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.