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Joseph Fama Guilty in Bensonhurst Murder

May 18, 1990 GMT

NEW YORK (AP) _ A 19-year-old was convicted in the shooting death of a black teen-ager set upon by a white gang last summer, a murder that brought simmering racial tensions to a boil in the nation’s biggest city.

Joseph Fama was convicted Thursday of second-degree murder by depraved indifference for the Aug. 23 death of 16-year-old Yusuf Hawkins. A mob of 30 bat-wielding youths attacked Hawkins when he entered the mostly white Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn with three friends to buy a used car.

The Bensonhurst case has been watched closely by the city. It may have contributed indirectly to the election of New York’s first black mayor, and many feared an acquittal in the case could have led to violent outbreaks.

Fama shook his head slightly, then stared at the floor as the jury convicted him of the murder charge and 12 lesser charges.

He was acquitted of second-degree intentional murder and criminal possession of a weapon in the second degree. Jurors said they convicted Fama despite a disagreement over whether he fired the gun.

Fama faces 25 years to life in prison when sentenced June 11 by Judge Thaddeus Owens.

A second panel deciding the fate of co-defendant Keith Mondello resumed deliberations late this morning for an 11th day. About half an hour later, the jurors asked the judge for a definition of unlawful imprisonment, one of the lesser charges Mondello faces, and Owens listed seven criteria.

Mondello, also 19, is charged with two counts of second-degree murder, manslaughter and other crimes in the attack. Four other youths face trial later.

″We hope that this is the last time we ever have to try one of these cases,″ said Assistant District Attorney James Kohler. ″But something tells me that we’ll be back here again trying another one of these cases, until people learn how to get along with one another, and stop all of this racial hatred.″

Many said the shooting helped end the 12-year reign of Mayor Ed Koch by convincing Democratic voters to select David Dinkins, his more softspoken opponent, in the September primary. Dinkins went on to become the city’s first black mayor.

Although Fama was accused of pulling a .32-caliber automatic pistol and firing four shots, two of them through Hawkins’ heart, jurors said they were not convinced that he was the triggerman.


But they said his decision to join the white mob in the attack was sufficient to find him guilty of murder for participating in the slaying.

″If he wasn’t an active participant he could have gone home,″ said Steven Berquist, a telephone company employee who said he was the last one of the 12 panelists to be convinced of Fama’s guilt.

Hawkins’ parents, Moses Stewart and Diane Hawkins, sat holding hands as jury forewoman Tonya Bailey delivered the verdict in the packed fourth-floor courtroom.

When the first guilty verdict was read, Stewart let out a quick ″Yeah 3/8″ Several of the 12 jurors, who had deliberated for 10 days, wiped tears away as the forewoman spoke.

Dinkins said the verdict was an occasion to begin healing the city’s racial wounds.

″Yusuf Hawkins died of racism in the first degree,″ he said. ″More than 20 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., envisioned a promised land where people would be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.

″I can think of no greater tribute to Yusuf or to his family, nor a nobler quest for the people of our city, than for us to use this opportunity to try to make Dr. King’s dream a reality.″

Fama’s defense lawyer, David DePetris, blamed the verdict on Owens’ instructions to the jury, which he called ″substantially one-sided.″ He said he planned an appeal.

Fama’s family retreated to a third-floor corridor, refusing to speak to reporters. Fama was led away in handcuffs and returned to the Brooklyn House of Detention, where he has been held since a week after the murder.

The Hawkins family and friends, holding hands with their adviser, the Rev. Al Sharpton, quietly walked out of the courtroom. Outside, Stewart raised a clenched fist to the croud of about 150 supporters, who shouted ″Yusuf 3/8 Yusuf 3/8″

″This is a victory for the people,″ said Dave Walker, an investigator for a Brooklyn civil rights group. ″The tension’s high throughout the city, throughout the whole country. ... All communities needed the verdict.″

Fama’s Bensonhurst neighbors were defensive.

″He was a good boy. I’ve known him 20 years,″ said Fama’s next-door neighbor, a woman who refused to be identified. ″We all felt sad that the kid died. But they didn’t have enough evidence.″

Prosecutors allege Mondello assembled a gang from the neighborhood because he was afraid that black and Hispanic friends of a young neighborhood woman, Gina Feliciano, were coming to beat him up.