WEB POSTED 07-06-1999

Million Youth March case ends in mistrial

by Charles Brooks

NEW YORK— The Million Youth March trial, heard in Manhattan Criminal Court, ended in a mistrial June 25, when jurors were unable to reach a verdict in the case of Shaheed (James) Muhammad and Patrice Peterson. Twice jurors sent notes to Judge Michael Obus for clarification on their instructions before sending a final note expressing an inability to reach a unanimous decision.

Although Judge Obus reminded them of their responsibility, the jurors remained deadlocked. Mr. Muhammad was charged with 3rd degree misdemeanor attempted assault. Mr. Peterson faced more serious charges, 3rd degree felony attempted assault. The jury, split 9-3 in favor of acquittal, reflecting a widespread feeling amongst supporters of the defendants that prosecuters failed to establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

"They only had to prove that my client attempted to hit a police officer and they couldn’t do that," said Atty. Roger Wareham, who represented Mr. Muhammad. Malik Shabazz, youth director of the Million Youth March, Tonya McClary and Anthony Mack, who represented Mr. Peterson, joined Mr. Wareham as defense attorneys. They attacked the credibility of the prosecution’s case by pointing out numerous inconsistencies.

They exposed contradicting eyewitness accounts from two police officers and challenged claims of injuries allegedly suffered in a post-march confrontation with demonstrators.

Ms. McClary told The Final Call that the prosecution failed to make the connection with her client, accused of throwing a chair, and alleged injuries officers suffered. "They brought all these police officers in with their injuries, but it was obviously a smoke screen to get the jury’s sympathy. The big question is, if it was our client who hit the officer with the chair, why was he charged with attempted assault, instead of an assault charge on a police officer?" she asked.

In his closing argument, Mr. Wareham said prosecutors failed to accurately identify his client as the one who punched an officer. "The most important and crucial piece of evidence is that which does not exist, there’s no videotape of my client hitting police officer Todd Jung," he said.

Although it appeared that Judge Obus narrowed the scope of the defense attorney arguments, the lawyers managed to cast a spotlight on "provocation and intimidation" tactics exercised by the police.

One defense witness, Sgt. Noel Leader of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement, said, "My testimony was geared in depicting some of the irregularities that my experience as an officer has showed me—blocking demonstrators from entering the area, the helicopters and the overt aggressive manner exhibited by officers to stop the event at precisely 4 o’clock. It was a peaceful event, no drugs or alcohol. Perhaps the officers had an ulterior motive."

Defense attorneys, upon learning of the hung jury, declared another victory over Mayor Rudolph Guiliani’s administration. "It’s another loss to the city adding to the string of losses the Guiliani administration has suffered against the Black community. He lost when he tried to stop the march, on the day of the march, and today in court," said Mr. Wareham. "After using all of their resources, they still couldn’t get a conviction on the lowest possible misdemeanor or felony charge."

Since court proceedings began, defense attorneys and supporters characterized the trial as political scandal. Mayor Guiliani had to justify criminal acts by police officers through some indictment, after the Manhattan District Attorney’s office failed to indict Min. Khallid Muhammad, who convened the gathering, they argued.

Still, many activists also spoke of the dark days of the 1960s and ’70s, when federal and local government used covert efforts to disrupt Black organizations

"Even when the city takes these defeats, it’s a drain of resources in the Black community. They attempt to tie us up in these legal battles forcing us to use up our resources," said Mr. Wareham.

Mr. Muhammad and Mr. Peterson are scheduled to appear in court July 28, to hear the Manhattan District Attorney’s decision on whether to retry the case. A spokesman from the DA’s office told The Final Call that decision was "still under review."

Atty. Mack doubts there will be a retrial. "It’s very likely because there’s pressure on the DA’s office to do something to condone the unnecessary police provocation which occurred that day," he said.


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