8 convicted of hate attack in Long Beach

Times Staff Writer

A judge Friday found that eight black teenagers beat three white women in Long Beach out of racial hatred, ending a divisive trial that was muddled by conflicting testimony and accusations of witness intimidation.

Judge Gibson Lee upheld nearly all of the prosecution's counts in a case that roiled this diverse city with its core allegation: that nine girls and a boy visited a well-to-do part of Long Beach on Halloween night and beat three women to the ground because they were white.

Lee threw out the case against the youngest defendant, a girl who turned 12 the night before the attack. The testimony linking her to the crime was a single statement that she was "throwing newspapers around at the girls." Another was convicted of the assault but not of a hate crime.

On the courthouse steps, Deputy Dist. Atty. Brian Schirn, who supervised the case, said the victory was not something to cheer about.

"Today is not a happy day," he said. "The victims still have to undergo physical, emotional treatment.... I feel sorry for everybody. There are no winners."

Defense attorney Frank Williams Jr. said he was "perplexed" by Lee's ruling. The defense lawyers and the youths' families contend that authorities prosecuted the wrong people in a rush to resolve the highly charged case.

"I thought the judge would make a much more reasoned decision about my client, who was not identified by any of the victims," he said.

Those convicted were eight females -- a 13-year-old, two 14-year-olds, two 16-year-olds, a 17-year-old and two 18-year-olds -- and an 18-year-old male. The oldest defendants were tried as juveniles because they were 17 when the crimes occurred.

Handcuffed to their chairs, the defendants broke down as Lee read the rulings. Nine were convicted of felony assault, eight with a hate-crime enhancement. For four of the nine, the conviction will count as a first strike under California's three-strikes law, which mandates a life term for a third felony conviction if the first two were for "serious" or "violent" felonies.

One girl cradled another's head. A 13-year-old girl buried her face in her gray Juvenile Hall sweat shirt and sobbed. Their parents' mouths hung open in disbelief.

"His mind was made up," said the mother of a 16-year-old girl, who will have a strike. "The judge was under pressure. He took the way out that makes him look good. He took the cowardly way."

The three victims -- Loren Hyman, 21; Laura Schneider, 19; and Michelle Smith, 19 -- sat together in the front row, showing no emotion at the verdicts. Concerned about their security, they later went to "safe places" for the weekend without making public comment, said Doug Otto, their civil attorney.

"They're gratified that their version of what occurred seems to be vindicated by the court's decision," Otto said. "They feel that justice is beginning to be done in this case."

Otto said all three women felt victimized again by some of the comments that defendants' supporters made during the contentious trial. "There's not a scintilla of evidence that they provoked these things," he said.

After the verdicts, families of the accused converged at a North Long Beach church to address the media. They have said that their children were present when the attack occurred but did not participate in the beatings.

"I was walking out of the court and they were crying, 'Mama,' and I couldn't do nothing," said the mother of four of the defendants, including the girl who was cleared in the case.

She said her children work hard, do their homework and are not allowed to watch TV during the week. Going out on Halloween "was a treat for them."

The news conference ended with sobs and a woman screaming, "Oh, my God, they took my baby."

Lee said he will hear Wednesday how the attack has affected the victims' lives, before setting a sentencing date. Judges, not juries, decide all cases in Juvenile Court.

The defendants, who have spent 87 days in custody, could receive penalties ranging from probation to commitment to a California Youth Authority prison until they are 25. They have no criminal records. Given that, defense attorneys say the most likely sentence would be three to nine months in a county probation camp.

Two other boys, arrested separately from the 10, will go on trial later for the assaults.

The incident had ignited outrage in Long Beach since it was first reported in a front-page Press-Telegram article that labeled it "a horrific hate crime" and quoted the victims as comparing the culprits to "a pack of hyenas." Residents of Bixby Knolls expressed a range of emotions: Some railed against political leaders for not quickly addressing their fears; others urged that the case not be prejudged.

As the case went to trial, it resonated beyond Long Beach, generating heated discussion on talk radio and drawing national media attention. City officials called for unity and held numerous meetings to ease racial tensions. The court proceeding often did little to dampen the emotion, but rather demonstrated how messy the workings of the justice system can be.

Prosecutors had to make sense of pandemonium that night, proving who, on a darkened street with hundreds of people, joined a mob of about 30 that took part in the beating, and what their motivations were.

Because the law requires juveniles to go to trial within 15 court days of their arraignment unless they are released from custody, the district attorney's office had to build its case in three weeks.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Andrea Bouas relied on victim Hyman and an eyewitness, Kiana Alford, to describe how the defendants attacked the three young women because they were white.

Hyman testified that she and her two friends were at Bixby Road and Linden Avenue -- where hundreds of people are drawn every year by elaborate Halloween displays -- when a black male in a crowd began to sexually taunt her.

Hyman said that the women ignored the jibes but that the crowd grew angry. Someone yelled, "I hate ... white people," as others began to pelt the women with small pumpkins and lemons, Hyman testified. As the trio tried to walk away up Linden, the mob grabbed them and began to pummel them.

Hyman suffered multiple fractures in her nose and around her eye, and will require surgery to reposition her eye. Schneider was knocked unconscious and probably suffered a concussion. Smith's injuries were not detailed in court, but Otto said her lung was bruised.

On the stand, Alford reconstructed the incident in detail, describing who in the scrum punched and kicked which victim, even who threw lemons and pumpkins at them.

Under cross-examination, however, she said she was 175 to 300 feet away during the attack, watching over her shoulder and in her rearview mirror. She also conceded that it was too dark to make out what individuals were doing. And her companion that night, called by the defense, testified that they arrived after the beating was over.

The defendants, who had gone to Bixby Knolls as a group to trick-or-treat, were arrested after having left the scene in two red cars. The defense attorneys attacked the way police conducted the identifications, telling Alford and Hyman they had caught the attackers before showing them the suspects and never testing the witnesses' memories with lineups that included non-suspects. The attorneys played 911 tapes that described the attackers as male.

But the prosecution had two pieces of physical evidence to bolster the identifications. Hyman's cellphone was found in the car of one of the girls, and one girl had bloodstains on her pants.

All manner of digressions and histrionics in the courtroom complicated the trial.

The judge allowed witnesses to testify anonymously, then reversed himself three times. During her testimony, Alford's car was rammed in front of her home; prosecutors said it was witness intimidation. In open court Bouas blamed defense attorneys for witness intimidation. A deputy public defender repeatedly accused Bouas of misconduct and asked for mistrials. Bouas accused the defendants of being gang members. The judge spoke so softly that attorneys often spoke over him.

As the trial plodded on, the 10 defendants passed notes, braided each other's hair and occasionally giggled at bits of testimony, such as when a probation officer listed the contents of one girl's pocket: 15 cents.

The defendants know one another through school, family and participation in track and field. A 17-year-old girl is a nationally recognized runner who represented the U.S. at a championship meet in Beijing in August and was being courted by USC. Another attends Cal State Long Beach on a track scholarship.

The families said they plan to appeal the convictions.

joe.mozingo@latimes.com

Times staff writers Jessica Garrison, John Spano and Tami Abdollah contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
60°