NEW YORK, DEC. 22 -- Outside the pizza parlors and clam bars of Howard Beach today, a rough consensus emerged on one point: that the three white neighborhood boys convicted Monday night of manslaughter and assault were treated far more harshly than would have been the case had the attackers been black and the victims white.
No matter that the jury in the racially charged murder trial had sifted the evidence for 12 days or that it had acquitted a fourth teen-ager of all charges, or that a black man, Michael Griffith, is dead because of what happened here one year and two days ago.
Like many New Yorkers, people in this predominantly white Queens neighborhood view life through a racial prism, one in which judicial outcomes are swayed by pressure from "the politicians" and "the blacks." In their view, whites are regularly beaten or killed by blacks with little public fuss, while black victims of white attacks are front-page news.
"What if it was the other way around? Nothing would have happened," said Jim, 28, pumping gas at a filling station next to the New Park Pizzeria, where the fatal confrontation began. As for the victims, he added, "if I walk into the Bronx or Harlem in the middle of the night, you think I'm gonna walk out alive?"
"It's ridiculous," said Elizabeth, 30, who, like most Howard Beach residents interviewed today, insisted that her last name not be used. "The only reason they got manslaughter was because the black people raised a lot of hell."
But the verdicts caused little rejoicing in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Griffith's Brooklyn neighborhood, where many residents argued today that the defendants got off lightly.
"If that had been a black, they would have sentenced him to 25 to life," said Curtis Smith, 16, outside the Pacific Street housing project where Griffith's mother lives. "It wouldn't have took them this long in court. All of them should've got murder."
Seen from this side of the prism, the Howard Beach assault is part of a series of incidents in which New York blacks have died or been beaten in police custody or been falsely arrested by transit officers. Nor have blacks forgotten the recent acquittal of Bernhard H. Goetz on attempted-murder charges for shooting four black youths on a Manhattan subway train.
Nerves are still raw in both neighborhoods a day after a jury of the New York Supreme Court, the state court's trial division, convicted Jon Lester, 18, Scott Kern, 18, and Jason Ladone, 17, of manslaughter in Griffith's death. The 23-year-old construction worker was struck by a car on the Belt Parkway after fleeing the whites, who were shouting for the "niggers" to get "out of the neighborhood."
The jury, which included one black, rejected second-degree murder charges against Lester and Kern but also convicted them and Ladone of assault in the baseball-bat beating of Griffith's companion, Cedric Sandiford, 37. The three face 10 to 30 years in prison. Defendant Michael Pirone, 18, was acquitted.
Michael Sweeney, a white Flushing teacher who served on the jury, said the deliberations took 12 days because "we wanted to be careful. The jury was very professional, methodical and open-minded . . . . It was 12 people working as a unit, and we did it the best we could."
Most of the jurors declined to be interviewed today, and a few left town to avoid the limelight.
Although hundreds of black protesters blocked Brooklyn Bridge traffic during Monday's rush hour, before the verdicts came in, no racial incidents were reported in connection with the case today.
But many blacks said today that the manslaughter verdicts were a better result than they expected. Their frustration may have been tempered by special prosecutor Charles J. Hynes' aggressive handling of the case.
Leroy Gill, 53, a longshoreman who lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant, said blacks had "lost so many of these cases" that it seemed that white assailants "could get away with any case."
"If it was one of our color who did that to one of theirs," said Lueannia Johnson, 78, "he wouldn't live long enough to get to the trial."
Mayor Edward I. Koch rejected calls for a permanent special prosecutor for bias cases and challenged police statistics showing twice as many black victims than white victims of racial violence. "You know there are more whites assaulted in this town by blacks than the other way around," Koch said.
Nearly everyone was talking about the verdicts on Cross Bay Boulevard, Howard Beach's main street, and many recalled a case in which a black was acquitted in the murder of a white priest.
Surrounded on three sides by the waters of Jamaica Bay and wedged between John F. Kennedy International Airport and a heavily black Brooklyn neighborhood, Howard Beach is wary of outsiders. But with many blacks working and shopping in the area, its residents say it is hardly the hotbed of racism that is etched in the national consciousness.
"I don't understand how it happened," said Don Hinton, 41, a black electrician who has lived in Howard Beach for 14 years. "I go to that same pizza parlor all the time, and I'm black and nothing ever happened to me."
Hinton said he had met Lester in a diner, and "he didn't give me the impression he was that type of kid . . . . I think they hung those boys for nothing."
While few white residents interviewed were as willing to excuse the actions of Lester, Kern, Ladone and Pirone, nearly all found the manslaughter convictions excessive.
"Most people here feel it was just a stupid act by four kids who had a little too much to drink, only this time it resulted in a tragic death," said Stanley Merzon, publisher of the Queens Tribune.
"I don't believe there's more bigotry in Howard Beach than anyplace else," said Joel Miele, chairman of the local community board. "We happen to be the place where the pimple broke."
Still, no one would dispute that the events of Dec. 20, 1986, have blackened Howard Beach's image to the extent that some residents hesitate to say where they are from. Miele says business is down 30 percent along parts of Cross Bay Boulevard -- and not because blacks are staying away.
"There are a lot of white customers who have decided they'd rather shop somewhere else or eat somewhere else" because of Howard Beach's notoriety and its sudden popularity with reporters, he said.
Irma, an elderly woman shopping at Waldbaum's supermarket, said she has to reassure her son in Chicago that her neighborhood is safe. But she admitted she is worried about the aftermath of the verdicts.
"If they went free, the blacks would have gone wild," Irma said. "Now I'm afraid some of the Italians may start something."
Inside a stationery store on 153rd Avenue, several employes were venting their anger at star prosecution witness Robert Riley, pronouncing him "dead" and "finished." They demanded that a reporter leave the store, expressing anger at the media for exploiting the story.
No one in Howard Beach had a kind word for Riley, 18, whose testimony under a plea-bargain agreement made the convictions possible. "Riley should pack his bags and leave town," declared Jim at the gas station.
Pat, a friendly woman frying eggs at the Big Bow Wow Deli, complained that the case "was made out to be too racial. It was the politicians who blew it up. And the media, they're so hungry for a story, they twist them and bend them.
"They're not bad kids," she said of the defendants. "They're like yours or mine or anyone's could be. Once in awhile they get a little rowdy."
Merzon, the local publisher, agreed that the incident had been hyped by television and the tabloids, and he challenged a comment by Koch that the assault was one of the worst he had ever seen. "Come on!" he said. "This is New York City. There isn't a day that goes by that someone doesn't get chopped up or stuffed in a bottle or something."
Special correspondent Marianne Yen contributed to this report.