Rights Leaders Also Score Black’s Silence : Koch Presses Death Witness to Testify

Times Staff Writer

Mayor Edward I. Koch and the leaders of two prominent civil rights organizations, warning that racial tensions are rising, Tuesday urged the principal black witness to beatings by a white mob in Queens to testify before a grand jury so indictments can be obtained.

But, as investigators probed the racial incident that resulted in the death of one of his companions, the witness, Cedric Sandiford, who was also a victim of the mob, continued to refuse to cooperate.

“I think it is a great disservice to civil rights. I think it is a great disservice to the city of New York. I think it is a great disservice to the law,” the mayor told a City Hall news conference.


Struck by Car

Sandiford was refusing to testify on the advice of his lawyer, Alton Maddox Jr., or to cooperate with the investigation into the death of 23-year-old Michael Griffith. Griffith was struck by a car on the night of Dec. 19 as he ran across a parkway in the Howard Beach section of Queens when fleeing teen-agers wielding baseball bats and tree limbs.

Griffith, Sandiford and another companion had gone to a pizzeria in Howard Beach to make a phone call after their car broke down. When they left the restaurant, they were attacked by the teen-agers, who were apparently angry that blacks were in the pizzeria in the overwhelmingly white neighborhood.

On Monday, a judge dismissed charges of manslaughter, murder and assault against three white teen-agers in the case because Sandiford would not testify. They are still charged with reckless endangerment, punishable by up to seven years in prison.

‘Stirring Up People’

“You are stirring up people,” Koch warned Sandiford and his attorney. The mayor said that, if the witness or his lawyers had any doubts about the sincerity of the investigation, the proper place to take those misgivings is to the special prosecutor for the criminal justice system in New York City.

Koch said Sandiford should go before the grand jury to tell “whatever he knows.”

That sentiment was seconded by Roy Innis, president of the Congress of Racial Equality.


“The lawyers who are advising him to do this (refuse to testify) are doing it for ideological reasons,” Innis charged. “They are more concerned with creating a furor than solving problems.”

Innes said that, in refusing to help authorities, Sandiford is “endangering every innocent person in this city, particularly black people.”

Plea by Judge

The National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People pleaded with the witness to testify, as did Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Bruce Wright, who over the years has angrily criticized the way blacks are treated by the court system in New York.

“We’re urging him to cooperate as soon as he is able,” said Laura Blackburne, an NAACP spokeswoman. “We need to stop screaming and shouting and act like reasonable people.”

Justice Wright said that withholding testimony that may help in the case “doesn’t make sense.”

Maddox and his colleague C. Vernon Mason, who have been advising Sandiford, contend that Dominick Blum, the motorist who struck Griffith, was an accomplice of the youths who attacked the blacks. Both lawyers charge that Queens Dist. Atty. John J. Santucci conducted a sloppy investigation and covered up the fact that Blum’s car was involved earlier in the chase that led to Griffith’s death. Detectives looking into the incident contend that Blum, a court officer and the son of a policeman, was merely traveling along the parkway and was not involved in the earlier attack.

Crucial Witness

Sandiford’s testimony is crucial, authorities said, because he is the only witness who can state that Griffith was trying to escape from his pursuers when he was killed. Underscoring Sandiford’s importance, Santucci asked friends of the reluctant witness to intercede and sent detectives to his home, but to no avail.

The New York State Court Officers Assn., defending Blum, urged that Maddox and Mason be arrested and disbarred for obstructing justice.

Dennis W. Quirk, president of the court officers’ association, said Tuesday that the association was also planning to file libel suits against the two on Blum’s behalf.

“We believe the two attorneys have been acting for themselves and not for the public,” Quirk said. “We believe them to be deliberately providing false information,” trying to “create riots” in the city.

Extra police officers continued to be stationed in Howard Beach Tuesday, but police said there were no incidents and the neighborhood remained calm.