The case was immediately hoisted into national
headlines and dominated the news in New York City.
The three black men — Cedric Sandiford, 36,
Timothy Grimes, 20, and Michael Griffith, 23 — were driving through
the almost entirely white community of Howard Beach when their car broke
Finding themselves stuck in the neighborhood,
they were first confronted by some white passersby who shouted racial
epithets and warned them to leave their turf. But they were stuck and
they were hungry, so they decided to eat at a local pizza parlor. When
they walked outside, a gang of more than 10 whites were waiting for them
– with baseball bats.
What proceeded was a beating in which Sandiford, Grimes and Griffith all fought for their lives, desperately attempting to escape. Grimes got away through a hole in a nearby fence, but Sandiford and Griffith were not so lucky. The gang caught up with them and continued the beating.
That’s when Griffith and Sandiford split up,
running down Shore Parkway. Sandiford was able to hide, but Griffith was
not. He ran out into the street, was hit by an oncoming car and killed.
The beatings and Griffith’s tragic death put
the neighborhood — which had successfully remained segregated —
under a microscope.
According to Tribune reports, the borders of Howard Beach were more like walls – walls that kept non-whites out. At the time of the beatings, Howard Beach was its own world within the nation’s largest metropolis. Even urbanization had failed to infiltrate the tight-knit bubble that surrounded the beach-front community.
Overnight, all that changed.
Crowds of African American leaders converged on
the homogeneous enclave, holding signs that compared Howard Beach to
South Africa, then the
focus of an aggressive global campaign to end the country’s apartheid.
Now Howard Beach was making the papers worldwide as an example of a more subtle racism, a more insidious kind of hatred, in which the mistreatment of blacks was able to recur under the radar, away from the eyes of the world.
The Tribune ran an editorial the week of
the beatings entitled “The South Rises Again,” which compared Howard
Beach to the segregated south.
“We cannot accept a climate that has not
changed a lick since the days of Bull Connor in Selma, Alabama. We
cannot accept the narrow we-they mentality that gave rise to Hitler and
Joseph McCarthy,” the editorial said.
It was as if all the headlines had already been
written and were waiting in the back of the minds of many New Yorkers.
It took this overt example of the social ills to bring them out.
Immediately, reporters started looking back at other beatings, in other parts of New York, and dug up incidents that seemed to show a recurring pattern of hatred.
The primary defendants in the case were 17-year-olds Scott Kern, Jon Lester and Jason Ladone, and 16-year-old Michael Pirone, all charged with manslaughter, first degree assault and second degree murder.
While news of the beatings had made the case
look black and white – literally and figuratively – the court case
kicked up a cloud of gray.
Attorneys representing the teens had no problem
digging up dirt on the three men.
A Washington Post article in 1987 quoted
Landone’s attorney, Ronald Rubinstein, as saying “We now have
evidence of the fangs of the true villains,” after announcing new
developments on the backgrounds of the three men.
Grimes, it turned out, had been charged with
assault and criminal possession of a silencer before the Howard Beach
beatings. He had been implicated in burglary and trespassing and
actually stabbed his girlfriend after the beatings.
Grimes also admitted to police that he had
brandished a knife when he was confronted by the teens.
Sandiford had done time in prison and had been
convicted on gun charges, and an autopsy confirmed that, in fact,
Griffith was on cocaine at the time of his death.
The outcome of the trial was by no means certain.
The Jury Speaks
In the end, the jury made its decision not
based on the backgrounds of the victims, but on the facts of the case.
Ladone, Kern and Lester were all convicted of
second degree manslaughter and first-degree assault, but were acquitted
of the second degree murder charges. A fourth principal defendant,
Michael Pirone, was acquitted of all charges.
News reports at the time showed mixed reactions
to the convictions. The Tribune headline in December — a year
after the initial beatings — read “Relief, Outrage and Despair.”
Rubinstein said he was “numb,” according to
the Tribune article by Marsha Schrager.
“They got convicted because they were
white,” Rubinstein told the Tribune.
Howard Beach residents told the Tribune they
were unhappy with the convictions and many viewed the beatings as a
simple scuffle – one in which race was not involved, and the severity
of which did not warrant the punishment.
“Three families are shot to hell,” said one resident in an article by Lisa Colangelo.
Saying Jon Lester “showed no remorse, no
sense of guilt, no shame, no fear,” for the beatings, State Supreme
Court Justice Thomas Demakos sentenced Lester to 10 to 30 years in
prison. Ladone was sentenced to five to 15 years, and Kern was sentenced
to six to 18 years.
The decision left the relatives and supporters
of the white teenagers outraged, and the majority of those who supported
the blacks relatively pleased with the outcome of the trial.
Jon Lester was
released from prison on May 29, 2001, and quietly left for London.
Ladone was released in April of that year and Kern was released the