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Long Beach Awaits Hate-Crime Verdict

People at a forum pray over the case of 10 blacks accused of beating three white women in Long Beach, Calif.
People at a forum pray over the case of 10 blacks accused of beating three white women in Long Beach, Calif. (By Glenn Koenig -- Los Angeles Times)

"This city has made great strides since the Rodney King riots" in 1992, Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster said in an interview. That unrest started in South Central Los Angeles 15 miles away and spread to neighboring Long Beach, destroying more than 300 businesses there.

City officials often refer to a 2000 USA Today study of the 65 largest cities that found Long Beach to be the most diverse. Of Long Beach's 462,000 residents, 36 percent are Latino, 33 percent white, 14 percent black and 12 percent Asian.

Twenty-three hate crimes were reported in the city in 2005, down from 66 in 1998. The drop is steeper than an overall dip in Los Angeles County in the same period. So the Halloween beatings came as a shock.

Laura Schneider, 19, Michelle Smith, 19, and Loren Hyman, 21, were out for a night of fun on a street in a mostly white, middle-class neighborhood where residents deck out their houses for Halloween, prosecutors said. About 40 black teenagers, also in the neighborhood to trick-or-treat, began throwing lemons and small pumpkins at them and taunting them about their race.

When a boy cried out his hatred for whites, "the crowd surged" and began to beat the women, Deputy District Attorney Andrea Bouas argued in court. Hyman's jaw and eye socket were fractured, and Schneider suffered a concussion.

Parents of the arrested teenagers do not dispute the injuries, but they contend that police arrested the wrong children.

Defense testimony in court has bolstered their argument. Neighbors who called 911 on Halloween night reported black boys, not girls, beating the white women. Most of the arrested teenagers were identified by a passerby who recalled their clothing, not their faces. Her credibility was seriously eroded on the witness stand.

"Our hearts go out to the victims," Allene, the mother of a 16-year-old defendant who would not give her last name to protect her daughter's identity, said at a public meeting here Saturday. "We pray for them, because this should never happen to anyone. But our kids are incarcerated based on hairstyles, earrings, dark clothing. . . . It's a rush-to-judgment case."

But the victims are "absolutely convinced that these defendants are among those who attacked them," said Otto, their attorney.

"We haven't heard that anyone is planning on moving, so eventually when this is over people will get back to life," said Anitra Dempsey, coordinator of the city's human dignity program's youth and gang task force. "When the case was first reported there was outrage that this would occur anywhere, and particularly here. [But] Long Beach is one city, and we are not going to be divided or defined by this one event."

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