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Bensonhurst ‘Ringleader’ Cleared of Murder Charges

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The accused ringleader in the slaying of a black Brooklyn teen-ager by a white gang was acquitted of murder and manslaughter charges Friday, just one day after a co-defendant in the case was convicted of second-degree murder.

A state Supreme Court jury cleared 19-year-old Keith Mondello of two counts of second-degree murder and two counts of manslaughter, but found him guilty of several lesser charges, including rioting, menacing, racial discrimination and criminal possession of a weapon.

Mondello’s partial acquittal sparked pandemonium in the court as relatives and friends of the victim in the case shot to their feet and shouted their disapproval.

“You’re gonna get yours, you’re gonna get yours!” one person screamed at Mondello as the verdict was read by forewoman Mimi Snowden. “He did it, he did it!” several others cried. Diane Hawkins, the mother of slain 16-year-old Yusuf Hawkins, sobbed and pounded her fists against her knees.

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At least two people were forcibly removed from the courtroom by security officers after their outbursts.

On the other side of the aisle, members of the Mondello family hugged and kissed one another. “Thank God! Thank God! Jesus has risen!” Michael Mondello, the defendant’s father, proclaimed.

Outside the Brooklyn courthouse, hundreds of protesters who had waited on edge all day tore down police barricades around the building after the verdict was announced. They shouted “No justice, no peace!” One group of demonstrators ran around the courthouse square carrying a mock coffin of black-painted plywood.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, an adviser to the Hawkins family, told the crowd near the courthouse, “We are not going to take this verdict lying down. . . . We intend to move this city like it’s never been moved before.”

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Police managed to keep the demonstrators contained, however, and there were no reports of serious injury or damage. There were reports of some overturned trash cans and at least one window was smashed.

The crowd, chanting “Yusuf! Yusuf!” also rocked some passing cars. But as the evening wore on their numbers dwindled.

“This city’s going to be tense, but I hope there’s not going to be any violence,” said one black spectator in the crowd outside the courthouse.

In a televised appearance, New York Mayor David N. Dinkins urged that the city remain calm and said that “anyone bent on destroying the city” would be prosecuted to the maximum extent possible.

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The verdict was greeted on Mondello’s street in Bensonhurst with smiles, honking car horns and cries of support from friends who surged into the streets. People hugged and couples cried tears of relief.

“Today, we are bubbling over,” said Jim League, 37, standing outside the Mondello home. “There is justice for all. I feel like singing.”

Mondello’s defense was grounded in his claims that he was provoked into protecting himself after an ex-girlfriend said she was inviting 25 blacks and Latinos to her 18th birthday party on the night Hawkins was slain. The ex-girlfriend, Gina Feliciano, allegedly told Mondello that the blacks and Latinos were going to beat him up.

In a tragic coincidence, Hawkins and three friends arrived in the predominantly Italian-American Bensonhurst neighborhood to answer a used-car advertisement on the same night as Feliciano’s party. They were mistaken for Feliciano’s friends and attacked by a gang of 30 to 40 whites carrying baseball bats and at least one gun.

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In the ensuing melee, Hawkins was shot and killed. His murder fueled heated racial passions in New York and sparked a series of black-led protests and demonstrations, including a clash with police at the Brooklyn Bridge.

On Thursday, Mondello’s co-defendant in the case, 19-year-old Joseph Fama, was found guilty of second-degree murder, described as murder with depraved indifference to human life, by a separate panel.

Before the Mondello verdict was read Friday, Hawkins’ father, Moses Stewart, said the earlier verdict against Fama did not ease his pain.

“Don’t come to me with this foolish rhetoric from any politician or anybody else about ‘we love and forgive everybody,’ because everybody is not loving and forgiving us,” Stewart said.

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Speculation had run high that Mondello, who allegedly recruited the members of the gang of whites who attacked Hawkins and three companions, might similarly be convicted of murder or, at least, of the lesser charge of manslaughter.

Among other documents submitted as evidence in the case was Mondello’s signed confession saying that he had been at the scene of the crime.

In his closing argument, Assistant Dist. Atty. Paul Burns said Mondello organized the whites who stalked the black youths, encircled Hawkins and left him dying on the street after he was shot.

“Does one of these guys stick around to help Yusuf Hawkins?” Burns asked. “No. They all run. Like a mob they came, like a mob they left. Group courage masking individual cowardice.”

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But defense attorney Stephen Murphy maintained that Mondello and the other whites did not intend to hurt Hawkins. He said the gunman acted independently.

Twice during its 11 days of deliberations, the jury told state Supreme Court Justice Thaddeus Owens that it had reached an impasse. But on both occasions Owens told them to keep trying to reach a unanimous decision.

Mondello broke out in tears and squeezed his attorney’s leg as the verdict was read.

Murphy told reporters that his client was very happy with the verdict. But, Murphy added: “When one man is dead and another in jail for murder . . . you can’t have winners. There’s nothing to rejoice about. . . . “

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Prosecutors had little to say after the verdict was announced. James Kohler, the chief prosecutor in the case, said he was concerned that the verdict might be misunderstood by the public, noting that “Keith Mondello was not acquitted of all crimes. . . . (He) was found guilty of several crimes.”

Mondello was convicted of one count of rioting, three counts of unlawful imprisonment, three counts of menacing, four counts of racial discrimination and one count of criminal possession of a weapon--a baseball bat.

The unlawful imprisonment charges carry the heaviest penalties: a maximum of 12 years in prison. Maximum penalties for the other charges range from three months to four years in prison and a $1,000 fine.

Bail was revoked and Mondello was taken to jail in Brooklyn to await sentencing on June 11. His attorneys said they were uncertain whether an appeal would be filed on the lesser charges.

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Six other defendants are scheduled to go on trial next month. Two are charged with second-degree murder in the case.


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