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Bensonhurst Man Guilty in Teen-Ager Racial Slaying

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A jury on Thursday convicted a 19-year-old white man of second-degree murder in the gang slaying of a black teen-ager in Brooklyn last year that heightened racial tensions throughout the city.

Joseph Fama, accused by prosecutors of being the triggerman in the death of 16-year-old Yusuf Hawkins, sat expressionless at the defense table as the decision was read. But outside, a jubilant crowd cheered as a man with a megaphone announced each charge and the verdict.

Fama was acquitted on the additional charge of intentional murder, but was convicted on 12 other counts in a 15-count indictment, including rioting, unlawful imprisonment, menacing, discrimination and criminal possession of a weapon.

He faces a maximum of 25 years to life imprisonment on the murder charge, and terms ranging from 3 months to 7 years on the other charges. Judge Thaddeus Owens set sentencing for June 11.

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The verdict, read at 7 p.m. by forewoman Tanya Bailey, came at the end of 11 days of deliberations at Brooklyn state Supreme Court.

A separate jury is still deliberating the fate of Keith Mondello, 19, who is accused of organizing the gang that attacked Hawkins and three of his companions on Aug. 23.

Hawkins and his companions were visiting the predominantly white Bensonhurst neighborhood to see about buying a used car but ran into a gang of white youths that apparently mistook them for black friends of Mondello’s ex-girlfriend. In the ensuing melee, Hawkins was shot to death.

The shooting became the most serious racial incident in the city since the December, 1986, attack in which a gang of whites in Howard Beach, Queens, chased a black man to his hit-and-run death on a highway.

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In the days after Hawkins’ death, racial tensions in the city flared as chanting protesters marched through Bensonhurst, clashing with white residents who screamed obscenities and racial slurs.

A mile-long demonstration march through downtown Brooklyn a week after the shooting ended in a violent confrontation as bottle-throwing protesters clashed with riot-equipped police officers on the approach to the Brooklyn Bridge.

Mayor David N. Dinkins, in a statement, said the verdict allows “us to turn our attention to the process of healing.”

“Yusuf Hawkins died of racism in the first degree. That is a crime far more common than most of us are willing to admit,” the mayor said.

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Al Muhammad, a black Brooklyn resident who joined the crowd outside the courthouse, said: “I think this will help lessen the racial tension.”

Mondello faces the same charges as Fama, as well as a manslaughter indictment. His jury ended its 10th day of deliberations Thursday.

Fama’s jury consisted of eight women and four men, representing an ethnic and racial cross-section of Brooklyn--six white, three blacks, two Latinos and one Asian-American. One of the white jurors sobbed openly through the reading of the second-degree murder verdict, described as murder “with depraved indifference to human life.”

Hawkin’s parents, Moses Stewart and Diane Hawkins, were accompanied Thursday by the flamboyant black leader Al Sharpton and other friends and family members. Stewart shouted “Yeah!” as the verdict was read.

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Rocco Fama, the defendant’s father, sat on the other side of the aisle with his family. They did not react when the verdict was read and departed immediately.

Justice Owens thanked the Fama jurors, saying, “We know what you have been through.”

Deputy Dist. Atty. James Kohler said, “We feel that justice has been done.” He added that he hoped it would be the last time that the Brooklyn district attorney’s office would try this sort of case. But he said he had no illusions.

“We’ll be back . . . until people stop hating each other. I would hope this is a message to the entire city and the entire country.”

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Fama’s lawyer David DePetris said the verdict demonstrated that the jury clearly was following the judge’s instructions, which he thought preordained a guilty verdict. He said he spoke with his client just before the jury entered the courtroom.

“I told him before the verdict . . . to be prepared for it.

“Certainly, there will be an appeal,” he added.

Fama and Mondello were the first of eight defendants to stand trial. The six other young men accused in the case are scheduled to be tried next month.

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The tandem jury arrangement for Fama and Mondello was ordered by Owens because Mondello gave statements to the police identifying Fama as the triggerman.

Prosecutors relied in part on the eyewitness testimony of Franklin Tighe, 20, a neighborhood friend of Fama’s who has a history of mental problems and hallucinatory fantasies.

The defense attorney vigorously attacked Tighe’s credibility during closing arguments in Fama’s trial.

“I could quote you page after page of him seeing rats with green faces,” DePetris told the jury. He also stressed that Tighe had furnished a description of the clothes Fama wore on the night of the shooting that differed from the description provided by other witnesses.

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But the prosecution countered that Tighe was not delusional on that night and that, in all major respects, his testimony had been corroborated through other witnesses.

In a dramatic development before the Fama jury began deliberating, Tighe also allegedly wanted to change his testimony. DePetris told Justice Owens that Tighe had notified him that he did not see who shot Hawkins.

But the jury never heard the alleged recantation. The prosecution challenged the defense request to reopen testimony, contending that Tighe had been pressured into changing his story by an uncle who lives in Bensonhurst.

Owens ruled that the defense’s request came too late and that Fama could always seek a new trial if he so desired.

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In the Mondello case, Mondello’s attorney contended that the real culprit was not his client but Mondello’s former girlfriend, Gina Feliciano. “He let her make a jerk of him,” attorney Stephen Murphy said. “If you want to convict him of being a jerk, he is a jerk.” But, Murphy added, Mondello was not a killer.

Murphy said that Feliciano had started the incident by telling Mondello she had invited a group of black and Latino friends to her birthday party and by raising Mondello’s fears that they would beat him up.


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