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September 29, 1989

1989.09.29: Michael Letwin, N.Y. Justice: Not Color-Blind (NY Times, Sept. 29, 1989)

New York Times (NY)
September 29, 1989

N.Y. Justice: Not Color-Blind

Michael Letwin; Michael Z. Letwin, a Brooklyn criminal defense lawyer, is vice president of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys.

The lenient treatment of the defendants charged in the killing of 16-year-old Yusuf Hawkins in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn is further proof that it pays to be white when you go to court.

The seven defendants are alleged to have been part of a white lynch mob, 30 strong, reportedly armed with baseball bats and guns. Without any provocation, one of the group shot Mr. Hawkins twice in the chest on Aug. 23, solely because he was black, then left him to bleed to death on the sidewalk. It is hard to imagine a more heinous crime.

Yet, incredibly, only one of the seven white defendants charged in the killing – the alleged gunman -was from the moment of his arrest charged with murder by the office of District Attorney Elizabeth Holtzman and held without bail.

When four other defendants were arrested, the D.A.’s office charged them with only felony assault and other lesser crimes – even though they allegedly led the mob. Only in subsequent weeks were these four indicted for second-degree murder. From their arraignment, they have been free on bail that ranges from $75,000 to $100,000.

A charge of second-degree murder requires only that accomplices share an intent to kill or act with a depraved indifference to human life. The two remaining defendants have not been charged with that crime or even with a lesser homicide, manslaughter. They have been charged with a variety of lesser felonies and misdemeanors.

The seven charged in the Hawkins slaying share the good fortune of other notorious white defendants who have come before the New York City criminal justice system.

Howard Beach defendants charged with the murder of Michael Griffith, a black man, remained free on bail pending their appeal, even after they were found guilty at trial. So did Bernhard Goetz, who repeatedly shot four black youths – James Ramseur, Darrell Cabey, Barry Allen and Troy Canty – on the subway, leaving one paralyzed from the waist down.

In stark contrast, eight black youths arrested in the Central Park rape of a white jogger were immediately charged with attempted murder. They were denied bail at their initial arraignment, even though all the defendants had community ties that made them unlikely to flee and only one of them had ever been in trouble before – a conviction for a nonviolent misdemeanor. It was only later in the case that any bail was set.

Those of us who practice criminal law in Brooklyn know it is an unwritten rule that defendants, most of them black and Latino, are charged with some degree of homicide when a person has died in violent circumstances, especially where there is strong evidence of an intentional killing.

In such situations, defendants are routinely denied bail, particularly after a grand jury has indicted them on a charge of second-degree murder, which carries a maximum sentence of life in prison. In fact, many minority defendants charged with certain narcotics crimes in Brooklyn are denied bail.

This same racial double standard is found in other aspects of the Bensonhurst case. News accounts of the young gunman’s arrest reported that he was not originally handcuffed. The police provided other Bensonhurst defendants with bulletproof vests. Such courtesies are absolutely unheard of when black and Latino defendants are arrested.

And when five of the Bensonhurst defendants made their second court appearance, they were permitted to sit in the audience with their families when the case was called. Virtually all other Brooklyn defendants risk contempt charges if they fail to stand before the bench when summoned.

The prosecution and the courts are not alone in displaying ingrained racism. Much of the media described the Central Park assault as a “wilding,” and the black defendants as a “wolf pack” and “animals.” Donald Trump, the police and not a few politicians howled for restoration of the death penalty.

Where are those voices in the wake of the lynching in Bensonhurst?

The criminal justice system and the media are sending a clear message every day that black and Latino lives are of less value than those of whites. In doing so, they must take responsibility for helping to set the stage for the killing of Yusuf Hawkins.

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