Joe Mozingo, Los Angeles Times, Jan. 27, 2007
A judge Friday found that eight black teenagers beat three white women in Long Beach out of racial hatred, ending a divisive trial that was muddled by conflicting testimony and accusations of witness intimidation.
Judge Gibson Lee upheld nearly all of th e prosecution’s counts in a case that roiled this diverse city with its core allegation: that nine girls and a boy visited a well-to-do part of Long Beach on Halloween night and beat three women to the ground because they were white.
Lee threw out the case against the youngest defendant, a girl who turned 12 the night before the attack. The testimony linking her to the crime was a single statement that she was “throwing newspapers around at the girls.” Another was convicted of the assault but not of a hate crime.
Defense attorney Frank Williams Jr. said he was “perplexed” by Lee’s ruling. The defense lawyers and the youths’ families contend that authorities prosecuted the wrong people in a rush to resolve the highly charged case.
Those convicted were eight females—a 13-year-old, two 14-year-olds, two 16-year-olds, a 17-year-old and two 18-year-olds—and an 18-year-old male. The oldest defendants were tried as juveniles because they were 17 when the crimes occurred.
Handcuffed to their chairs, the defendants broke down as Lee read the rulings. Nine were convicted of felony assault, eight with a hate-crime enhancement. For four of the nine, the conviction will count as a first strike under California’s three-strikes law, which mandates a life term for a third felony conviction if the first two were for “serious” or “violent” felonies.
The three victims—Loren Hyman, 21; Laura Schneider, 19; and Michelle Smith, 19—sat together in the front row, showing no emotion at the verdicts. C oncerned about their security, they later went to “safe places” for the weekend without making public comment, said Doug Otto, their civil attorney.
Otto said all three women felt victimized again by some of the comments that defendants’ supporte rs made during the contentious trial. “There’s not a scintilla of evidence that they provoked these things,” he said.
After the verdicts, families of the accused converged at a North Long Beach church to address the media. They have said that their child ren were present when the attack occurred but did not participate in the beatings.
The news conference ended with sobs and a woman screaming, “Oh, my God, they took my baby.”
Lee said he will hear Wednesday how the attack has affected the victim s’ lives, before setting a sentencing date. Judges, not juries, decide all cases in Juvenile Court.
The defendants, who have spent 87 days in custody, could receive penalties ranging from probation to commitment to a California Youth Authority prison until they are 25. They have no criminal records. Given that, defense attorneys say the most likely sentence would be three to nine months in a county probation camp.
Two other boys, arrested separately from the 10, will go on trial later for the assaults.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Andrea Bouas relied on victim Hyman and an eyewitness, Kiana Alford, to describe how the defendants attacked the three young women because they were white.
But the prosecution had two pieces of physical evidence to bol ster the identifications. Hyman’s cellphone was found in the car of one of the girls, and one girl had bloodstains on her pants.
All manner of digressions and histrionics in the courtroom complicated the trial.
The judge allowed witnesses to testify anonymously, then reversed himself three times. During her testimony, Alford’s car was rammed in front of her home; prosecutors said it was witness intimidation. In open court Bouas blamed defense attorneys for witness intimidation. A deputy public defender repeatedly accused Bouas of misconduct and asked for mistrials. Bouas accused the defendants of being gang members. The judge spoke so softly that attorneys often spoke over him.
As the trial plodded on, the 10 defendants passed notes, braided each other’s hair and occasionally giggled at bits of testimony, such as when a probation officer listed the contents of one girl’s pocket: 15 cents.
The families said they plan to appeal the convictions.
Long Beach city officials were prepared for the worst. The judge’s pronouncement was deliberately set for Friday afternoon, after high schools had been dismissed for the week. Dozens of police officers lined the courtroom, courthouse hall and streets. Sch ools and parks drew stepped-up patrols. A community forum was set for this morning to give residents a chance to safely vent.
But the verdicts in the hate-crime case—nine of 10 black youths on trial held responsible for the Halloween beating of three you ng white women—landed softly, triggering relief in some quarters, resignation in others and a sense of sadness that transcended neighborhood boundaries in a city that prides itself on diversity.
“I was not expecting this at all,” said Traci Orti z, who applauded the verdicts. “I thought they were going to walk.”
Bixby Knolls was frightened and shocked by the explosion of violence amid the Halloween night revelry that had been a neighborhood tradition since World War II. The judge’s ruling sent a message to the teenage mob that marred the celebration, Ortiz said, “about being responsible for your decisions.”
“If you’re black kids fighting white kids in a white neighborhood, you’re done,” said Laron Mike, 33, who is black. “That was their big mistake; they shouldn’t have been up there in the first place.”
“Maybe it will serve as a wake-up call to everybody,” said Councilwoman Rae Gabelich, whose district includes Bixby Knolls—the Virginia Country Club area of multimillion-dollar homes—and three subsidized housing projects for low-income families.
Across Long Beach, reactions reflected the divisions of a city that is 36% Latino, 33% white, 14% black and 12% Asian American, and includes a patchwork of working-class neighbo rhoods, middle-class and wealthy enclaves and bustling seaside redevelopment projects.
Some saw the trial as a naked display of the city’s social and racial tensions, the verdicts a reflection of middle-class fears about crime and gangs. “They’re all mem bers of the same club,” the grandfather of one defendant said of the judge and prosecutors. “These kids are actually lucky. They used to hang blacks for this kind of thing.”
“If a beating like that happened around here, people would have said, ‘O h, that’s normal,’ ” said Romie Walker, 27, a youth counselor who also works the counter at a beauty salon a block south of Poly High.
But not everyone agreed that there was a racial element in the way case played out.
“People are trying to play the race card,” said Chandra Sheppard, a black special education teacher who lives in North Long Beach. “Take the race out of it. You have people who put their hands on other people; wrong is wrong. They had no business doing what they did. It’s not a race thing; you have no right to make other people feel unsafe.”