Brooklyn DA recalls 'Incident at Howard Beach'
by Lisa A. Fraser
Jan 27, 2012 | 1091 views | 0 0 comments | 3 3 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Kings County District Attorney, Charles Hynes.
Kings County District Attorney, Charles Hynes.
It was the case that shook New York City during the 1980s. But it was also a showcase into how the New York State criminal justice system can work to bring justice. And current Brooklyn District Attorney, Charles Hynes was, perhaps by fate, thrown head-on into it.

Hynes was a corruption prosecutor at the time for the New York State Criminal Justice System when on December 19, 1987, he received a call about an incident which had taken place in Howard Beach.

Three black men were beaten with metal baseball bats by Howard Beach teenagers as they trekked through the neighborhood to find a way to Rockaway Avenue in Brooklyn.

The men were driving on the Belt Parkway headed to Brooklyn when they exited the highway thinking it would lead them to their destination. Instead, the exit took them to Howard Beach near the Crossbay Bridge. Their car became disabled and Cedric Sandiford, his stepson, Michael Griffith, and a friend, Timothy Grimes, decided to walk around the neighborhood to find help.

They encountered a group of white kids in a car and racial epithets were exchanged, Hynes said, though it was never clear who started it. As the kids left to drop off a young woman at home, they called more of their friends, urging them to find the men walking through their neighborhood. The three men had stopped into a pizzeria when they were encountered by the kids, who began beating them with bats.

The men dispersed in different directions in an attempt to escape. And Grimes, running away from two boys who chased after him, ran onto the Belt Parkway where he was struck by a car driven by court officer. The hit threw him about 167 feet on the parkway and he was killed instantly. The boys ran back to finish assaulting the other two men, who were beaten almost to death.

It is nationally known as “The Incident at Howard Beach,” and to many it gave the Queens neighborhood, populated mostly by Italian-Americans, a negative connotation and branded the neighborhood as racist. But Howard Beach residents insisted that they were not a reflection of the incident.

Hynes later on decided to pen a book about the incident, which he named “Incident at Howard Beach” and at the beginning of this year, it was re-released for the 25th anniversary of Michael Griffith's death.

Hynes paired up with reporter Bob Drury to write Incident at Howard Beach. It is a candid exposé of his fight to discern what really happened that night and his struggle to make a coherent case out of those events.

He explores the battles and tactics he used during the trial a year later in State Supreme Court. And he talks about the on-site investigation through jury selection to trial deliberation.

Hynes was assigned to investigate the murder of Grimes and the assault by then-governor Mario Cuomo. Both sides of the case were reluctant to talk, so Hynes dispatched 19 detectives from his office and 19 police officers from the Queens Borough Detective command center, to investigate.

Before long, a Robert Wiley, the father of one of the suspects, approached Hynes and told him that his son was involved. And afterward, the other suspects came forward.

The four defendants in the case were indicted for murder in the second degree and assault. Hynes, in a telephone interview, said that at the time he had no intentions to try the case, but was urged to do so by his colleagues. It was a four-month trial in which the jury took 11 days to deliberate – the longest for a criminal case.

In the end, three were convicted for manslaughter and assault – Jon Lester, Jason Ladone and Scott Kern. The fourth, Michael Pirone, was acquitted.

“It was a seminal moment for race relations in New York,” Hynes said. “It had never been worse. There was a loss of credibility for the justice system in the African-American community. These men were killed because of the color of their skin.

“There isn't the kind of separation of races that was present 25 years ago,” he said. “And the key thing about this book is that I made it a point to say that Howard Beach was not on trial. In this case it was the four defendants.”

Hynes became interested in law because of his mother. Growing up in Flatbush Brooklyn, she was a real estate broker who was treated unfairly by males in the field. She told her son to become a lawyer in order to help those in need.

He had no intention of becoming a criminal lawyer. In 1963, after running into an old law school friend who told him of an opening in the Legal Aid Society and landing a job there, the epiphany dawned on him: he “felt at home” in the criminal courtroom.

After many promotions and moving through the ranks, he became the Kings County District Attorney in 1989.

Hynes is also the author of a crime novel called “Triple Homicide” and the sequel, “Chairman.” Both are based on his experiences. The grandfather of 16 is also currently working on a memoir.

Proceeds of the reissued “Incident at Howard Beach”, published by iUniverse, a self-publishing company, will go toward CUNY's Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, and will help sponsor a colloquium held at the college every February in light of Black History Month.

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