May 18th, 1980
Protests Continue After Four Police Officers Are Acquitted of Beating Arthur McDuffie
On December 17, 1979, Arthur McDuffie, a 33-year-old African American insurance sales representative, was riding a motorcycle when he was signaled to pull over by Metro-Dade Police Department (MDPD) officers in Miami, Florida. Mr. McDuffie did not comply, beginning an eight-mile chase through Miami. After he was apprehended, MDPD officers beat him into a coma. There is no evidence that he physically resisted arrest, and officers later ran over Mr. McDuffie's motorcycle to make it appear as if he had been in an accident. Mr. McDuffie died four days later. After an autopsy confirmed witness reports that he had been beaten to death, five MDPD officers were charged with manslaughter and evidence tampering.
The incident was heavily covered by Miami's black news media. High poverty, a 40% black unemployment rate, and an influx of new immigrants from the West Indies already had local racial tensions high. The officers' trial took place in Tampa after the prosecution obtained a change of venue and lasted six weeks. On May 18, 1980, an all-white jury found the officers not guilty and violence broke out across Miami, sparking nine days of riots more violent than those of the 1960s. The National Guard responded and a state of emergency was declared. The riots left 57 dead, more than 1400 arrested, and $125 million in property damage.
March 21st, 1981
Michael Donald Lynched in Mobile, Alabama
In what is widely regarded as the last recorded lynching in the United States, black teenager Michael Donald was beaten, strangled, slashed at the throat, and hanged by two United Klans of America members in the Mobile, Alabama, area on March 20, 1981. Local police initially attributed Mr. Donald's death to drug violence but his family insisted he had not been involved in drug activity and demanded a more thorough investigation. Tests showed no trace of drugs in Mr. Donald's body.
Authorities later charged Klansmen Henry Hays and James Knowles with Mr. Donald's murder and charged Benjamin Cox, Jr. as an accomplice. Evidence revealed that local Klan leaders had been monitoring the trial of Josephus Anderson, a black man charged with killing a white police officer in Birmingham, Alabama. The Anderson trial ended in mistrial when the jury was unable to reach a verdict. Angered that Mr. Anderson had not been convicted, Benny Hays, a high-ranking Klansman and Henry Hays's father, reportedly said, "If a black man can get away with killing a white man, we ought to be able to get away with killing a black man." Michael Donald was lynched the same day.
All three suspects were convicted in the lynching of Michael Donald. Mr. Knowles and Cox received life sentences and were later paroled; Mr. Hays was sentenced to death and executed by the State of Alabama in 1997. In 1984, Michael's mother Beulah Donald sued the United Klans of America and ultimately won a $7 million wrongful death suit that bankrupted the white supremacist organization, although very little money was ever collected.
October 27th, 1986
Anti-Drug Abuse Act Creates 100-to-1 Crack/Powder Disparity
On October 27, 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. The law created a significant disparity in the sentences imposed in federal courts for crimes involving powdered cocaine versus the sentences imposed for crimes involving crack cocaine. The law imposed certain mandatory minimum sentences for crimes involving certain quantities of powdered cocaine, but those mandatory sentences could also be triggered by crimes involving only one percent of that quantity in cases of crack cocaine. For instance, a drug crime involving five grams of crack cocaine resulted in a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in federal prison, but crimes involving less than 500 grams of powdered cocaine would not trigger the five year minimum sentence.
This one hundred-to-one sentencing disparity, which was not based on credible scientific evidence about differing biological impacts between cocaine in powder form versus crack form, has had a significant impact on the mass incarceration of African Americans. In the years following the enactment of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, admissions of African Americans to federal prison spiked from approximately 50 admissions per 100,000 adults to nearly 250 admissions per 100,000 adults, while there was almost no change among whites. Disparities in sentence lengths also increased. In 1986, African Americans received drug sentences that were 11% longer than sentences received by whites, on average, but that disparity increased to 49% in the years following the law's enactment. This law, and similar laws, had a significant role in increasing the incarcerated population from approximately 500,000 in 1980 to nearly 2.3 million in 2013.
December 20th, 1986
Young Black Man Killed After Being Chased by White Mob in Howard Beach, New York
On December 20, 1986, 23-year-old Michael Griffith and friends Cedric Sandiford and Timothy Grimes were traveling from Brooklyn to Queens in New York, New York. When their car broke down in Howard Beach, a predominantly white, middle-class Queens neighborhood, the three young black men walked to a local restaurant and asked to use the phone. They were refused and sat down at a table where they were soon confronted by a group of white teenagers. After a brief verbal altercation, the white teens left to attend a party, where one announced: “There’s some niggers in the pizza parlor -- let’s go kill them.”
When Griffith, Sandiford, and Grimes exited the restaurant soon after, the white teens returned with baseball bats and tree limbs. Grimes ran fast enough to escape the attack but Griffith and Sandiford were brutally beaten. Fleeing the blows, Griffith ran into traffic on the busy Belt Parkway and was struck and killed by a car. The attack against Sandiford continued even as Griffith lay dying.
When Queens District Attorney John Santucci charged the three teens responsible for Griffth’s death with reckless endangerment, he was accused of misconduct and removed from the case. New York Governor Mario Cuomo then appointed special prosecutor Charles Hynes to investigate the murder. Scott Kern, Jason Ladone, and Jon Lester were convicted in the attack. Judge Thomas Demakos sentenced Kern to 6-18 years imprisonment; Jason Ladone to 5-15 years; and Jon Lester, the accused instigator, to 10-30 years. While passing down his rulings, Judge Demakos asked, “What kind of individual do I have before me who, after witnessing a young black man get crushed by a car, continues his reckless conduct by savagely beating another black male with a bat?”
(Crowd heckles civil rights leaders marching against racism in Howard Beach on December 27, 1986. Gotham City Insider.)
April 22nd, 1987
United States Supreme Court Upholds Death Penalty Despite "Inevitable" Racial Bias
In October 1978, Warren McCleskey, a black man, was condemned to die for killing a white police officer during a robbery. On appeal, Mr. McCleskey argued that Georgia's capital punishment system was racially biased in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. In support of his argument, Mr. McCleskey presented statistical evidence that race significantly impacted the likelihood of a death sentence.
Mr. McCleskey relied on a study by University of Iowa professor David Baldus, who conducted a rigorous statistical analysis of more than 2000 Georgia murder cases and found that prosecutors were more likely to seek the death penalty and juries were more likely to impose it in cases involving black defendants and white victims. Even after controlling for crime-specific variables, the Baldus study concluded black defendants accused of killing white victims faced the highest likelihood of receiving the death penalty.
On April 22, 1987, the United States Supreme Court upheld Mr. McCleskey's capital conviction in a 5-4 decision that accepted these racial sentencing disparities as "an inevitable part of our criminal justice system." The Court accepted Baldus's findings as valid but held the evidence insufficient to warrant reversal because there was no proof that any individual had intentionally discriminated against Mr. McCleskey on the basis of race. In dissent, Justice William Brennan wrote that the majority was motivated to deny relief by a "fear of too much justice."
McCleskey v. Kemp upheld the constitutionality of racially biased capital punishment in America and remains the law today. The United States has executed more than 1200 people since 1987, including Warren McCleskey, who died in the electric chair on September 26, 1991.
November 19th, 1988
Texas Judge Rules Murders of Gay Men Do Not Warrant Harsh Sentences
On November 19, 1988, in Dallas, Texas, Judge Jack Hampton sentenced Richard Lee Bednarski to thirty years imprisonment for murdering two gay men.
On the night of the crime, Bednarski and several friends drove to a local gay neighborhood to “gay-bash” or harass gays. Tommy Lee Trimble and John Lloyd Griffin, two gay men, approached the group and offered Bednarski a ride, which he accepted. In the car, Bednarski ordered Trimble and Griffin to disrobe. When they refused, Bednarski shoved a pistol into Trimble’s mouth and fired. As Griffin tried to escape, Bednarski shot him. Trimble died immediately and Griffin died five days later.
After the sentencing hearing, in which Judge Hampton rejected the prosecution’s recommendation that Bednarski be sentenced to life imprisonment, a reporter published an interview in which Judge Hampton said he was lenient because, “I put prostitutes and gays at about the same level . . . I’d be hard put to give somebody life for killing a prostitute.” Judge Hampton went on to blame Trimble and Griffin for their own deaths, reasoning that they would not have died “if they hadn’t been cruising the streets picking up teenage boys.” Judge Hampton continued, “I don’t care much for queers running around on weekend picking up teenage boys. I’ve got a teenage boy.”
Following publication of the interview, the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct investigated and concluded that Judge Hampton was an impartial judge. After many complaints, the commission agreed to censure Hampton but refused to require his removal. Judge Hampton was re-elected by the residents of Dallas in 1990 and 1994, and retired in 1996. Bednarski was released from prison in 2007.
April 19th, 1989
“Central Park Five” Arrested for Rape
On April 19, 1989, a woman was brutally raped and beaten in New York City's Central Park. Police officers soon arrested five young men – four black teenagers and one Latino teen – and subjected them to hours of intense interrogation in order to extract confessions. Each young man later claimed that he had been coerced into making false confessions. Though there was no physical evidence to link them to the crime, they were convicted of attempted murder and rape, and sentenced to 5-13 years in prison.
In 2002, after another man confessed to the rape and DNA evidence confirmed his confession, New York Supreme Court Justice Charles J. Tejada granted the motions of defense attorneys and District Attorney Robert Morgenthau to vacate the convictions of the “Central Park Five” – though detectives continued to maintain that the defendants were accomplices in the assault. All of the young men had completed their prison sentences at the time their convictions were vacated.
Following their exonerations, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana Jr., Kharey Wise, Yusef Salaam, and Antron McCray sued the city for malicious prosecution, racial discrimination, and emotional distress. “You all don't really understand what we went through,” Richardson said. “People called us animals, a wolf pack...It still hurts me emotionally.” The city refused to settle the suits for over a decade, but in June 2014 agreed to pay the men $40 million in damages.
August 23rd, 1989
Black Teen Murdered by White Mob in Brooklyn, New York
On August 23, 1989, 16-year-old Yusef Hawkins and three friends went to the predominately white Bensonhurt section of Brooklyn, New York, to inquire about a used Pontiac for sale. On their way through the neighborhood, the three black boys encountered a group of 30 white youths gathered in the street. Armed with baseball bats and at least one handgun, the mob set upon the three boys. While his companions managed to escape the attack without serious injury, Yusef was shot twice in the chest and later pronounced dead at nearby Maimonides Medical Center.
Later investigation revealed that a neighborhood girl, Gina Feliciano, had recently spurned the advances of a young white man in the neighborhood and was rumored to be dating an African American. Angry, the rejected white boy gathered friends to lay in wait for the black boyfriend they believed would be visiting Ms. Feliciano. Yusef Hawkins walked into this scene of racial tension.
Hawkins’s death was the third murder of a black male by a white mob in the 1980s in New York, where racial tensions were high. Shortly after the slaying, the Reverend Al Sharpton led a protest march through Bensonhurst. Neighborhood residents met the protesters with such intense resistance that one marcher said she had “not been through an experience like this since the 60s.” A year after Hawkins’s murder, 18-year-old Joseph Fama was convicted of second degree murder and a string of lesser charges and sentenced to 32 years in prison. Five other participants were charged in connection with Hawkins's murder and received lesser sentences.