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Incident at Howard Beach.

Incident at Howard Beach. Charles J. Hynes, Bob Drury. Putnam, $22.95. Howard Beach is many stories-most obviously about race, but also about families and neighborhoods and upbringing; about the media and black activism; about the courts, the police, and organized crime; about cities; about America. This particular book, however, is about an investigation. The result is not unlike an episode of "Colombo." The events of that horrifying December 1986 night (annoyingly referred to throughout the book as "The Incident") are told straightforwardly in the first two chapters. The rest of the book explains bow the prosecutors broke the case and put at least some of the young thugs in jail. Written by Charles J. Hynes and Bob Drury, a former New York reporter for Newsday (the paper I work for), the book doesn't explore how we got to Howard Beach, only how we got from Howard Beach to a cavernous courtroom on Queens Boulevard. That odyssey is not without power. What is most compelling about Incident at Howard Beach is the story itself. Even someone familiar with the case will still wince at the horrifying details, as if reading them for the first time. There's the kids' battle cry"There's niggers on the boulevard, let's go fuckin' kill them!" And the cops' racism: The surviving victim, Cedric Sandiford, was roughly searched and questioned by the police who found him bleeding and shaking on the highway that night, as if he were a perpetrator instead of a victim. His wounds went untreated for three hours and when he called his fiancee to tell her that her son, Michael Griffith, had been killed, a cop snatched the phone out of his hand after a few moments, snarling that his time was up. Hynes's unique perspective adds depth to a familiar story. He reveals, for instance, what a chilling effect reputed organized crime chieftain John Gotti and his pals-who call Howard Beach home-had on potential witnesses. Gotti associates were going around collecting money for the gang's defense. One kid's father explained why he couldn't permit his son to testify: "I don't want to come home from work one day and find a slab of cement where my house used to be." And Hynes explains how his prosecutorial team's ingenious legal strategy was almost sabotaged by demands from two black activist lawyers, C. Vernon Mason and Alton Maddox. Yet one is also disappointed there isn't more of an insider's account. One of the abiding mysteries is why Queens DA John Santucci refused to pursue the case aggressively. Even the investigation detectives were shocked when Santucci sent over a 26-year-old assistant to interview the suspects. As Hynes says, "Sending him to Howard Beach was like sending a rookie out to pitch the seventh game of the World Series." Was Santucci incompetent, stupid, or just counting votes in Howard Beach and places like it? Hynes says Santucci never wanted the case, but what does that mean-that he screwed up the investigation on purpose? One wonders whether Hynes, who recently got elected Brooklyn DA and may have other political ambitions, didn't tiptoe around this one.

And what about Mason and Maddox? Heroic battlers for racial justice to some, lying obstructionists to others, these two are the most intriguing and complex characters in the story. Hynes expresses frustration at how they initially refused to permit Sandiford to talk to the police at a point when the cops were on the verge of making arrests. Yet without their infuriating intransigence in demanding a special prosecutor, we might be reading a book about how fumbling by a Queens DA sparked nasty racial confrontations in New York. Indeed, Hynes himself notes that after hearing Sandiford's wrenching account, he could understand why the fiery Maddox had gotten involved: "New York City, the criminal justice system, the Establishment, none of them had responded to a black man who believed his stepson had been the victim of a lynching . . . . I wasn't just embarrassed; I was sick to my stomach."

Strong words. But does Hynes think the case would have been properly prosecuted if Mason and Maddox hadn't gotten involved?

The case undeniably had a lasting effect on Hynes. While it helped propel him into the Brooklyn Da's office, it also forced him to accept round-the clock protection and made him an unwelcome face in once-familiar Queens haunts. He, like other New Yorkers, was tossed by the conflicting passions the case aroused. He relates how he was in Boston, watching a TV news report on black marchers in Howard Beach when his red-faced cousin stormed into the room. "What the fuck do they want now," he screamed, daring Hynes to challenge him. At that moment, the phone rang. It was Governor Cuomo's office, alerting Hynes that he might be called in.

There's a numbing avalanche of names, but Hynes spends most of his energy detailing the efforts of the hard working staff. The A-team," as he calls them, are a committed, brilliant, sensitive band of lovable prosecutors who are apparently without flaws. We know much more about this TV-perfect group than about the victims. the police, the politicians, the white kids and their families. For instance, one gang member's brother was a New York City cop and his father was a corrections officer; another's dad was a small-time hood with a record and ties to the underworld. Did both kids learn the language of hate at their dinner tables? Are these "typical" middle-class families? If so, God help us. But there are other chapters that need to be filled in as well. We now have the prosecutor's story, and it's one that's worth hearing. But there are other stories-about shattered lives on both sides of the courtroom, about race relations in the city and the country-that we're still waiting to hear. The case's final chapters have yet to be written. Just this past December, the riot convictions of three of the teens involved were overturned by the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court. And there's a good chance that a controversial decision made by Hynes to challenge the right of defense attorneys to exclude potential jurors solely on the basis of race could mean an appeal of the manslaughter convictions before the U.S. Supreme Court.
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Author:Cohen, Patricia
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Feb 1, 1990
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