On December 19, 1986, the normally quiet neighborhood of Howard Beach in Queens gained national notoriety.
Near midnight, a group of four black men — 23-year-old Michael Griffith, 20-year-old Curtis Sylvester, 20-year-old Timothy Grimes, and 36-year-old Cedric Sandiford — were traveling through a deserted area near Howard Beach when their car broke down. Sylvester stayed behind to watch the car, while the other three men set off on foot toward Howard Beach in search of assistance.
After reaching Howard Beach, the three men stopped at a pizza parlor. Upon exiting the pizzeria, they were confronted by a group of 12 white teenagers. The confrontation escalated into physical violence which left Sandiford and Griffith injured. Grimes managed to flee the scene unharmed, but was struck and killed by an oncoming vehicle. Police arrived on the scene around 1:00 A.M., and the men who instigated the attack were arrested on several days later on December 22.
Almost exactly one year later, on December 21, 1987, the three leaders of the white gang — 17-year-old Jon Lester, 16-year-old Jason Ladone, and 18-year-old Scott Kern — were found guilty of second degree manslaughter and first degree assault charges. Ladone was sentenced to 5-15 years, Kern was sentenced to 6-18 years, and Lester was sentenced to 10-30 years.
But on July 15, 1988, 19-year-old John Saggese — represented by Queens criminal defense attorney Victor Knapp, Esq. — was found not guilty and was acquitted of all charges.
In a New York Times article from February of 1987, Saggese’s neighbor, Nicholas LoPrinzi, stated, “Of this group of 12 maybe there were two bad apples, but not John — John is definitely good.” LoPrinzi’s son Vinnie added, “I’ve known John all his life, and when I saw his name in there I couldn’t believe it. I would bet my life that this kid was not involved in this.”
Supreme Court Justice Thomas Demakos agreed.
“Howard Beach Dual Juries Receive Votes of Approval: Defense attorneys who won acquittals for their clients in the latest Howard Beach case told BNA that the dual jury technique may have worked in their favor. Although a key reason for the technique is to segregate evidence heard by each jury, one attorney was also able to persuade the trial judge to excuse his client’s jury when the cross-examination strategy of the other defendant’s lawyers conflicted with his. …
Use of Dual Juries Draws Acclaim in Howard Beach Case: Lawyers for two defendants acquitted in the second round of Howard Beach trials last month praised the dual jury technique that Judge Thomas A. Demakos employed to both expedite the case and solve the problem of codefendant statements. The prosecutor for the dual trials — one involving a single defendant, the other involving four codefendants — also endorsed the device. Poeple v. Bollander, NY SupCt, Indict. No. SPOQ 146/87, Denakos, J., 7/15/88. (See 2 BNA CrimPracMan 246, 295.) …
Although defense attorney Victor Knapp Forest Hill, NY initially opposed the dual jury technique, he said he ended up liking it because it benefited his client ‘in a way that I didn’t really foresee.’ His client, John Saggese, was acquitted of one felony count of riot in the first degree and of the lesser included offense of riot in the second degree.”
Daily News, Saturday, July 16, 1988
by Stewart Ain and Joseph McNamara Daily News Staff Writers:
“As their families wept, three youths were convicted last night of second-degree riot in the Howard Beach racial attack in which one man died. A fourth defendant was acquitted. [… ] When Jury foreman Jose Terazas read the verdict exonerating Saggese, the youth hugged his attorney, Victor Knapp. His father and Farino’s embraced.”