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8 convicted of hate attack in Long Beach

A judge rules in the beating of three women on Halloween -- a case that roiled the racially mixed city.

January 27, 2007|Joe Mozingo | Times Staff Writer

A judge Friday found that eight black teenagers beat three white women in Long Beach out of racial hatred, ending a divisive trial that was muddled by conflicting testimony and accusations of witness intimidation.

Judge Gibson Lee upheld nearly all of the prosecution's counts in a case that roiled this diverse city with its core allegation: that nine girls and a boy visited a well-to-do part of Long Beach on Halloween night and beat three women to the ground because they were white.

Lee threw out the case against the youngest defendant, a girl who turned 12 the night before the attack. The testimony linking her to the crime was a single statement that she was "throwing newspapers around at the girls." Another was convicted of the assault but not of a hate crime.

On the courthouse steps, Deputy Dist. Atty. Brian Schirn, who supervised the case, said the victory was not something to cheer about.

"Today is not a happy day," he said. "The victims still have to undergo physical, emotional treatment.... I feel sorry for everybody. There are no winners."

Defense attorney Frank Williams Jr. said he was "perplexed" by Lee's ruling. The defense lawyers and the youths' families contend that authorities prosecuted the wrong people in a rush to resolve the highly charged case.

"I thought the judge would make a much more reasoned decision about my client, who was not identified by any of the victims," he said.

Those convicted were eight females -- a 13-year-old, two 14-year-olds, two 16-year-olds, a 17-year-old and two 18-year-olds -- and an 18-year-old male. The oldest defendants were tried as juveniles because they were 17 when the crimes occurred.

Handcuffed to their chairs, the defendants broke down as Lee read the rulings. Nine were convicted of felony assault, eight with a hate-crime enhancement. For four of the nine, the conviction will count as a first strike under California's three-strikes law, which mandates a life term for a third felony conviction if the first two were for "serious" or "violent" felonies.

One girl cradled another's head. A 13-year-old girl buried her face in her gray Juvenile Hall sweat shirt and sobbed. Their parents' mouths hung open in disbelief.

"His mind was made up," said the mother of a 16-year-old girl, who will have a strike. "The judge was under pressure. He took the way out that makes him look good. He took the cowardly way."

The three victims -- Loren Hyman, 21; Laura Schneider, 19; and Michelle Smith, 19 -- sat together in the front row, showing no emotion at the verdicts. Concerned about their security, they later went to "safe places" for the weekend without making public comment, said Doug Otto, their civil attorney.

"They're gratified that their version of what occurred seems to be vindicated by the court's decision," Otto said. "They feel that justice is beginning to be done in this case."

Otto said all three women felt victimized again by some of the comments that defendants' supporters made during the contentious trial. "There's not a scintilla of evidence that they provoked these things," he said.

After the verdicts, families of the accused converged at a North Long Beach church to address the media. They have said that their children were present when the attack occurred but did not participate in the beatings.

"I was walking out of the court and they were crying, 'Mama,' and I couldn't do nothing," said the mother of four of the defendants, including the girl who was cleared in the case.

She said her children work hard, do their homework and are not allowed to watch TV during the week. Going out on Halloween "was a treat for them."

The news conference ended with sobs and a woman screaming, "Oh, my God, they took my baby."

Lee said he will hear Wednesday how the attack has affected the victims' lives, before setting a sentencing date. Judges, not juries, decide all cases in Juvenile Court.

The defendants, who have spent 87 days in custody, could receive penalties ranging from probation to commitment to a California Youth Authority prison until they are 25. They have no criminal records. Given that, defense attorneys say the most likely sentence would be three to nine months in a county probation camp.

Two other boys, arrested separately from the 10, will go on trial later for the assaults.

The incident had ignited outrage in Long Beach since it was first reported in a front-page Press-Telegram article that labeled it "a horrific hate crime" and quoted the victims as comparing the culprits to "a pack of hyenas." Residents of Bixby Knolls expressed a range of emotions: Some railed against political leaders for not quickly addressing their fears; others urged that the case not be prejudged.

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