The perpetrator in one of the most notorious race-related killings in New York City—a case that many say catapulted Al Sharpton to national fame and made the neighborhood of Howard Beach in the city’s Queens borough go down in infamy—has died at age 48.
More than 30 years ago, 17-year-old Jon Lester was convicted of second-degree manslaughter in the death of 23-year-old Michael Griffith, whose car had broken down in the mostly Italian neighborhood.
Lester’s family told the New York Times that he committed suicide.
The Times reports on the events of the night of Dec. 20, 1986:
“There’s niggers on the boulevard,” the teenager, Jon Lester, a transplanted English 17-year-old, was quoted as telling the beered-up partygoers, adding (and inserting an expletive), “Let’s go kill them.”
According to later courtroom testimony, the 5-foot-4 Mr. Lester was a ringleader of a dozen white teenagers who jumped into three cars and ambushed the black men at a nearby pizza parlor.
The gang mercilessly chased one man, Michael Griffith, 23, who escaped by running onto a busy highway, where he was struck by a car and killed. Another man in the car, Timothy Grimes, outran his pursuers. But they caught and savagely beat the third black man, Cedric Sandiford, 36, with a baseball bat, a tire iron and a tree limb.
Lester was convicted of second-degree manslaughter and first-degree assault. He was sentenced in 1988 to 10-30 years. Two others, Jason Ladone and Scott Kern, were convicted of manslaughter, too.
The case rocked an already racially precarious city to its core. New York City Mayor Ed Koch called the attack a lynching.
In 2001, Lester was paroled and deported back to England, where he died Aug. 14. His family told the Times that it was suicide. His family maintains that it came from him being “wrongly convicted.”
“He suffered from depression due to the fact that he was wrongly convicted,” his sister Jayne Lester said in a telephone interview from Florida. “He was just tormented. He was never the same person.”
“In my heart I’m sorry to hear of his death,” Griffith’s mother, now Jean Griffith Sandiford, said in a telephone interview Monday. “Regardless of what happened, I always forgave them.”
“Jon Lester can try and rewrite history all he wants,” Charles J. Hynes, the special prosecutor in the case, wrote in an email to the Times on Monday. “Some would say 15 years’ imprisonment is significant punishment, but after 15 years he was alive, and Michael Griffith is dead.”
Read more at the New York Times.