NEW YORK — A key prosecution witness in the Howard Beach racial attack trial stood in court Monday, dramatically pointed to an 18-year-old defendant and charged that he was the assailant who smashed his head with a baseball bat so severely it took 66 stitches to close the wounds.
At one point during his testimony--perhaps the most powerful in the more than monthlong trial of four white youths charged with murder and manslaughter--Cedric Sandiford told how he clutched one end of a wooden baseball bat while an attacker he described as 5 feet, 2 inches tall, 130 pounds with blond hair, blue eyes and round, red cheeks, held onto the other end of the weapon.
"Look around the courtroom and see if you recognize that person," special New York state prosecutor Charles J. Hynes ordered.
"He's right there," Sandiford said, gesturing toward Jon Lester, one of the defendants in the case that turned a quiet Queens neighborhood into a national symbol of urban racial violence after a teen-age gang chased a black man into traffic on a busy highway, where he was struck and killed by an auto.
Sandiford, one of three black men who were assaulted when their car broke down near Howard Beach, said that he pleaded with his attacker as they fought for control of the bat.
"I reached up and snatched one of the bats," Sandiford testified. "I was looking in the person's face."
As they wrestled over the bat, the 37-year-old witness said, he turned towards his much younger assailant. "I said, 'Please, oh God, don't kill me. I have a son like you.' "
The witness said he finally released the bat as two more white males appeared, and his attacker ignored his plea. "He lashed me in my head and busted my head open," Sandiford told the jurors. " . . . I felt like my brains had busted apart."
At another point in his testimony, Sandiford described how he had been struck in the eye by youths wielding a tree limb. Finally, he said, he pretended he was dead and his attackers got into an auto.
Under questioning by Hynes, Sandiford described the events of Dec. 20 when Michael Griffith was killed by an auto on the Belt Parkway after being pursued by the gang of teen-agers.
Sandiford said he and his companions had just emerged from a pizzeria when they encountered "10 to 12 white teen-agers . . . with bats and sticks in their hands."
After being taunted with racial epithets and told to get out of the neighborhood, the three men were attacked, Sandiford said. "I got lashed with a bat in my back," he testified. "I felt pain, anguish and shock."
He said the gang pursued him and his friends with bats and tree limbs. For a brief time, the witness said, he managed to elude the teen-agers, only to be caught and beaten again. During the second beating, he grasped the baseball bat and stared into the face of his attacker, he said.
Lester looked stunned and conferred quietly with his lawyer at the defense table when Sandiford identified him.
Lester and Scott Kern, also 18, are charged with second-degree murder. Jason Ladone, 16, and Michael Pirone, 17, are accused of manslaughter. Prosecutors plan to try eight other defendants later on lesser charges.