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Victim ‘Propelled Down Tunnel of Death,’ Prosecutor Argues

December 10, 1987

NEW YORK (AP) _ The prosecutor in the Howard Beach trial urged jurors Wednesday to convict four white teen-agers in the ″wanton, callous and brutal″ death of a black man allegedly chased into the path of car.

Michael Griffith was ″helplessly propelled down a tunnel, a chasm of death″ by the four teen-age defendants on trial in state Supreme Court, special state prosecutor Charles J. Hynes said in his closing argument.

Griffith, 23, was among three black men who allegedly were attacked Dec. 20 by a dozen white youths outside a pizza parlor after their car broke down and they walked into the predominantly white neighborhood of Howard Beach in Queens.

Griffith later was struck by a car on the nearby Belt Parkway, where he was allegedly chased by the four defendants.

Scott Kern and Jon Lester, both 18, are charged with murder, manslaughter and other crimes; Jason Ladone, 17, and Michael Pirone, 18, are charged with manslaughter and other crimes.

The jury is expected to get the case Thursday.

Quoting Thomas Jefferson, John Donne and the book of Ecclesiastes, Hynes urged jurors to ignore defense attacks on the character of the three black men and focus instead on the ″fundamental principles of life and human dignity.″

Those principles, the prosecutor said, ″say they were entitled to walk the streets of Queens County, freely, without fear of violent attack, humiliation or death.″

The defense, which completed its closing arguments earlier Wednesday, has maintained the three blacks were unsavory characters who had come into Howard Beach looking for trouble.

Hynes ridiculed that approach.

The defense, he told the jurors, ″want you to answer the most irrelevant question that has pervaded this trial: What were ‘they’ - Michael Griffith, Timothy Grimes and Cedric Sandiford - doing in Howard Beach, as if they needed a passport to enter Queens from Brooklyn 3/8″

″Please remember that Cedric Sandiford is not on trial here - he’s a victim. Nor is Timothy Grimes on trial - he’s a victim. And neither is the memory of Michael Griffith - he’s a victim, too.″

Describing the collision on the expressway, Hynes said, ″the force, the dynamics of the impact were secondary to the real power behind Michael Griffith’s death: the terror, the horror, caused by the wanton, callous and brutal conduct of the defendants.″

Earlier Wednesday, the defense charged that political motives shaped the homicide case.

″They’ve got to have homicides here,″ attorney Ronald Rubinstein told the jury. ″How would it look if nothing really serious happened here?″

Rubinstein, who represents Ladone, said like two other defense lawyers who spoke before him that the defendants were not responsible for Griffith’s death.

Nor, he said, did the teens attempt to kill Sandiford. ″You need that for headlines,″ he said of the attempted murder charges against three of the teens.

Rubinstein’s closing argument, which began Tuesday afternoon, was interrupted several times by Justice Thomas Demakos, who objected to several remarks. For example, he pointed to the racially mixed prosecution team and said, ″It looks like a balanced political ticket. Maybe they’ll run for office.″

Rubinstein said the case ″started because of politicians″ who exploited the issue of racism. He noted that Mayor Edward Koch and Police Commissioner Benjamin Ward were present at a police precinct in Queens the day of the arrests.

″They came up, these politicians who don’t educate people, don’t get them jobs, they came up with the greatest issue a politician could come up with,″ Rubinstein said.

″It doesn’t cost you five cents. They said, ‘There’s racists there and I’m against them.’ ... And they looked good.″

Rubinstein then mentioned the corruption scandals that preoccupied the city for much of last year.

″Now they’ve got a new thing - Howard Beach,″ he said.

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