NEW YORK — A victim of a racial attack in Howard Beach, Queens, testified Thursday that he brandished a knife after being taunted by a group of white teen-agers armed with sticks, a bat and an iron pipe and he was struck in the back by a stick as he fled his pursuers.
Testifying as an important prosecution witness in the murder and manslaughter trial of four white teen-agers, Timothy Grimes, 19, said one of his attackers pounded the ground threateningly with the bat while other members of the group shouted racial epithets.
Grimes managed to outrun his attackers, but his two companions were less fortunate. Prosecutors charge that the youths chased Michael Griffith, a 23-year-old black man, into traffic where he was killed on a busy highway, and that they also seriously beat Cedric Sandiford, 36, as he pleaded for mercy. Sandiford is expected to testify later in the trial.
Grimes, who admitted on the witness stand he had an arrest record on robbery, assault and drug charges, demonstrated how he held the knife in front of him when he faced his attackers. The junior high school dropout had told the grand jury investigating the Howard Beach case he was unarmed, but later changed his story in interviews with prosecutors.
Defense lawyers claim the fact that Grimes pulled a knife indicated their clients were not instigators of the confrontation.
Under questioning by special New York state prosecutor Charles J. Hynes, Grimes said he first faced his attackers when he and two companions emerged from a pizzeria late in the evening of Dec 19. Grimes said he was met by "three guys with things in their hands." He said one of the whites pounded a bat into the ground twice and shouted to the others, "Hit the niggers."
"I reached into my pocket and pulled out my knife," Grimes said in state Supreme Court in Queens. "I displayed it in front of me."
Holds Out Knife
As the jurors in the large courtroom watched carefully, Grimes held the knife in front of his shoulder.
Grimes said the three whites were joined by about seven others and that he managed to sprint around the group. He said someone hurled a small brown stick with tape around it and it struck him in the back.
"Did you ever see Michael Griffith alive again," Hynes asked.
"No," Grimes replied.
Grimes told the jury that after outracing his attackers he hitchhiked to a nearby subway back to Brooklyn. The next day he talked to detectives. Grimes said police did not ask if he had a weapon and he did not volunteer the fact.
Four teen-age residents of Howard Beach are on trial in the case. Jon Lester and Scott Kern, both 18, are charged with second-degree murder. Michael Pirone, 17, and Jason Ladone, 16, are accused of manslaughter.
In previous sessions, the jury has heard some stark testimony. Over the vigorous objections of defense lawyers, a tape recording of a phone call to 911, the police emergency number, was played. A Howard Beach resident frantically tried to direct the dispatcher to the scene where a black man was being beaten.
'Kid Is Screaming'
"There's about 12 guys out there . . . beating up on one black guy . . . with a crowbar," Theresa Fisher told the dispatcher. "Have somebody come here really fast . . . I mean, this kid is screaming out here."
As the violence continued, Fisher's sister, Angela Romanillo, grabbed the phone. "The guy's running back and forth. . . . They got him in the bushes over there, they're hitting him with crowbars and stuff," she told the dispatcher. "He's screaming, 'Please don't beat me no more.' "
The tape ended with Fisher showing her own exasperation at the police dispatcher's inability to pinpoint the location. "It's a shame . . . she better hurry up," Fisher said.