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3 Howard Beach Youths Convicted : Found Guilty of Manslaughter in Death of Black; 4th Acquitted

December 22, 1987|JOHN J. GOLDMAN and EILEEN V. QUIGLEY | Times Staff Writers

NEW YORK — After 12 days of deliberations, a jury Monday found three white teen-agers guilty of manslaughter in the death of a black man who was pursued onto a busy highway near Howard Beach and killed by a car--a case that became a national symbol of urban racial violence.

The jurors acquitted Michael Pirone, 18, one of the four defendants, of all charges.

Jon Lester and Scott Kern, both 18, were cleared of second-degree murder charges but were convicted of manslaughter, assault and conspiracy. Jason Ladone, 16, also was found guilty of manslaughter and assault. The manslaughter charges could carry a maximum 15-year prison penalty. Only Lester and Kern had been charged with murder.

Shouts and Gasps

As the verdict was read, there were shouts of joy and then gasps in the huge courtroom. Three people--two whites and one black--stood and yelled, "Murderers!" They were dragged from the courtroom by security guards, who later said the protesters had identified themselves as members of the Revolutionary Communist Party. Other spectators began to raise banners and, to maintain order, the judge immediately declared a recess.

Pirone sighed with relief when he heard the verdict. Lester and Ladone remained outwardly emotionless. Kern shut his eyes and seemed close to tears. Kern's parents and his younger sister began to wail.

The three-month-long trial centered on the events of last Dec. 19 and 20, when a car with three black men broke down near Howard Beach in Queens.

Michael Griffith, 23, a sometime construction worker, was killed when he was pursued into traffic by a gang of white teen-agers who confronted the black men in front of a pizzeria. Earlier, the teen-agers had been drinking at a party. Griffith's companions, Cedric Sandiford, 37, a mechanic's assistant, and Timothy Grimes, 18 and unemployed, were beaten with tree limbs and a baseball bat.

Racial Tensions Heightened

The case galvanized civil rights activists, heightened racial tensions in New York City and resulted in Special New York State Prosecutor Charles J. Hynes' being named to prosecute the controversial case.

Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, who selected Hynes after black civil rights activists and lawyers demanded that the case not be prosecuted by the Queens County District Attorney's Office, said after the verdict: "In this state, we live by the rule of law. It operated here, apparently without fear or favor. That is all we can ask."

Earlier Monday, black demonstrators, using the Howard Beach trial as a rallying point against alleged racism in New York City, blocked traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge, stalled subway trains and created widespread difficulties for thousands of homebound commuters.

At one point, the line of cars seeking to cross the bridge from Manhattan to Brooklyn stretched almost two miles. Other demonstrators rode the subways and pulled emergency cords on some trains, forcing them to stop and causing thousands of riders to arrive home late.

At least 73 protesters were arrested on charges of obstructing government administration and criminal trespass.

In the crowded Queens courtroom, haggard relatives on both sides of the case waited tensely as the jury announced its verdict at about 8:30 p.m.--a year and a day after violence made Howard Beach, an isolated, predominantly white Queens neighborhood of small homes, a focus of national attention.

Earlier Monday, the presiding judge, state Supreme Court Justice Thomas Demakos, turned down demands by defense lawyers for a mistrial after press reports appeared saying that Nina F. Krauss, the jury's forewoman, had tried to sell her trial diary to three New York newspapers.

Newspaper editors said they were offered the diary by Krauss' boyfriend, a local television field producer, who said Krauss had authorized him to act as her agent. He was suspended Monday by the station where he worked because his actions violated its policies.

Reports Ruled Hearsay

But Demakos ruled that reports of the trial diary were hearsay and constituted insufficient grounds for a mistrial. Defense lawyers charged that the juror could be interested in prolonging the deliberations and in having a controversial verdict to help sell her story.

After the verdict was announced, prosecutor Hynes said: "The defendants have been stripped of any pretense of innocence . . . . I will ask Justice Demakos to impose the maximum sentence on these defendants."

Hynes said the jury had sent a message. "They said today that they won't tolerate hatred of anyone which is based on gender, race, origin or anything that makes us different. Mindless intolerance must end."

Mayor Edward I. Koch said the jury came in with a verdict "which I think most people would say was just . . . . I think we should be very proud of that jury."

But Gabriel Leone, Kern's lawyer, said he was in "total shock."

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