Who Killed Robert Konopka?

His psychotic Rikers cellmate—or the prison system itself?

Life had not been easy on Suzanne Konopka for some time when she pulled up to her family's condo on McDivitt Avenue in Staten Island on the night of Tuesday, January 9, 2001. Waiting on the answering machine inside was news that things were about to get harder than she could have imagined.

Suzanne's husband, Robert Konopka, a 45-year-old licensed pharmacist, had been out of work and on disability since a 1992 car accident. While he stayed home to care for their two daughters, Suzanne worked two jobs, and the family relied on credit cards to cover expenses. But as time went by, finances weren't the only problems facing the Konopka household. The amount of time Konopka spent around the house meant the kids had a built-in math tutor and piano instructor, but it also created opportunities for conflict. There was an estate case in New Jersey, involving Konopka's late aunt, that preoccupied him. There was his tendency to snoop around the neighborhood, asking workmen what they were doing, and yelling at skateboarders to stop bumping cars on their way down the hill—a confrontation that ended with a Molotov cocktail on the Konopka doorstep.

And then there was the battle with neighbor Debbie Ngai.

Robert Konopka and his two daughters, Teresa (left) and Felicia, in a 1998 family photograph
photo: Courtesy Susan Konopka
Robert Konopka and his two daughters, Teresa (left) and Felicia, in a 1998 family photograph

Ngai had a dog—a little one by all descriptions—that she or her husband walked around the neighborhood. The pooch apparently had a habit of relieving itself on the Konopka lawn. Konopka first confronted the husband (whose name no one interviewed for this story could recall). Later he clashed with Debbie, and Debbie called the police. After several arrests and court appearances, a grand jury in February 2000 indicted Konopka for criminal contempt.

In August 2000, Konopka was arrested after missing a court date and his bail was revoked. That meant he would be imprisoned at Rikers Island, where the city holds people awaiting trial, serving short sentences, or due to be transferred to a state facility to serve longer prison terms. Suzanne wanted to keep him out of Rikers ("He wouldn't survive there," she thought), so their lawyer asked the court for a psychological screening, and the judge sent Konopka to the Mid-Hudson Forensic Psychiatric Center in New Hampton. In November 2000, Konopka returned to Rikers after Mid-Hudson found him "fit to proceed" to trial. Over the next two months, prisoner 4422833H had a series of court appearances. Suzanne never visited her husband in jail because she kept expecting his release any day. He was due in court on January 28, in just three weeks.

But Konopka was going to miss that court date, too. When Suzanne opened the door and checked the answering machine that night of January 9, she heard the voice of a Rikers chaplain. He was coming out to see her. She waited until after midnight for him to deliver the news. "I wanted to know if something happened, if my husband was beat up or violated," she said later.

What the chaplain told her when he got there was worse: Konopka was dead.

Neither the chaplain nor the staff at Elmhurst Hospital Center—where Suzanne went the next day to identify the body—told her how he'd died. "But when they showed me his picture," she recalls, "there were four wide lines on the side of his face and I told them it looked like somebody's shoe."

Indeed, it was somebody's shoe— Derrick Smart's. He was a 19-year-old awaiting trial for bludgeoning to death his grandmother, Mattie Conyer, in her bathtub. Smart was one of 11 siblings sharing either his father or mother, but he never knew his dad, and at age 12, when his mom dropped dead, he found her body in their apartment. A special education student, Smart quit school in the seventh grade and never held a job. He regularly heard voices, sometimes cut himself, and spoke about seeing bloody birds flying over his head. Diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, Smart wasn't taking his twice-daily doses of the anti-psychotic Risperdal while at Rikers, and Smart's own lawyer had asked for him to be segregated from the general jail population. Instead, he was put in cell 30/31 on Quad Lower 1 of the Anna M. Kross Center. Konopka was his cellmate, and then his victim.

Alleging that Rikers was negligent in placing her husband in that cell and not preventing his murder, Suzanne Konopka is suing the city for $150 million in a case that could go to trial in coming months. If Smart had killed Konopka on the street, she'd have no case. But Smart killed Konopka on city property, in a cell that prison staff ordered the two men to share as they awaited trial for their alleged criminal acts. At the heart of the widow's suit are two fundamental questions: Who is responsible for Konopka's death? And who—besides Suzanne Konopka and her two children, now living without a father—will pay the price?

The questions raised by Konopka's death are important to more than one widow's lawsuit. Violence in city jails has decreased in the past decade, but Department of Correction lockups remain dangerous. The January 9, 2001, murder in cell 30/31 illustrates the perils that jails could pose to the thousands of people who—despite a dramatically lower city crime rate—still pass through Rikers each year. More importantly, Konopka's death reflects the risks that come with putting two men in one cell—a practice that New York City has stopped, but that the state of New York under the Pataki administration has continued to promote. Since 1995, the state has built hundreds of such cells for state inmates to share.

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