Film Extras: Interview with Suffolk County Assistant District Attorney Megan O’Donnell

"I didn't want this trial to be about whether or not Jeffrey Conroy disliked Hispanics or hated Hispanics or why he hated Hispanics. Because legally that was not required of me to prove and I didn't want the jury being distracted by that. I wanted the jury to understand that legally a hate crime is targeting your victim because of some outward appearance, whether it be how they look or their gender or race or religion, et cetera. And I needed the jury to get that and to get that quickly."

—Suffolk County Assistant District Attorney Megan O'Donnell

"On Nov. 8, 2008, the hunt was on," said Suffolk County Assistant District Attorney Megan O'Donnell during her opening statements in the trial of Jeffrey Conroy. That night, Conroy was among the seven teens implicated in the killing of Ecuadorian immigrant Marcelo Lucero--who was targeted simply because of his ethnicity--but the only one to stand trial.

Over the next year, Suffolk county prosecutors built their cases against the seven assailants, and Conroy was convicted of first-degree manslaughter as a hate crime as well as gang assault, receiving the maximum sentence of 25 years in prison. The six other teenagers pleaded guilty to gang assault and conspiracy as hate crimes and are serving 5- to 8-year sentences.

Prosecutor O'Donnell spoke with Not In Our Town's Executive Producer Patrice O'Neill about the crime that drew media attention about the attacks on Latinos in the Patchogue-Medford community of Long Island, N.Y. 

Patrice O’Neill: The murder of Marcelo Lucero was drawing national attention. What do you remember about those first days and thinking about the case?

Megan O’Donnell: First of all, I was shocked. It came out very quickly through the evidence, through the confessions of the seven defendants, the motivations of these crimes. And my first reaction was shock, that this type of hate or bias would motivate this crime. And then my second reaction was just simply trying to put the evidence together. We had evidence coming from seven separate defendants as well as other witnesses and we had to parse through all of it. And try to put together what actually happened on that night.

O’Neill: As a prosecutor, were you aware that the world watching you?

O’Donnell: To be honest, I was not aware of that. Very early on one of my jobs was to figure out what had happened, what had actually happened that night. What each of the defendants did, what motivated each one of them. What witnesses observed and how they would convey the evidence to me. That was my job and that's what I focused on. So, what was being reported in the papers simply was not a factor for me. I was really just trying to figure out what happened.

O’Neill: What were you looking for in order to charge the defendants with hate crimes?

O’Donnell: Charging defendants with hate crimes was never really an issue. All seven of the defendants had confessed to the motivation for these crimes, that the assaults and the attacks were motivated by wanting to beat up a Hispanic person or Latino person. So, that was never an issue. The bigger issue was charging Jeffrey Conroy with the murder or the manslaughter. That's what really was at issue and that's where we had to parse the evidence and try to figure out: was the intention to kill Marcelo Lucero or was it simply to seriously injure him? That was always the issue. But, whether or not these seven young men were motivated by bias or by their intention to victimize a Hispanic person, that was never an issue.

O’Neill: Can you talk about hate crime laws and what distinguishes them from a felony or assault. Why do you use hate crime laws?

O’Donnell: In general the law was passed because the legislature realized the problems that were arising with these types of attacks. With attacks being motivated, whether it be attacks or robberies, being motivated by the person’s ethnicity, what they look like, by their religion, how they worship, by their sex or their sexual orientation. To be targeted simply by that outer appearance or stereotyped, that was causing great fear in the communities. That's exactly what happened in Patchogue -- the Hispanic community was fearful. Whether they be legal immigrants, illegal immigrants, whether they had been here for 30 years or born here, or just come here a year ago. Hispanic people were fearful because of these specific attacks. So that is what the legislature tried to address was that fear, that installation of fear in whole communities because of their appearance or religion or sexual orientation or what have you. In our specific case, why we charged these individuals with hate crimes—that was a non-issue really. They told us they committed these hate crimes and in each one of these confessions it was laid out for us.

All seven of the defendants told detectives that they wanted to go beat up Mexicans. Whether or not they used those words themselves or those words were used by their friends, the bottom line is this group of young men had a common plan, a community of purpose. They referred to them all as Mexicans. They were specifically looking for Mexicans to beat up. Now, they used other words, they used some curse words obviously to define what they were going to do. But the bottom line was to seek out and injure a Hispanic person.

O’Neill: Can you describe what the defendants told you, what they admitted to doing that night as they went to Patchogue?

O’Donnell: None of them said why in their confessions to the police. We did find out later in sitting down with all seven of the defendants and also through the statements that they made to the probation department prior to their sentencing and also through statements that they gave to their defense attorneys, which were conveyed to us. But, all seven of them had their own ideas or perspectives of the Hispanic community. [They were] all a bit different obviously, but I think, all sharing in some of the same fears that the Caucasian community had -- that the immigrants were taking jobs, not paying taxes, enrolling in their schools and causing school tax money to be lost in programs such as teaching teachers to speak Spanish to address the Spanish-speaking students and all of those stereotypes and all of those things that we hear the parents—the Caucasian community—speak of. These kids were pretty much saying the same things, were mirroring what their parents had said.

O’Neill: Some of the defendants, most of them were juvenile. And how did you decide to try them as adults?

O’Donnell: It wasn't so much a choice for us to try them as juveniles versus adults. In New York State the fact is that anyone over the age of 16 is an adult. Now, with sentencing they could be afforded youthful offender treatment, which would mean that that conviction would not live with them for the rest of their life. It would be sealed, in other words, they would be given another chance. But, the fact is that they were all above 16 when they committed the crime, so it was not an issue of whether or not to try them and convict the as adults. The only issue then would be at sentencing, and at the sentencing of all the defendants the judge addressed that, that even though they were eligible to be adjudicated a youthful offender, in other words for their conviction to be sealed and not to live with them for the rest of their lives. The judge chose not to do that. So, that was really an issue more for the judge, not for the District Attorney.

O’Neill: Talk about merging the attacks into one charge. In the Jeffrey Conroy case you brought charges against him for the killing of Marcelo Lucero and for attacks on three other men.

O’Donnell: Yes, when all the defendants were arrested, all seven of them did speak to detectives and early on had given the detectives information on these other assaults. They did not give information on all the assaults that they had participated in, simply the ones that occurred that night. And it was probably more so, because of the questioning of the detectives who were really concerned with what happened that night. Obviously in trying to figure out what had happened, who participated in the murder and the motivations behind the murder itself. So, the questioning really was limited to what happened that night. And as a product of that questioning, the answers were pertaining to what happened that night. So, early on in our case, those initial confessions as to what happened on Nov. 8 pertained or related to those other victims that you mentioned. That would be Angel Lojan, Marcelo Lucero's friend,  Hector Sierra, the gentlemen who was chased down by these seven men prior to the murder; and then also Mr. Garcia, the gentleman who had been attacked with the BB gun about 12 hours prior. So, those victims, we learned about early on. It wasn't until later with further investigation, that we began to learn about the other victims and also piece together what had happened relating to those other victims. So, it was only later that we were able to put those cases together, which resulted in the future indictment.

O’Neill: Can you talk about Hector Sierra, what happened to him and what you learned from the confessions of the defendants about the attack?

O’Donnell: Well, not all of the seven defendants had spoken of Hector Sierra. Some had mentioned the fact that they chased down this Hispanic male prior to the murder, and some had not. So, initially that was one issue. Was there this Hispanic person that had been victimized? That is what we had to find out. Additionally, no one had reported that incident that night; in other words, Hector Sierra had not contacted the police that night. So when detectives tried to investigate and find out, is there this additional victim out there? And if so, what happened? They did not have a police report to lead them to this person. What happened was, Mr. Sierra reported his incident to his boss the following day, and his boss contacted the mayor. And the mayor then contacted the police. So it wasn't until about a week later— maybe 4 days later—that the police finally talked to Hector Sierra about what happened.

Regarding the facts of Mr. Sierra's case, he was working at a restaurant in downtown Patchogue. He left that restaurant at about 11:30 p.m. that night, that Saturday night, and he began walking home. He lived a few blocks away from the restaurant and he chose to take a back road that wasn't as well lit, just to get home quicker. He began walking home and he sees a car drive by him slowly, and it made him suspicious. He felt as if someone was watching him. The vehicle slowed down and actually stopped in front of him. And at that point he knew there was going to be a problem. He heard what he thought sounded like pop-pop-pop sounds, which we know was probably the BB gun being shot, but at the time he did not know. But he hears that noise and he becomes fearful, he turns and starts walking away from the vehicle and at that point, he says, the doors open up and several of the young men approach him and chase him and began beating him.

They knock him to the ground, they punch him, they kick him. He is able to get away from those young men. He runs to a house and he begins banging on the front door yelling for help. At that point, the young men become fearful that the police will be called, and they turn around and run back into the vehicle and take off. So that is what happened to Mr. Sierra and that is what he testified to at trial.

O’Neill: But this was only minuets before the attack on Marcelo Lucero.

O’Donnell: It was very close in time. We don't know specifically what time it occurred because he didn't contact the police, but we know for a fact that he left the restaurant at 11:30 p.m. We have actually obtained video surveillance showing him leaving the restaurant at that time. And we know just based on the location of where the assault occurred. That it was only a few minutes away. So, we estimate that the time of that attack was about 11:40 pm.

We have asked Mr. Sierra why he didn't contact police. He was an interesting victim in the sense that he was not here illegally. So he did not have any fear of the police, as far as not wanting to speak to the police or being fearful about his immigration status. He really didn't give a clear answer about why he didn't contact the police. He just said he didn't. And, I don't know if it's just the way of life for certain people in the Patchogue area, unfortunately that this is the world we live in and he just accepted that this is what happened to me. But he did make the effort to tell his boss the following day and he was motivated in telling his boss so his boss could warn the other workers there at the restaurant to be careful walking alone at night because there are young men out there on the streets that could attack you.

O’Neill: Can you tell the approximate time and what you know of what happened to Marcelo Lucero and Angel Lojan?

O’Donnell: We know that the attack happened shortly before midnight, we know that because of the call placed to 911 from Marcelo Lucero's friend, Elder Fernandez. He's the gentleman who lived in the house that he and Angel were walking to and he is the gentleman that Angel Lojan was able to tell that his friend had been stabbed and please call the police. That call is placed a few minutes before midnight, I believe it was about five minutes to midnight. So, we know that the attack happened sometime around then. We also know based on the explanation from Angel Lojan that the attack itself was a manner of minutes. As best we can estimate, maybe four minutes or so, maybe five minutes or so. So again, our best estimates are that the attack occurred maybe 11:50 maybe 11:53 pm.

O’Neill: What did the defendants tell you that they did and how did they choose this target? Where was it? What happened?

O’Donnell: All seven of them gave somewhat differing accounts of what happened. I think that is normal, obviously. You have seven people involved in one incident. All seven people see things a little different. All seven people remember things a little different. I think all seven had their own motivations for minimizing their own culpability or involvement. We also had a different account from Angel Lojan, but again that is just the normal results of different people perceiving one incident differently.

But pretty much what we do know for a fact is that the seven young men—the defendants—wanted to find a Mexican person, a Hispanic person, to beat up, to injure. So they began walking through the streets of Patchogue for that purpose. We know that, again based on the evidence, that they initially found and targeted Hector Sierra, but when they were unable to catch him—to beat him, in other words—when he got away from them and sort of foiled their plans, they got back into their vehicle and drove continued to try and find another victim.

They parked their car in the parking lot of a local bar and got out of the vehicle and began walking, again, randomly through the streets of Patchogue, looking for any random Hispanic person to injure. And unfortunately it was Marcelo Lucero and Angel Lojan who they ran into at that point.

The two men, Angel Lojan and Marcelo Lucero were just about at their friend’s house, just about at Elder's house. They were literally a matter of 100 feet or so. They were walking towards the house and the seven young defendants were walking in the opposite direction, but the two groups crossed paths and that's when the attacks began. Words were exchanged and the physical attacks began.

O’Neill: Do you know what the words were?

O’Donnell: I don't know specifically. I know that all of the defendants said that there were racial slurs being yelled out. Some of the words were “beaners,” “Mexicans,” “fucking assholes,” “niggers.” Again, all seven of the defendants gave different accounts of what was said and who said what. But we know for a fact that these derogatory terms were used. “Beaner” did seem to be a word that came up often. So, it wasn't shocking or surprising that that word would have been thrown out at some point during the course of that attack.

O’Neill: The attack on Marcelo Lucero went on long enough for a trail of blood to be left for almost a block. Did anyone describe that?

O’Donnell: No one saw Marcelo Lucero bleeding for that length of time. In fact, his friend Angel Lojan did not even realize that he was bleeding until the seven young men had run away and he then looks to his friend Marcelo to tell him that the young men are gone and [asked,] “Are you okay?” And only at that point does he see and notice that he's bleeding.

According to the one defendant that testified at trial, he too did not notice Marcelo bleeding until the end of the assault. And he wasn't even sure why he was bleeding, he thought he was bleeding as a result of a punch that had been thrown. So again, I think that part was consistent and clear that no one saw him bleeding for that length of time.

O’Neill: Jeffery Conroy is clearly the only person charged with the killing, he admitted to it. Can you talk about the confession, the trial and why you decided to bring murder charges against him?

O’Donnell: We knew early on from both his confession and the confessions of the other defendants that he was the stabber and that he was the only stabber. There was a slight bit of confusion initially because one of the other defendants had a knife, which he then threw away just prior to the police stopping him. In talking to the police he confesses that he had a knife earlier and they go back and they actually retrieve it. All in all, it was very clear that Jeffrey Conroy was the one who stabbed Marcelo Lucero. So, we always knew that that he was the culprit regarding the stabbing itself.

We knew that all seven of these young men had, in one way or another, led to the death of Marcelo Lucero in their participation of the assault. But, when it came to legally causing the death of another, it was Jeffrey Conroy and only Jeffrey Conroy. So that was clear. He was the one who had legally caused Marcelo's death.

The issue then became -- what was his intent with that stabbing? Was his intent to cause the death of Marcelo? Or was his intent to just cause serious injury? We gave the grand jury ultimately the final say in that. Giving them all the evidence and letting them be the ones to decide what Jeffrey's intent was, be it murder or manslaughter. And they actually decided to return a true bill as to both. So even at that point, in the grand jury in the early stages of the investigation, it was still a debatable issue as to what Jeffrey Conroy's intent was.

O’Neill: There has been a lot of confusion about it, a lot of controversy, why he was charged with manslaughter instead of second-degree murder. Can you talk about the difference between those two?

O’Donnell: With both the murder charge and the manslaughter change the result is the same, that Jeffrey Conroy caused the death of Marcelo Lucero. So that was not a debatable issue, we knew that. The other element that is different in both of those charges is the intent. Did Jeffrey Conroy intend to cause the death? If so, then that would be murder. If he simply intended to cause serious physical injury, then that would be manslaughter. So it was the difference in that one element that was up for debate. What his intent was.

We knew that he was the stabber. We knew that he caused the death. But the element of what his intent was, that was the issue. And it was clear even with the jury's deliberations. They deliberated on this for many days. And it was clear that what they were focusing on was that one element: what was Jeffrey Conroy's intent? But that one element was the only element that separated those two charges, the murder versus the manslaughter.

O’Neill: One of the things that came up in the trial and in the sentencing phase was this issue that Jeffery Conroy's attorney presented -- that it was self-defense. Can you describe why he could see that as self-defense?

O’Donnell: Let me first say, that much of what [Jeffrey Conroy] said, I thought was to minimize his own culpability. So I took that with a grain of salt like everything else he said. It was just a way to minimize what he really did or what his motivations were. But there was some evidence to suggest that he thought he was defending himself or his friend. Because Marcelo Lucero was waving a belt at him and his friend. Not to attack him or not to initiate a fight, but to defend himself. So, in doing that I think Jeffrey Conroy actually got mad and he wasn't trying to defend himself, but I think he got mad and angry and I think that's when he took his knife out and ran towards Marcelo and stabbed him.

O’Neill: So someone’s being attacked and they're essentially defending themselves from their attacker.

O’Donnell: Yes, yes, exactly. And Angel Lojan himself corroborated that notion. That these seven young men weren't backing down and they continued these attacks, chasing after both him and his friend. At one point, his friend [Marcelo Lucero] took his belt off and started waving it around. And he saw in doing that, that the seven young men backed off a bit. And Angel himself, thought, “Oh, this is working, let me do that.” And again, not to attack these men, or not to continue the altercation, but rather to end it, to stop it. So Angel Lojan took his belt off and began waving it himself at the young men, in an effort to stop the attack. Throughout the trial, Jeff Conroy's attorney tried to put forward this notion that Marcelo was trying to continue perpetrating the attack in someway or just continuing the attack by chasing after these men and waving his belt at them. When really he was doing nothing else but defending himself and trying to actually have these men go away and stop the attack.

O’Neill: Did you gain evidence that these perpetrators and possibly others have been doing this for a long time?

O’Donnell: Yes, we knew that these young men had been involved in these other incidents and we knew that because, when the detectives were questioning them about what happened that night, one of the questions that the detectives asked all the defendants was, “Have you done this before?” That is a normal, typical question for any detective to ask when trying to get at the motive for the crime.

“Have you done this before?” All of them had said yes. All of them had said, in one way or another, that they had participated in these types of assaults. And in fact, when the notion came up, “Let's go beaner hopping,” or “Let's go beat up Mexicans,” none of them said, This was the first time I'd heard of such a thing, I didn't know what that meant, I'd never done this before. In fact, the opposite, all seven of them knew exactly what that meant and indicated that they'd done this before.

O’Neill: So as a law enforcement official you have these two areas of silence about the crimes that have been taking place for quite a while. You have the immigrants who may be fearful to report something to the police and teenagers that have their own code of silence against the adult world. Is that a challenge for you as a prosecutor?

O’Donnell:
 I can't say that it's something that I often face because this was the first time I faced this. As I said earlier, I was shocked to hear that this had been going on. It was a shock to me, as a person who lives in this community, but in hindsight, no, that part wasn't surprising. Like you said, the silence that the young people or the teenagers have against the adult world. This is something they talked about and boasted about together. But then they would go home and live normal lives with their parents.

And again, the immigrant community, this is something they all knew was going on themselves, but not something they felt free enough to discuss with law enforcement. And I think Hector Sierra's incident highlights that, because he felt it important to share his incident with his boss. And he did that because he wanted his co-workers to know that there was this concern, this safety concern about walking home at night. There are young men out there who are going to attack you. He wanted to protect his co-workers and yet he didn't think to report the incident to the police. He was doing his job by simply letting his co-workers know.

O’Neill: Was that frustrating to you as a prosecutor?

O’Donnell: Yes, it is frustrating.  I certainly don't judge anyone for what they did because it's understandable, but it is frustrating because I'm the one that has to deal with it after the fact. I'm the one that has to explain to a jury that this wasn't reported, not because it didn't happen or because the victim is making it up, but it wasn't reported because of this concern. So, it's a little frustrating. But certainly understandable.

O’Neill: This was the first hate crime murder prosecution in Suffolk County history. Did you feel a certain pressure about that?

O’Donnell: No, I really couldn't at the time. I had to put the media side and the political concerns aside, and the community outreach aside. I had to really put all of that aside to just concentrate on the job at hand, which was figuring out what had happened the night of Nov. 8 and then prosecuting the people responsible for it.

O’Neill:  What was the case you made to the jury about the Jeffery Conroy trial? Can you describe your opening statement to the jury?

O’Donnell: I know that I began my opening statement with something to the affect of, “On Nov. 8, 2008, the hunt was on.” Because in my mind, the hunt was really a theme throughout the course of this case.

The seven young men, all stated to the police and the evidence was clear that they were out hunting for Hispanic people to injure. To me, that was a notion or a concept that I wanted the jury to be clear about. That this wasn't happenstance, this wasn't a barroom brawl where people meet up by chance and are intoxicated and assault occurs. This was something very, very different. This was seven people going out of their way, actually driving from one community to another, from Medford to Patchogue, with a specific intention and purpose of trying to find a victim, a specific type of victim, a Hispanic victim to injure. So that whole hunting theme was something that I really wanted the jury to get and to understand.

Another theme that I wanted to be clear was the culpability of Jeffrey Conroy as to the stabbing. As I said, even though it was clear that all seven of these young men in one way or another did ultimately cause the death of Marcelo Lucero, there was one person that was legally responsible for that, and that was Jeffrey Conroy. So I wanted to highlight that.

Don't get caught up with the idea that he is just one of the pack or one of many who was just there, or who indirectly caused the death of Marcelo. I wanted that direct causation to come out in my opening. This is the person who stabbed Marcelo and this is the person who caused his death.

The third theme that I wanted to convey to the jury was the whole notion of the hate crime. Everyone has their own idea or notion about what hate means and everyone, every parent for instance, teaches their children what hate means. But in the courtroom and in the statutes, hate crime has it's own legal definition and that's what I wanted to convey.

I didn't want this trial to be about whether or not Jeffrey Conroy disliked Hispanics or hated Hispanics or why he hated Hispanics. Because legally that was not required of me to prove and I didn't want the jury being distracted by that. I wanted the jury to understand that legally a hate crime is targeting your victim because of some outward appearance, whether it be how they look or their gender or race or religion, et cetera. And I needed the jury to get that and to get that quickly.

I do know that throughout the course of the trial that the defense attorney tried to make that an issue. That, in fact, Jeff Conroy did not hate Hispanics, that he had many Hispanic friends. And so I very quickly wanted the jury to understand that this is not what this trial’s about. And that's not what a hate crime is about.