In 1987, Charles Hynes was vacationing upstate when he received word he would be the chief prosecutor in the trial of a racially motivated slaying of a 23-year-old African-American man in the Howard Beach section of Queens.
“I was watching a TV news special in the library of this hotel,” Hynes recalled. “And I saw the crowd at Howard Beach chanting, ‘Haven’t you heard? Howard Beach isn’t Johannesberg.’ At that moment there was an announcement. I was wanted on the phone.”
When he picked up the receiver, Hynes, then a special state prosecutor for then-Governor Mario Cuomo, was assigned to what would become his most famous case — the December 20, 1986 slaying of Michael Griffith, and the assault and harassment of two other men in Howard Beach by a group of white males. The incident incited racial tensions across the city — with demonstrations like the one Hynes witnessed, led by the Reverend Al Sharpton, becoming a common sight.
Twenty-five years later, Hynes who is now the district attorney for Kings County, recalls how difficult the laws of the time made it for him to get a felony conviction.
“There wasn’t a question in my mind [that it was a racially motivated attack],” he said. “But we didn’t charge it as a hate crime because a hate crime at the time was a misdemeanor.”
Unable to argue the case as the racially-motivated felony he claims it would be today, Hynes had to prove the defendant’s guilt as if it were a typical murder charge. In order to do so, he relied on the testimony of one of the attackers.
“The evidence I had was [from] one of the people who was involved in the case,” Hynes said. “We had him plead to a lesser charge in order to get his cooperation. Without his testimony, there would have been no conviction.”
After an 11-day deliberation period, which he reports was the “the longest ever at the time for a Queens criminal trial jury,” the State Supreme Court in Queens convicted Jon Lester, Jason Ladone, Scott Kern and Michael Pirone with manslaughter, second degree murder and first degree assault.
Hynes, who went on to write a book about the case, credits it as a major reason for acquiring his current position.
“There’s no question the celebrity that came out of it was as responsible as anything in getting me elected district attorney in 1989,” he said. “I was in people’s living rooms for three months.”