Film Extras: Interview with Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas J. Spota | Not in Our Town

Film Extras: Interview with Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas J. Spota


"And I think the other thing is that everybody should know we took it very seriously here. We have a young man, 17 or 18 years of age, who is going to do 25 years of his life in prison. And that, notwithstanding the fact that people may have come here illegally, nobody deserves to have any crime committed upon them. That's not the American way and I think that's something we did communicate by this case." 

-- Thomas J. Spota, Suffolk County District Attorney

From weeding corruption out of Long Island's political culture to pursuing investigations into sexual abuse by Roman Catholic Priests,  Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas J. Spota has tackled some tough cases during his decade in office. Recently, the DA's office oversaw a case involving seven local teens who attacked an Ecuadorian immigrant, a hate crime that divided the seemingly peaceful Long Island community of Patchogue.

Not In Our Town's Executive Producer Patrice O'Neill sat down with Spota to talk about the trial that gained attention nationwide and that is documented on film in Not In Our Town: Light In the Darkness

Patrice O’Neill: Can you describe what a hate crime is and what you have to do to prosecute someone for a hate crime?

Thomas J. Spota:
A hate crime is a crime that is committed because of a belief or perception, and it may not be true—the belief or perception—but nonetheless, if a person has a belief or a perception that a person is a particular race, gender, or age and there other similar factors and the crime is committed because of that. So it's not the underlying crime. If I were to commit an assault on you, that would not be a hate crime. I'm just assaulting you, a fight in a bar, for instance. But if I was attacking a particular person because of his ethnic background and I made it known that that was my belief or perception and that is the reason I was doing it, that would elevate that assault to a hate crime.

O’Neill: Have you prosecuted hate crimes in Suffolk County before?

Spota: We have done it in the past. We've prosecuted people for hate crimes. I think the statute was enacted somewhere in the early 2000's. Perhaps 2000, 2001. I prosecuted some people for a hate crime when they threw, what turned out to be just heavy fire. It was cherry bombs or M-80's or whatever they call those things into a house, set the house on fire. These were people who were of Mexican descent and the defendants admitted to us that they had done it because of the fact that these people were Mexicans. I prosecuted them for a hate crime.

O’Neill: Can you talk about the burden of evidence? Is it challenging to prove that a person has biased motivation?

Spota: Yes, it's very challenging. And quite frankly when a person is initially arrested by the police, if they have not consulted with our office and they charge a hate crime it becomes very difficult for us because it normally attracts the attention of the press and the community. And people just don't understand when we really look at everything and we find that the person did not have that particular intent and that's what you must have. You must have an intent to commit the underlying crime because you have a belief or a perception. Let's use race as an example, that I am attacking this person because he's African-American, because he's a Latino. And that’s the only reason I'm doing it. It's very difficult to prove that. Unless we have some extrinsic evidence of that and oftentimes, in many of the departments in my jurisdiction in Suffolk County, the police may originally charge a hate crime but we find to the contrary or that we cannot prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt and we will refuse to charge the hate crime. They initially charge. The district attorney's office has the authority to agree with the charges, reduce the charges or elevate the charges. And in many instances we find that it is not a hate crime and we reduce the charges. And I, of course, I bear the brunt of the community outrage, but that's part of my job.

O’Neill: Do you remember the first days after the killing of Marcelo Lucero and what was the atmosphere like in this community? What were you facing as a prosecutor?

Spota: Well, the community—especially activists in the community—and the press was outraged. And it stemmed from the fact that it was a senseless killing, number one. And that people in the community had been saying that there was indeed a pattern or practice of people in the community who were targeting Latinos and beating them up, sometimes robbing them. And apparently there was one incident earlier in the morning of the Lucero homicide, where an individual was attacked. The police came. He could not identify any of the participants. He said he was shot by a BB gun. They checked the car that these individuals were in and there was no BB gun in the car. What we ultimately found out long after the fact was that the person who had the BB gun was hiding in the woods. The police released the individuals and it turned out that they were the participants in the homicide 24 hours later. And that sparked a lot of dissatisfaction, I think it’ss a very mild word, by people in the community and also the press.

The night of the Lucero homicide, when the individuals were arrested, the following day or days after it, we were looking at the confessions and admissions that the defendants had made and it became readily apparent that this was not an isolated incident, that indeed, they had been doing this in the past. They called it ... one or two of them or may, perhaps even more, had a term for it. A sport that they had, they called it “Beaner Hopping.” And one individual in fact indicated to the police that they don't do it often. They only do it about once a week.

And I said to myself, I just can't imagine that this has been going on in this area. So I said to some of the people in our office, our homicide prosecutors, that I think the time has come that we better take a pretty good look at what is going on over in the Patchogue-Medford area because if these kids are saying that they've been doing it at least once a week, there's something wrong here. And that's when I decided that perhaps the district attorney's office would become the catalyst for looking into the situation to determine  what is the extent of these attacks and let’s get to the root cause of why it's occurring and what has happened. Where is the breakdown? There certainly had to be some breakdown somewhere. And I'm talking in the law enforcement area.

We indicted them within a five-day period of time. We charged only one individual with murder and/or manslaughter and the others with gang assault and gang assault as a hate crime. After that, and I don't recall the exact time frame, but it was not long after that, a pastor in one of the local churches in Patchogue invited the Hispanic community, the Latino community perhaps is a better term, invited them down to his church and asked if I would come down and I brought Spanish-speaking prosecutors and Spanish-speaking detectives from the district attorney’s office because I felt that the people perhaps would be more comfortable speaking to us rather than to the police.

And as a consequence of speaking to them, it became pretty clear. We found out from speaking to many of the people who came in that they had been victims of crimes. Many of them had reported it; many of them had not reported it. And what I decided to do at that point was to form a coalition of members of the district attorney's office Spanish-speaking prosecutors, Spanish-speaking detectives from my office, along with the Suffolk County Police Department: the 5th squad and 5th squad uniform people. Fifth squad is the area where most of these attacks, in fact all of them were taking place.

An FBI agent was present for all of our interviews and helped quite a bit and the Suffolk County Police, their bias crime unit. And after we sat down for probably two months, we went through and interviewed many, many, many people and we came out with about eight or 10 additional indictments against these defendants. It became very clear that there was indeed a pattern here. We could tell because all the people who were being attacked were Latinos. It all was confined to a particular area and all of the manner in which the attacks were taking place were all similar. So it became pretty apparent to us. We charged the same individuals charged in the Lucero murder with eight additional crimes including, again, gang assault as a hate crime. Robbery in some instances.

And the other thing that became apparent is that there was another group of younger people, kids apparently, younger kids on bicycles who were also committing attacks. Not as serious as the Con—, I'll call it the Conroy group for lack of a better term. But we worked and worked and worked, we showed photographs, we had informants coming in but we never were able to put that aspect of the case together, that other group. Interestingly, though, since we did what we did do in respect to this investigation, that group, there were no further attacks by any of them. And in fact, to this day, pretty much it's been quiet. Quiet meaning that there have not been attacks on Hispanics in that area.

O’Neill: Was that disturbing to you as the district attorney for this county that these crimes had been going on and that you didn't know about it?

Spota: Yeah, sure it was disturbing. It was disturbing that the police department missed it. It was disturbing that it was occurring. It was disturbing that we had people in the community who would not help us. They absolutely took a position that we were doing it for publicity or, as some people indicated to us, ‘Boys will be boys. What's the big deal?’ And I could not believe that we were getting opposition from people in the community. These are people whose children could very well have been affected themselves. Even in the days that we presented cases to the grand jury, some of the parents of some of the people, witnesses, young kids, their parents would not allow them to be interviewed by us. We had to compel their testimony by way of Grand Jury subpoena. And I really found that to be disturbing.

I did find it to be disturbing that the police had not picked up initially on this pattern that was occurring. And I'm not defending the police, but from what I could see, I don't think it was intentional at all. It wasn't something that they were looking the other way, although there was a perception—certainly in the Hispanic community—that they were looking the other way. I don't particularly think that that was occurring. In some cases, it was bad police reporting but by and large there was nobody in the precinct itself that was looking at these cases, taking each one individually and seeing hey, is this possibly connected to this case? There didn't seem to be any correlation at all. And that’s what we did as part of the coalition that I formed. Once we started to take cases, we could easily see a pattern that went, it seemed to me, it was just not picked up by the police.

O’Neill: This got so much national attention, it’s been a center of debate on the immigration issue. Politically, Suffolk County has been part of the conversation here. You had these earlier incidents in [nearby] Farmingville. There’s been a history here of attacks on immigrants and deep divisions over this issue. What was it like in the days following the crime for you as the prosecutor, as the sort of law enforcement arm over this county?

What you're saying is exactly correct. The Farmingville community especially was the center of a lot of press. There were people, activists in the community, that made it very, very clear that they were against [immigrants] especially the Mexicans because they felt that they were invading their community, taking their jobs. Which was not true at all. But nonetheless, the incident that I had spoke about before where they threw the fireworks into the house and burnt the house down, with five people in the house who were not hurt. They got out of the house safely, thank God. That occurred in Farmingville. The years before in 2001, I believe it was, we had two or three young men who lured some Mexicans into their car, thinking that they were going to take them to work, who beat them viciously. They were found guilty and sentenced to 25 years imprisonment. That occurred in Farmingville as well.

These attacks were occurring right next to the Farmingville area, and in Farmingville and in Patchogue, so it was very, very localized. There was a lot of pressure from, as a result of the press, there was a lot of pressure from the community activists to finally have somebody step in and see if we can find out exactly whats going on. I know that there were statements, inappropriate statements made by some of the county off—, well one county official in particular and that the press felt was fueling part of this problem. I'm not so sure that that’s correct but nonetheless that was the perception.

Was there pressure on me? Sure there was. And that's part of the reason that I decided to really step in and kind of take over the investigations in the area. I don't mean take over, just say we disregarded the police. I had them come in and work with us. But I decided that my office would be the office that would, as I said before, become the catalyst for putting together this coalition.

O’Neill: Can you describe this atmosphere where you got some push back from some of the parents like, "Oh this is kids being kids." What was your reaction to that?

Spota:  Well it was shocking. We're talking a person who is dead. We're talking about other serious, serious incidents where people were being, at 5 o'clock in the evening of the homicide, a person is in the Medford area, is knocked off of his bike, Mexican, knocked off of his bike, knocked unconscious, robbed, his bike was destroyed, that's his only means of or method of transportation. And they take his hat as a trophy. Because they then go to a particular park where a whole group of teenagers were and they're showing the hat, "See, this is our hat. This is our trophy. This is what we did, we just beat somebody up."

O’Neill: So you got seven local high school students, some of them prominent members of the community. Was there an atmosphere for you that ‘you are hunting our kids’?

Spota:  Oh yeah, absolutely. They, that's what I was saying before. Many of the parents, many of the people in the community felt that we were overreacting. And the police were overreacting. That we were succumbing to the pressure of the press. And I know for a fact, I can't attribute it to a particular individual, but I absolutely know that one or more of the parents were essentially saying, "Look, these are boys. They're young men, this is what they do. Kids get involved in fights." But these weren't fights. This is not a dispute. These were kids who were going out intentionally to hurt people. And unfortunately in this particular [case], it caused his death. And I couldn't seem to understand that they didn't appreciate the distinction here. And that was really, really troublesome, troubling to me.

They appreciated it after we started to come out with the indictments.  Especially after the second round of indictments where we were able to show that there were at least eight other individuals who had been attacked by this same group. People started to then realize. Whoa. We're not overreacting. Perhaps they were overreacting, not us. And that helped to quell, I think, some of the atmosphere.

O’Neill: So as prosecutors you’re dealing with two sort of secret communities who have their own code of silence for very different reasons. You have these teenagers who were operating and not talking to adults about what they’re doing. And then you have immigrants who are fearful to report what’s happening to them to the police. So how did you get around that?

Spota:  First of all, in going to the church where there were many community activists and members, especially Latino community activists. And when I brought the prosecutors and I brought the detectives to the church and we interviewed so many people. We were there for hours and hours and hours. They began to appreciate the fact that we were taking it, the DAs office was taking it very, very seriously. And that we were prepared to do something. That, I think, helped an awful lot. Because the members of the community began to speak to people, victims and say you can come forward. They're not going to be concerned whether you are here illegally or not. They are not going to look the other way.

That’s what I had to convince people of more than anything else. That we would take seriously everything that individuals told us. There were many crimes that we couldn't, we just couldn't prove. There were people who came forward and I absolutely believe it occurred. Probably 15 or 20, I'm guessing at the number but it was certainly in that area, who came forward but with the passage of time, or the manner in which the crime had been committed. You must understand, a person is riding his bike or walking on the street and all of a sudden, five thugs are jumping him and beating him up. He's trying to protect himself. He can't identify people. In some cases it was two or three years old. They had not told anybody about it for fear of going to the police and perhaps the police would find out that they were here illegally and they would take steps to deport them. Or the other perception, as I mentioned before, that the police would just look the other way, they weren't interested in doing anything. Then through the community, the people who were there, they were the ones who really convinced the Latino community to come forward. And we would work with them and we did work with them.

O’Neill: Well you had confessions early on.

 We had strong cases, essentially. I thought, against all of them. We wanted to, we needed at least one person, though, to give us the overall picture of what had occurred that entire night. And again, because these are hate crimes, I had to establish that there was a belief or perception on behalf on the part of these individuals. That they were attacking Lucero and attacking [Angel] Loja because they were Latinos or they call them Mexicans. So that's why we had a person, one person we selected, we thought would be the best witness and he was the most truthful. Many of them had come up to our office to speak to us. But we didn't believe some of ... or a lot of what many of them were saying. So in every single case you have to engage in plea bargaining.

I have upwards of 4,000 indictments a year. If I were to go to trial, I could not possibly do 400 of them, let alone 4,000. It's a fact of life that we have to engage in plea bargaining. What I decided to do was I held back on the ones that I thought were most seriously involved in the case and those that I felt were less seriously involved, I allowed to take pleas with the understanding from the judge that we were going to make strong sentencing recommendations with respect to them. And there were some defendants who just held out to the end that didn't think that we'd be able to prove our case. Once they saw that Conroy was convicted of all of the charges placed against him, they decided to enter into plea negotiations.

But you did have one trial. You had one trial where you brought the evidence out about the killing and about the assaults on not only Marcelo Lucero but the other victims as well. Can you tell us some memorable moments from that trial?

Spota: I was in the audience, I wasn't sitting up at the counsel table. I think the most dramatic moment in the trial, well there were two things. It was the opening statement of the trial prosecutor, Megan O'Donnell, and the fact that the defendant elected to take the witness stand. Which I could not understand. I've been around a long time, tried many, many, many murder cases. This was not a case that I, if I were the defense attorney, would ever have had the defendant take the witness stand. And that was borne out by the fact that the cross examination of Ms. O'Donnell was devastating.

She just took the the story that Conroy took, mentioned and testified to and she just picked it apart line by line. And he couldn't withstand the cross-examination. At points during the cross examination...

Because he basically said that someone else did it.

Spota:  Yeah, he was saying that a person that he, one of the individuals he had just met that evening within an hour or two of the commission of the homicide. He was saying that that person had said that he had stabbed Lucero and gave Conroy the knife and Conroy agreed to put it in his pocket. And he told the police that he had committed this crime because that other person had had a prior incident in Suffolk County which would have been devastating to him if he had been charged with a murder in this particular case. So the story made absolutely no sense but what he was doing was to try and convince the jury, he covered everything. He said the blood on the knife and the blood on his clothing of course would match because he put the knife in his pocket but the other person had done the stabbing. It truly made no sense at all but in his mind it did.

As a matter of fact, after the case was over, I did not speak to the jurors but members of the press spoke to the jurors and they reported that they discounted his testimony right from the beginning.

O’Neill: So that was a dramatic moment...

Spota: I remember the exact part of what Megan O’Donnell’s opening statement was, "On November 8th, 2008 the hunt was on." And it was like dead silence. It was in my view, the most powerful one-liner that you could possibly have. I could see the jury. Everybody was taken aback and it was such a powerful statement. That became the theme of the trial. That the hunt was on. And of course, the second part was her cross-examination was devastating.

O’Neill: Were you there for the sentencing of Jeffery Conroy? Can you describe that scene and that morning?

 Yeah, I remember it well. It was a packed courtroom. Everyday it was a packed courtroom, there was an awful lot of press there. Nationwide coverage. But that particular day, we of course had no idea what the judge would do. Judge Doyle was a pretty tough sentencing judge so I expected that this was going to be a heavy sentence. The defense attorney made a very uh, I thought a very, very good argument as best as he could for leniency but when the judge pronounced the sentence, the defendant’s father became outraged.

He stood up. He started cursing and screaming that this was not justice and he just went on and on and on. He had to be escorted by our court officers out of the courtroom. Everybody was taken aback. Nobody knew what to say.  I thought it was telling, though. Only because Conroy himself had a pretty bad temper that was brought out during the trial. And of course, the father, doing what he did, I leaned over and talked to ... I think I was sitting next to a homicide detective who was also watching the sentencing. And I said to him, “The apple doesn't fall too far from the tree.”

: Where you satisfied with the sentence?

Spota:  Yeah. I was satisfied. It was the maximum sentence that the judge could impose and I think, I don't want to see this is a young man. I don't want to see anybody go away to jail for lengthy periods of time if they don't deserve it, but I truly think in this case that he did deserve it. He was a fellow who had been engaged in a number of the prior incidents and always with the most violence. And he had a bad record in school. He was, by the way, a star athlete but he had a bad, bad disciplinary record in school and he had every opportunity under the sun to stop doing what he was doing. There was absolutely no reason to stab this person. And I just felt that it was appropriate.

And I think it's important too because it sends a message to the community. I'm not big for messages sent in courtrooms. I've seen it happen. Every day of the week a judge will say I'm sending a message to the community. Quite frankly the message goes no further than the courtroom door but in this case I think it did. Because it did send a message. Not only to our small community here in Suffolk County but I think nationwide because there was nationwide coverage here. And people saw that we were taking this very, very, very seriously. That notwithstanding the fact that a person may be in this country illegally or not, no one, no one deserves to die especially in the manner in which Marcelo Lucero died.

O’Neill: What role did the family play? Did you talk to the Luceros often?

Spota:  Yes, I met with them. I met with the Mrs. Lucero, the mother. I met with the daughter. I met with Joselo, the brother. They were accompanied by other members of the Hispanic community. I met with them before the indictments. I met with them after the indictments and before it was announced publicly what the results of the indictment were. I wanted them to know that I only elected to indict one person for murder. I knew that they would be upset by that and I wanted to explain our reasoning for that. And then during the trial I gave them assistance financially so that the mother and daughter who were living in South America were able to fly up to the United States and I helped out with the visas and things such as that. And I met with the brother virtually every single day of the trial.

O’Neill: So is that typical that the families of the victims would be in the courtroom everyday?

Spota:  Oh yeah, especially in cases such as this. Absolutely. Almost all homicide cases, the members of the family are present throughout the trial.

What do you think others can learn around the country who are facing— particularly this anti-immigrant—violence? This isn’t only happening in Suffolk County, it’s happening all over the country. What have you learned from this that you can share with others about monitoring these things?

Spota:  Well, I think it's important that the members of the law enforcement community ... monitor these incidents and see if there is a pattern. Will there be assaults on the immigrants? Sure, that's going to occur. But when it becomes a pattern, such as there was here, that's gotta be stopped immediately. And that's, I think, something that if there was anything that I could tell the law enforcement community throughout the United States is to become ever more vigilant in determining if there is a group of individuals who are conducting a sustained attack upon members of the community or whether this is just an isolated incident.

And I think the other thing is that everybody should know, we took it very seriously here. We have a young man, 17 or 18 years of age who is going to do 25 years of his life in prison. And that, notwithstanding the fact that people may have come here illegally, nobody deserves to have any crime committed upon them. That's not the American way and I think that's something we did communicate by this case.

A lot of people would rather not prosecute hate crimes they would rather go after the assault. You seem to have taken them on. I think some prosecutors would just say, "Hey it’s easier for me to get the felony, easier to prove.” What’s your attitude about that?

Spota:  They shouldn't be in office. If the attitude of a person is "I'm going to take the easy way out", they shouldn't be there. I took an oath, they take an oath to uphold the law. And if the case is such that that it’s the law and it is indeed a hate crime, then it has to be prosecuted. And these are very difficult cases. We may not be successful. So be it. I'm not here to gain a conviction.