Who Killed Robert Konopka?

His psychotic Rikers cellmate—or the prison system itself?

As the Konopka case inches its way through the discovery phase, one point has proven especially sticky: The city has been unable so far to name the person who ultimately decided to make Konopka and Smart cellmates. Asked to respond to the specific claims of Suzanne Konopka and her lawyer John O'Leary, the city declined. Thomas Merrill, deputy chief of the tort division in the law department, said in a statement: "Although unfortunate, the death of Mr. Konopka was not due to any negligence or wrongdoing on the part of the City. We are confident that when the evidence is heard in court, the jury will find in our favor. Because this matter is still being litigated, we are unable to comment on it any further." In legal filings to date, the city is offering only a general defense against Suzanne Konopka's claims, contending that "The risks of injuries and damages alleged to have been sustained were assumed in whole or in part by the plaintiff or caused in whole or in part by the plaintiff" or "arose out of plaintiff's culpable conduct."

Konopka was no saint. Friends of the family defend him as a devoted father and friend but concede that to strangers, Konopka was less likable: belligerent, argumentative, and opinionated. "He was an annoying guy. He made fun of my tie," offered a clerk at Richmond County Criminal Court who remembered Konopka five years after his death, but wouldn't volunteer his own name. Konopka spoke his mind at condo association meetings. Friends of his late aunt claim that he snapped pictures at her wake and tried to break into her house. Debbie Ngai, the neighbor who called the cops on Konopka multiple times, alleged to the police that he approached her to utter pleasantries like "Bitch, you are going to pay for what you are doing to me."

Whether Konopka actually said that will never be resolved. His guilt or innocence of Ngai's criminal charges was never decided by a court because the case ended with his death. Since Suzanne Konopka's lawsuit hasn't reached trial yet, we still don't know who put Konopka and Smart in that cell. We don't know whether Konopka might have been saved by a faster medical response when his beaten body was found. We don't know what prompted Smart to attack him. We don't even know whether the victim was awake: Corrections department reports speculate that Konopka was asleep when Smart began to kill him.

But we do know that Konopka wasn't suspected of being a psychotic murderer, while his cellmate was accused of slaying a relative. We know the city put them in the same cell, and we know the results of that pairing. The medical examiner's autopsy report finds that blunt trauma to the head and neck was the cause of Konopka's death, but also lists abrasions, lacerations, hemorrhaging, multiple skull fractures, brain contusions, and blood in the lungs among the injuries that Konopka suffered on his last night.

At least until that auto accident in 1992, Robert Konopka's life seemed to be the very picture of typical white, male, middle-class existence. He grew up on Long Island, played high school football, and went to St. John's. He and Suzanne met at a Redmen basketball game in 1979 and were married in October 1982. Until his accident, Konopka worked at a drugstore in New Jersey, but he and his family lived across the Gowanus in Staten Island, in a condo within a development known as "Four Brothers." McDivitt Avenue is a street of uniformly crisp and cheery units, all the same shade of beige with blue trim and identical brown and black bricks on the ground floor. The grass along the walkways is closely clipped and lush looking, and there are lots of flowers and American flags. Every house has a small yard with a neat fence around it— except for number 102 on the corner, where the lawn sweeps around toward the back of the house. That was where the Konopkas lived. Compared to his neighbors' lots, it was a lot of territory to defend.

The Konopka lawsuit contends that the dispute with Ngai was over her "allowing her dog to urinate/defecate on the front lawn of the decedent's property despite requests to cease." Court records say the first dustup between Ngai and Konopka occurred in October 1998, when she obtained an order of protection against him. Ngai claims in criminal complaints that over the next year Konopka threatened her, chased her, even damaged her car. Konopka was arrested several times and charged with offenses like harassment and criminal contempt for violating orders of protection. At least once, the charges against him were reduced, and one docket was dismissed altogether, but Konopka was convicted of one misdemeanor, and later paid a $250 fine when he pleaded guilty to a second charge. After yet another arrest in July 1999, a grand jury indicted Konopka for first- and second-degree criminal contempt—the former a Class E felony.

When Konopka violated his bail by missing court dates and was going to be remanded before trial, Konopka's lawyer got him sent to Mid-Hudson for his evaluation—and to avoid any length of time at Rikers. (The city says Konopka had been at Rikers on multiple occasions after his arrests, but they were short stays.) Mid-Hudson found Konopka "fit to proceed," but also diagnosed him with schizophrenia. That diagnosis is the reason why, when he was transferred to Rikers in November, he was sent not into the general population, but instead to the Kross Center's mental observation ward.

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