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Attack Called a ‘Race Riot’

By Wendy Lin

The December, 1986, attack on three black men in Howard Beach was “a race riot in every ugly sense of the word,” a prosecutor charged yesterday in opening statements at the second trial in the case.

Five Howard Beach residents are on trial in State Supreme Court in Queens on charges of rioting that night. One defendant, 19, is also charged with attempted murder in the attack, in which a black man was killed after he was chased into the path of an oncoming car.

Assistant State Special Prosecutor James Kohler flatly announced in his opening statements, “I have apologized for the obscene language used at this trial, but the greatest obscenity was this: That the actions of this group of 12 young men were based on racial hatred, and that what took place in Howard Beach on Dec. 20, 1986, was a race riot in every ugly sense of the word.”

Each of the five defense attorneys denied the racism charge in their opening remarks. “Don’t fall prey to this argument about this being a racial riot,” said Victor Knapp, who represents [Defendant], 20. “Don’t turn this case into a symbol.”

Bert Koehler, who represents [Defendant], 18, accused the prosecutor of inflaming the jury by charging racism. “You’re going to hear the words ‘nigger’ and ‘honky,’ but does that mean it’s racially motivated? Certainly not.”

Standing trial on charges of riot are [Defendant], [Defendant], [Defendant], 20, and [Defendant], 18. In the same trial, but in front of a separate jury, [Defendant] is being tried for the attempted murder of Cedric Sandiford, who the prosecution charges was “savagely beaten” with a baseball bat, a tree limb and a t-shaped instrument.

State Supreme Court Justice Thomas Demakos has ruled that the case will be tried simultaneously, but in front of two separate juries. One jury will consider the riot charges, the other the more serious counts against [Defendant].

The charges stem from an incident in Howard Beach that began on Dec. 19, 1986, and ended early the next morning with the beating of Sandiford and the death of his companion, Michael Griffith, who was struck and killed by a car on the Belt Parkway.

Last December, Scott Kern, Jon Lester and Jason Ladone were found guilty of manslaughter in the death of Griffith and of first-degree assault in the attack on Sandiford.

Defense attorney Todd Greenberg, who represents [Defendant], said there was no riot and that the blacks “initiated the confrontation.” [Defendant’s] attorney, Richard LaRosa, said, “He was there and he did run, but that is not enough [to constitute riot].”