Justice as a black-white issue

Claude Lewis

August 29, 1991|By Claude Lewis | Claude Lewis,Claude Lewis is a Philadelphia Inquirer columnist.

A CASE in New York City moved a step closer to justice this week as a disciplinary committee at St. John's University recommended that four students, accused of sexually assaulting female student, be expelled. The recommendation to remove the students from St. John's occurred even though the three who were tried in court were acquitted of criminality.

The assault, which took place in March 1990, involved six white males. The victim is a black female, now 22, who was a student at St. John's at the time the assault took place. She charged that the men made her engage in oral sex by force when she was awake and by taking advantage of her helplessness when she had passed out from liquor she was pressured into drinking.

Many blacks criticized both the acquittal and the relative lack of attention paid to the case by the media and people like Donald Trump. During the 1989 Central Park jogger case, Trump placed ads in newspapers calling for the death penalty for the African-American and Hispanic youths accused of brutally attacking and raping a white woman.

However, Trump was strangely silent in the St. John's case, which involved sodomy and physical abuse of a black woman by white attackers.

The jurors in the St. John's case, citing "lies" and "inconsistencies," were not convinced the victim and prosecution witnesses told the full truth about the events that occurred in a house near the school's Jamaica, Long Island, campus.

Despite the acquittals on criminal charges, the St. John's panel, comprised of faculty members and students, said each of the students involved was guilty of "conduct adversely affecting his suitability as a member of the academic community of St. John's."

Almost nobody could argue with that view. The recommendations to expel the students -- Andrew Draghi, 22, a junior; Walter Gabrinowitz, 23, a senior, and Matthew Grandinetti, 22, a senior -- shook the students and angered their lawyers. All three men were members of the St. John's lacrosse team when the event took place. They were suspended from the school after being indicted in the crime last year. The recommendation to expel them was brought to light by the students' lawyers after they were informed by St. John's nine-member disciplinary board, the Hearing and Deciding Committee.

The recommendation to expel the students can be appealed within 15 days since penalties are involved, a St. John's spokesman told me.

"We don't like to be connected with any sexual impropriety, but so far we haven't seen a reduction in enrollment or financial support stemming from the case," Martin J. Healy, a spokesman for St. John's, said.

The decision to appeal has not been reached as yet. A lawyer for one of the three acquitted men charged the disciplinary proceedings were a "sham." He said the committee refused to lay out the charges against his client in a way that would have permitted him to mount a defense.

A lawyer representing Walter Gabrinowitz characterized the -Z recommendation as "predictable."

However, the Rev. Donald J. Harrington, university president, will make the final decision on expulsion.

Given the uncertainty by the jurors in the criminal case, the men should have been acquitted of criminal charges. But nobody has denied that the assault took place, though some defendants said the sexual episode was "consensual." Whether the defendants or the victim were correct, the event left the reputation of St. John's at risk.

It seems that the Hearing and Deciding Committee made the rTC proper decision as it addressed concerns about the students' conduct. Another student, Thomas Dean, 22, a senior, testified for the prosecution. He also faces expulsion. Dean said he "touched" the victim's breast and watched for a long time as the others assaulted her. Two other St. John's students face criminal charges in the case.

Too often today, schools and students ignore the impact that gross misbehavior by students -- or, for that matter, faculty members -- has on an institution. Even if the criminal charges did not hold up, the behavior of the three, who were acquitted of criminality, deserves scrutiny and a response that shows concern for the reputation of the institution.

The female victim has not been identified in the press. Her spokesman, the Rev. Herbert Daughtry, of the House of Lords Pentecostal Church in Brooklyn, said the prospect of expulsion provides "at least some degree of justice."

In another case in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, protests by Hasidic Jews and African-Americans have increased tension in New York City. One of the victims of that confrontation was Gavin Cato, 7, a black child, who was killed when an out-of-control car driven by a Hasidic Jew smashed the child into an iron grate. In the protests that followed, Yankel Rosenbaum of Australia, a Hasidic Jew, was killed.

Tempers continue to flare in that case. Protesters cite the St. John's incident, along with other cases, as "proof" of two standards of justice, one for blacks, another for whites.

That's one reason Daughtry is right when he claims expulsion of the students for misbehavior would provide "at least some degree of justice" for people who are convinced they are perpetual victims and who seem to be forever on the outside of the system looking in.

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