Published January 04. 2013 2:00PM Updated January 05. 2013 12:05AM
Dirren T. Conyers, who declined to testify on his own behalf at his manslaughter trial in September, asked to deliver a statement from the witness stand before he was sentenced in a Norwich courtroom Friday to nine years in prison for causing the death of Jose Cartagena during a drunken melee in Groton in April 2008.
"I'm extremely sorry and ashamed and embarrassed to be sitting before you, your honor," he told Judge Barbara Bailey Jongbloed. "I never intended on harming Jose, only on stopping the altercation that was occurring."
Conyers had gone to trial in September on charges of first-degree manslaughter and unlawful restraint. The jury had convicted him on the lesser charge of second-degree manslaughter and unlawful restraint. He faced up to 15 years in prison at sentencing.
Testimony at the trial revealed that Conyers had placed Cartagena in a choke hold that had caused him to stop breathing after others in his group fought with Cartagena, a relative stranger who was out that night with Conyers' close-knit group of friends and family.
Conyers, a 35-year-old father of two young children, had only a minor criminal record until he was charged with manslaughter in connection with Cartagena's strangling death. At the sentencing, he told prosecutors and Groton Town detectives who had worked to secure his conviction that he understands they were doing their job.
Conyers also addressed the victim's family, though they were not present in the courtroom.
"I would have never let seven or eight or my friends beat Jose to death," Conyers said. "You understand? It was just chaos."
The group had gathered behind a Miami Court home after a night of drinking at Sully's, a neighborhood bar, according to testimony. The fight had started after Cartagena said something about somebody's mother. Conyers said he knew officers were on their way, but he stayed at the scene while his fiancée performed CPR on Cartagena. He said he helped carry Cartagena to a car so that a friend could take him to the hospital.
In handing down the sentence of 108 months in prison followed by five years probation, the judge said she wanted Conyers to work with children to prevent violence during his probation period. She said he had "truly remarkable" support from his family members, several of whom attended the sentencing, and that she truly believes he is remorseful.
"Mr. Conyers, you had the life of Jose Cartagena in your hands, and now he's gone," Jongbloed said. "You still have your life, and I am going to encourage you to make a positive difference in the world."
Cartagena, a native of Puerto Rico who had come to Connecticut eight years before the incident, had been working at PCC Structural, a Groton company that makes jet-engine parts, according to his family members.
Conyers had been free on a $250,000 bond while his case was pending. His attorney indicated that Conyers plans to appeal his conviction and asked the judge to release him on bond while the appeal is pending. Jongbloed said she and the state were not prepared to entertain an appeal bond motion and that she would set a date for arguments. The judge told judicial marshals to take Conyers into custody, and he was handcuffed and led away moments later.
Before the sentencing began, Jongbloed had denied defense motions to vacate the conviction due to lack of sufficient evidence and alleged prosecutorial misconduct. Attorney Tina Sypek-D'Amato argued in part that Chief Medical Examiner H. Wayne Carver said several factors contributed to Cartagena's death, and that the state didn't prove Conyers was reckless.
Sypek-D'Amato said the state had left the jury with the impression that her client tampered with witness Anthony Graham during cross-examination. Graham had testified that he ran into Conyers at a bar in New London as the trial was approaching. Graham said the men talked about the case for about 10 minutes and he spoke on the phone with Conyers' attorney. Graham said Conyers asked him, "You aren't going to throw me under the bus, are you?"
Prosecutor Christa L. Baker said to avoid confusion, the state and the defense had stipulated to make available to the jury a report by two Groton detectives who interviewed Graham about his encounter with Conyers. Graham told the detectives he didn't feel threatened by Conyers and that the defense attorney had asked him questions similar to those that had been asked by the state.