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He who speaks last fares well

May 7, 2004

Here is a tale of two fatal police shootings.

Both involve unarmed victims. Both officers are white, both victims black.

In both cases, attorney Stuart London took the unusual step of allowing them to testify before grand juries.

The first grand jury, in Brooklyn, impaneled just weeks after the shooting, voted not to indict Officer Richard Neri in the fatal shooting of Timothy Stansbury, 19.

The second, sitting now in Manhattan, must decide whether Officer Bryan Conroy, while in plain clothes during an undercover raid at a Chelsea warehouse, was justified in drawing his gun as he pursued, then fatally shot, Ousmane Zongo, an unarmed African artisan.

As a person familiar with that case put it, "When do questionable police tactics become criminality?"

London, a former Bronx prosecutor, has succeeded his partner, Stephen Worth, as the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association's principal criminal attorney. He says he has been given carte blanche in defending his clients by a union that no longer countenances secret meetings in station house parking lots or basements.

Such meetings - as in the 46th Precinct parking lot before the trial of former Bronx officer Frank Livoti, who was convicted in the choke-death of Anthony Baez; or in the basement of the 70th Precinct station house in Brooklyn before the trial of Justin Volpe in the Abner Louima brutality case - were regarded as venues for the cops to get their stories straight.

Neri told the grand jury he was startled when Stansbury burst through a rooftop door of the Louis Armstrong housing project. "He came across as a compassionate, likable police officer just doing his job," London said.

It helped Neri that he was one of the last witnesses called. This meant he had the final word and his testimony was not subject to contradictions by other witnesses.

In fact, the final witness - an NYPD training officer - appeared to support him, testifying it was standard procedure for officers to draw their guns on housing patrols.

This week, Conroy spent two days testifying before a grand jury. But he was among the first to testify. And this being an election year, all the players, including Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, who waited a year to convene the grand jury, are under the spotlight.

London said Conroy gave a 1 1/2-hour opening statement, then was questioned for two days by prosecutor Armand Durastanti about why he drew his gun on Zongo.

Did Conroy reasonably feel his life or someone else's was in danger? Did he feel Zongo presented a threat to him or to anyone else? These were some of the questions Durastanti asked, London said.

Conroy said one reason he drew his gun was to identify himself as a cop after Zongo failed to halt as Conroy had commanded, London said. He also testified that at one point, a terrified Zongo reached for Conroy's gun and that Conroy reacted by pulling it back, the lawyer said.

A chase ensued through the warehouse, with each of them apparently thinking the other was a robber.

Conroy testified that before he shot Zongo four times at close range, Zongo had lunged for the gun, struck him in the nose and began a life-and-death struggle, London said. At that point, Conroy felt he had no other choice but to shoot, London said.

No justification. Less than 12 hours after Neri shot Stansbury, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said of that shooting, "There appears to be no justification." His comment drew praise in the newspapers and outrage from the PBA and virtually all the city's law enforcement officials.

So far, Kelly has said nothing about the Zongo shooting.

Welcome back, Charlie. Charlie DeRienzo - whom Kelly is welcoming back from the Port Authority as deputy commissioner for administration - received some more good tidings last week.

His detective son, Donald, was restored to full duty after a year on modified assignment.

Donald and two detective buddies, Anthony Vega and Frank Hopkins, from the Midtown South Precinct, had been found guilty of picking up some female tourists and tooling about town with them in an unmarked radio patrol car.

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© 2004 Newsday, Inc. Reprinted with permission.