AQUEENS JURY, after 12 days of deliberations, has reached a verdict in the Howard Beach killing case. The panel, appropriately for New York City and necessarily in this racially charged case, was diverse: six whites, one black, two Puerto Ricans, two Asian Americans and a man from Guyana who is ethnically Asian. They were charged with deciding the hottest, most divisive and emotional case in New York since Bernard Goetz, and in spite of fireworks and outbursts in the courtroom and marches, civil disobedience and the threat of riots in the street, they managed to arrive at what looks to be a sensible verdict.
The case began just a year ago during Christmas week when a group of white teen-agers beat and chased three black men who had wandered into their white neighborhood. During the assault, one of the victims escaped and ran onto a busy parkway where he was struck by an automobile and killed. Was that racially motivated murder the act of a lynch mob, as Mayor Edward Koch described it, or was it a simple street fight that ended in a terrible accident? That is essentially the question that was before the jury at the trial of four teen-agers, two charged with second-degree murder and assault and two with second-degree manslaughter and assault.
Instead of capitulating to pressures on all sides, the jurors apparently went about their task with deliberation, making careful judgments about each of the four defendants based on the evidence presented in court. One young man was acquitted outright because the testimony did not tie him, beyond a reasonable doubt, to the event. As for the other three, the jury found that they had been aware of and consciously disregarded a substantial and unjustifiable risk that the victim, Michael Griffith, would be killed. But they did not find that the defendants had been, in the words the judge used to charge the jury, "so brutal, so callous, so completely dangerous and so inhuman" as to create a grave risk that caused the death of the victim. Thus, all three were found guilty of manslaughter, but not of murder. The former carries a penalty of five to 15 years in prison; the latter, 25 years to life.
But if this was not deliberate murder, it was not just a case of mischievous youngsters embarked on some kind of a prank that backfired either. A man died and those responsible should be punished. The jurors seem to us to have come out right.
An additional note: During the last days of the proceedings, reports were circulated that the forewoman of the jury had authorized an agent to negotiate with the media for the sale of her story. If the reports prove true, it would not be the first time a juror has entered into such a bargain, though others have done so after the trial was over. The general practice is odious: the potential for manipulating the jury process in the interest of creating high-priced drama is too great and represents a basic conflict of interest. Jurors deliberate in secrecy for a reason. If notes are being kept, if individual views are to be revealed and criticized publicly, juries will operate under a cloud of intimidation. Such arrangements should be strongly discouraged by the courts, and publicity-seeking jurors should not be allowed to profit from their indiscretion