report in September. Titled "Climate of Fear; Latino Immigrants in Suffolk County," it catalogued a litany of anti-immigrant attacks dating back a decade.
Conroy's trial is expected to last six to eight weeks. The two remaining defendants, who face hate crime assault charges, are expected to face trial after that.