Bensonhurst Murder Trial: 1990

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Bensonhurst Murder Trial: 1990

Defendants: Joseph Fama, Keith Mondello
Crimes Charged: Riot, unlawful imprisonment, discrimination, murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: Mondello: Stephen Murphy; Fama: David DePetris
Chief Prosecutor: Paul Burns
Judge: Thaddeus Owens
Place: Brooklyn, Kings County, New York
Date of Trial: May-June 11, 1990
Verdicts: Fama: guilty of murder in the second degree (manslaughter), guilty of riot; Mondello: not guilty of manslaughter; guilty of riot, menacing, and unlawful imprisonment
Sentence: Fama: 32 and one half years to life imprisonment; Mondello: 4 terms of 1 year 4 months to 4 years to run consecutively for riot in the first degree, with consecutive 90-day sentences for each of 3 counts of unlawful imprisonment. Sentence was later modified on appeal (March 1, 1993) to allow the sentences for unlawful imprisonment to run concurrently with the other sentences. Total sentence: 5 and one-third to 16 years. Note: John Vento found guilty of lesser charges and sentenced to 4 years; other defendants either acquitted or sentenced to community service were Joseph Serrano, Charles Stressler, James Patino, and Steven Curreri.

SIGNIFICANCE: This case brought national attention as a racially motivated "hate crime." The Reverend Al Sharpton led marches in protest against the killing and the justice system; and the case may have contributed to David Dinkins' victory in the New York City mayoral election over Edward Koch.

Yusuf Hawkins, 16 years old, was murdered on August 23, 1989, when he and several other black friends walked down the street in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn near the corner of 68th Street and 20th Avenue. The group was menaced by a largely white gang with baseball bats. At least one in the attacking gang, Russell Gibbons, was black. Hawkins died of two bullet wounds to the chest.

Racial Jealousy Leads to Murder

The killing of Yusuf Hawkins was a case of mistaken identity. Earlier that day, Gina Feliciano had taunted neighborhood boys that she was inviting black and Hispanic boyfriends to her 18th birthday party. Feliciano had a reputation for taking drugs, for numerous sexual liaisons, and for jealous conflicts with others in the Bensonhurst neighborhood. Hearing of her taunts, a group of youths ranging in age through their early 20s, mostly Italian-American, gathered at a nearby schoolyard and armed themselves with baseball bats and golf clubs. Meanwhile, Yusuf Hawkins, who lived in another New York neighborhood, accompanied three friends as one of them sought to follow up in the possible purchase of a used car that had been advertised for sale in the Bensonhurst neighborhood. Neither Hawkins nor any of his small group had ever heard of Feliciano or their assailants.

When the four boys arrived near the schoolyard, looking for the address of the owner of the used car, the gathering gang assumed they were Feliciano's friends, simply because they were black. The large group stalked and then halted and threatened Hawkins and the three others. Suddenly, one in the batwielding crowd pulled out a pistol and shot Hawkins twice. When the others realized a shot had been fired, they all dispersed. Police arrived to find Hawkins bleeding to death.

Police Quickly Arrest Suspects

The police immediately decided that the killing fell into the special category of bias crime, and worked quickly to round up suspects. The recognized leader of the group leading the assault was Keith Mondello, whose father was Italian and mother, a Jewish convert to Catholicism. Mondello was arrested late that night. However, as members of the local group were rounded up, several agreed that the Joey Fama, a hanger-on, had fired the gun. Fama himself disappeared for a few days as police mounted a search. They feared he might have fled to Italy. However, after hitchhiking north, he surrendered to authorities in upstate Oneonta. Others in the group were arrested and charged with complicity in the murder, although all agreed that one shooter had done the killing.

Racial Tensions Boil Over

The case immediately drew national news coverage for its racial overtones. It was clear that Hawkins had been assaulted and killed because he was a black youth. The Bensonhurst neighborhood in which the killing took place was largely Italian-American, and many assumed that the neighborhood itself was on trial. The reluctance of witnesses to testify or to identify all of the members of the gang that confronted Hawkins that night probably contributed to the sense of neighborhood solidarity along racial lines.

Hawkins' parents were incensed that the accused youths were released on bail, rather than held in jail. Furthermore, only a handful of those in the attacking group were ever identified, leaving most of the group free and at large in the community. The press charged that a collective "Bensonhurst amnesia" protected most of the gang.

Moses Stewart, the father of Hawkins, was a member of Louis Farrakhan's wing of the Nation of Islam. He approached Reverand Al Sharpton for assistance and advice. Sharpton helped arrange Hawkins' funeral and mounted several marches to the Bensonhurst neighborhood to protest the failure of the police to bring more of the perpetrators to justice. The demonstrations and marches were met by hostility from local white youths, who jeered at the marchers. A massive police presence prevented small episodes of anger from erupting into violence.

The killing took place during a hot summer, when many youths were on the street and racial tensions ran high. Furthermore, it was an election year in which incumbent white mayor Edward Koch was opposed in the Democratic primary election by David N. Dinkins. Dinkins' victory in the primary election in September 1989 has been partially attributed to the heightened political consciousness in the black community brought about by the Yusuf Hawkins case. Both mayoral candidates attended the funeral and both pleaded for calm. Reverend Jesse Jackson participated in the funeral, as did local black community leaders, contributing to the sense that the case had political overtones.

Media coverage often oversimplified the case, highlighting the racial aspects. Some reports suggested that Hawkins was gunned down simply because he was black in a white neighborhood; largely black crowds chanted, "No justice, no peace!" Even peaceful demonstrators were met by white youths holding up watermelons and shouting insults, episodes caught in newspaper photos and on television. Despite such publicity, it was an exaggeration to suggest that blacks could not walk peacefully through the streets of Bensonhurst, and elitist prejudice against working class Italian-Americans appeared behind many of the criticisms of the neighborhood.

However, the fact that crime against blacks, whether perpetrated by whites or by other African Americans, is rarely given much attention in the press had produced pent-up frustration with the American justice system that this case brought to the surface.

Controversial and Complicated Verdicts

The prosecution had difficulty in collecting evidence, since most of those involved in the case refused to testify against each other. Although urged to use a theory of a crime that all in the gang were "acting in concert," jurors only applied that theory to one of the defendants. Attorney Jacob Evseroff, who represented Charles Stressler, one member of the gang, commented that "nobody was ever shot with a baseball bat." That line of thinking appeared to impress two juries, which rejected the acting-in-concert argument for manslaughter against the other members of the gang.

Defense attorney Stephen Murphy argued that Keith Mondello was simply "a jerk" taunted into action by Gina Feliciano and should not be made a victim of racial politics and hysteria. Nevertheless, it was clear that Mondello had organized the group that marched out from the schoolyard to attack Yusuf Hawkins. Even the evidence against Fama was shaky. He had reportedly told two other prison inmates that he had fired the gun. One of the gang, Frankie Tighe, testified that he saw Fama fire the gun, but he later recanted his testimony.

Both the jury hearing Fama's case and the one hearing Mondello's case were racially mixed. The judge in both cases, Thaddeus Owens, was black. Each jury deliberated 11 days.

On May 17, 1990, Joey Fama's jury found him guilty of "depraved indifference" to human life, and therefore guilty of murder, since it had been proven that he was in the crowd that attacked Hawkins. Judge Owens had instructed the jury that if depraved indifference could be proven, a guilty verdict could be returned. Such a decision appeared to imply that all in the gang were guilty, even if only one had fired the shot. Furthermore, the jury did not have to believe, by this logic, that Fama had fired the gun. Members of the press and public assumed that this decision paved the way for the acting-in-concert theory to lead to a group of manslaughter convictions. The next day, a separate jury found the ringleader of the gang, Keith Mondello, guilty of riot, menacing, discrimination, and possession of a weapon. However, Mondello was acquitted of manslaughter charges. Judge Owens imposed sentence on June 11, 1990.

Both Fama and Mondello appealed their sentences. Mondello's sentence was modified on March 1, 1993, allowing concurrent service of the terms for imprisonment with the terms for riot as the crime was essentially the same. Fama's sentence and judgment were affirmed on February 5, 1995, in the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of New York.

John Vento, who had provided evidence against Fama, which he later recanted, was sentenced to four years on lesser charges. Steven Curreri and James Patino were acquitted of all charges; Joseph Serrano was given community service on a weapons charge; Charles Stressler was acquitted after a mistrial was declared in his first trial.

Rodney Carlisle

Suggestions for Further Reading

DeSantis, John. For the Color of His Skin: The Murder of Yusuf Hawkins and the Trial of Bensonhurst. New York: Pharos Books, 1991.

Sullivan, Andrew. "The Two Faces of Bensonhurst." New Republic (July 2, 1990).

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Bensonhurst Murder Trial: 1990

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