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Mistrial Declared in Zongo Case

Monday, March 07, 2005

A mistrial was declared Monday at the manslaughter trial of an undercover police officer who shot unarmed art restorer Ousmane Zongo in a Manhattan warehouse.

"After careful and considerable deliberations, we, the jury, cannot reach a unanimous verdict," said the note read by state Supreme Court Justice Daniel FitzGerald. "We have thoroughly examined the facts and charges and no further deliberations will resolve our differences."

Officer Brian Conroy was tried for the May 22, 2003, killing of Zongo, a married father of two from West Africa who worked in the warehouse. Conroy, 25, would have faced up to 15 years in prison if he had been convicted.

The courtroom was packed with uniformed police officers, behind the defense table, and supporters of the Zongos, behind the prosecution table. When the judge asked the jurors if they were sure, they all nodded in agreement, some closing their eyes; he reassured them that some issues are not easily resolved.

The judge ordered all the parties back to court on April 7 for motions and discussion of a probable retrial.

Zongo's wife, Salimata Sanfo, said later through an interpreter that she has confidence in God and the jury system, and she believes truth and justice will be served in the near future.

Sanfo has no ill feelings toward police in general - only against Conroy, because "he is a killer," she said through the interpreter.

The trial was the first involving a city police officer in a fatal shooting since Amadou Diallo was infamously gunned down in the Bronx six years ago - a case that also involved an unarmed West African immigrant.

With no eyewitnesses and scant physical evidence, Conroy's grand jury account - where he testified that Zongo twice tried to seize his gun - became the most important evidence in the case. The jury heard it once during the trial, and again during deliberations.

Conroy said he first saw Zongo while guarding a bin of counterfeit CDs that police had seized on the third floor of Chelsea Mini-Storage. Zongo, a native of Burkina Faso who spoke little English, worked on that floor repairing African artifacts.

When Zongo stepped into the main corridor to turn on a timed light that gone off, Conroy - disguised in his father's postal uniform - drew his gun and pointed it at Zongo.

The officer, who said his police badge was pinned to his shirt front, said Zongo walked toward him, head and arms down with palms outward, before trying to grab his gun. Then, inexplicably, Zongo turned and fled with Conroy in pursuit.

Assistant District Attorney Armad Durastanti ridiculed this as Conroy's "zombie walk" tale. He said that story, along with the rest of Conroy's version, made no sense because it did not, and could not, have happened.

"Mr. Zongo was not armed," Durastanti said. "He was not involved in any criminal activity. He was not a threat to Conroy or to anyone else."

But defense lawyer Stuart London said Conroy, a police officer since September 2000, only fired his gun after Zongo tried to disarm him in "a life and death struggle" inside the building on West 27th Street. Durastanti told the jury that there were no powder burns indicating close shots, nor any trace hair or fiber evidence indicating the two had struggled with each other.

The 43-year-old Zongo, shot four times in the back, neck and arm, died hours later at a nearby hospital.

Members of Zongo's family have already filed a $150 million federal lawsuit against the city and Conroy, alleging the officer violated the dead man's civil rights.

Sanfo collapsed in sobs the day an elevator surveillance tape was played for the jury, showing Zongo carrying his work materials. The same tape later showed police, guns drawn, rushing from the elevator into the storage building.

Diallo, who also was black, was shot to death in the vestibule of his Bronx apartment building on Feb. 4, 1999, by four white officers who said they mistook his wallet for a gun. The officers said they wanted to talk to him because he fit the description of a rape suspect they were seeking. They were acquitted of state criminal charges in a February 2000 trial.

The officers fired 41 shots, hitting the street vendor from Guinea 19 times and making the killing an international symbol of police brutality. The death also heightened racial tensions in New York and sparked massive protests.

(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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