An angry judge Friday sentenced the first of three teen-agers found guilty in the Howard Beach racial attack to the maximum of up to 30 years in prison for chasing a black man to his death in traffic on a busy highway and assaulting the man's companion with a baseball bat.
Jon Lester, 18, sat defiantly as State Supreme Court Justice Thomas Demakos lectured him for showing no remorse and castigated New York's Howard Beach community for trying to ignore the attack's racial motivation.
"This case has received tremendous coverage nationally, locally and internationally," Demakos said before pronouncing sentence for manslaughter, assault and conspiracy. ". . . What happened in Howard Beach--no ifs, ands or buts--it was a racial incident." Demakos said that Lester had shown "hatred and callousness" and came close to showing "depraved indifference to human life."
As the verdict--which will keep Lester imprisoned for at least 10 years--was announced, two middle-aged white women shouted, "You're a murderer" at the judge. Lester's mother collapsed in tears into the arms of a friend while other Howard Beach residents seated on one side of the courtroom groaned.
As he left the room for prison, Lester, who looks much younger than his 18 years, told his supporters: "I will be acquitted on appeal." They applauded, angering black spectators who had voiced quiet approval of the sentence as they sat on the other side of the cavernous courtroom.
On this day in this court, the four-foot-wide center aisle separating blacks from whites could have been the Grand Canyon.
And the bitterness continued outside the courtroom. Bryan Levinson, Lester's lawyer, accused the judge of "trying to squeeze the last pound of flesh" from the case. The lawyer charged his client would not have received such a stiff sentence had there not been the threat of violence in the streets.
"What disturbs me is the lack of remorse," countered black activist Hilly Saunders, who had sat opposite the group from Howard Beach. "To give this guy applause, what kind of society is this? They still don't care Michael Griffith is dead. . . . He (Lester) should be sentenced to jail until Griffith comes out of the grave."
Lester, Scott Kern, 18, and Jason Ladone, 16, were found guilty of manslaughter and assault last Dec. 21 for the death of Griffith, 23, a sometime construction worker, who was killed when he was chased into traffic by a gang of white teen-agers.
Riot Charges Pending
Lester and Kern had been charged with second-degree murder, but were acquitted of those charges by the Supreme Court jury, which is the trial level in New York state. Michael Pirone, a fourth defendant, was acquitted on all charges. Seven other white youths who are accused of participating in the attack face riot charges.
Kern and Ladone are scheduled to be sentenced next month.
The trouble began on the night of Dec. 19, 1986, when several of the white youths, who had been drinking at a birthday party, first confronted the three black men in front of a local pizza parlor. The blacks were on foot because their car had broken down near Howard Beach.
The youths returned to the party to gather reinforcements and then attacked the black men. One of Griffith's companions, Cedric Sandiford, 37, a mechanic's assistant, was seriously injured when he was beaten with a baseball bat and tree limbs. The other, Timothy Grimes, an unemployed 18-year-old, was struck by a stick, but he managed to escape his pursuers. Griffith, pursued onto a busy highway, was struck by a car and killed.
Racial Tension Increases
The Howard Beach case has heightened racial tension in New York City, resulting in several demonstrations by black activists and an increase in what police have labeled racially motivated incidents during the past year.
On Friday, special state prosecutor Charles J. Hynes quickly made it clear that he was seeking the stiffest possible sentence for Lester--who already is serving one to three years in state prison for his guilty plea on a weapons charge.
"Today, in the court sit two mothers with broken hearts and there is nothing your honor can do to change that," Hynes told Demakos.
The prosecutor added that a stiff sentence would "send a very clear message that incidents like these will not be tolerated."
As Hynes spoke, Jean Griffith, whose son was killed after being struck by the car on the Belt Parkway, sat holding a Bible on one side of the courtroom. On the other side of the aisle, Lester's mother, also named Jean, sat amid a group of friends from Howard Beach.
Praises Probation Report
In seeking a reduced sentence, Levinson argued that Lester's probation report was "better than 90% of the probation reports that come across my desk." He said his client had held down a part-time job, had attended high school and had not used drugs.
But Demakos rejected defense motions that the sentences run concurrently. The judge said Lester had taken part in two separate violent acts--the beating of Sandiford and the death of Griffith.
Demakos likened imposing concurrent sentences to "giving the defendant a free ride." He then pronounced the stiffest sentence possible on the two major charges: five to 15 years for second-degree manslaughter and five to 15 years for first-degree assault. The judge did, however, allow a one-year sentence for conspiracy to run concurrently.
Demakos said he had received a letter from New York Mayor Edward I. Koch urging the maximum sentence and thousands of letters from Howard Beach residents urging leniency for Lester. He quoted from the form letters sent from Howard Beach, which stressed that what happened was not a racial incident.
"What disturbs me about these letters is there is no remorse," the judge said, adding that responsible people in Howard Beach still don't want to face the fact that the confrontation was racial in nature.