Lingering effects of a store scuffle Issue of race: Unhappy with the acquittal of three white men with whom he scuffled in a store, a black manin Frederick pursues a civil rights complaint.

February 02, 1996|By WILL ENGLUND | WILL ENGLUND,SUN STAFF

THURMONT -- The grainy, jumpy store video shows Paul Boone pushing Michael Watson in the chest. Jeffrey Stackhouse and Mark Boone join in, land a blow or maybe two, and now three young white men are pursuing Mr. Watson down past the coffee machines, their fists clenching.

His fists, too, are clenched, and he's backpedaling like the college basketball player he was at the time. In a matter of seconds, the video is over.

The incident it records took place more than a year ago, but people are still watching that video. In a criminal trial in Frederick, an all-white jury watched it over and over, and then acquitted Mr. Stackhouse and the Boone brothers of assault and of committing a hate crime against Mr. Watson, who is black.

Now Mr. Watson's defenders are calling that acquittal a miscarriage of justice. They're comparing the verdict with the Rodney King case in Los Angeles, in which police officers beat a black man while being videotaped and nonetheless were acquitted. They're talking about whether blacks can get fair treatment from a white court system.

And they're pressing for a new federal trial on civil rights charges, trying to launch a national campaign on behalf of

the former Mount St. Mary's College star -- and passing that video around.

"I wanted it to stop at the Frederick court," Mr. Watson said, in an interview at his lawyer's office in Washington. "I just wanted to get justice. But now I see I can't get justice in a predominantly white county like Frederick."

But there are those who say the campaign by Mr. Watson's supporters is more about politics than about justice.

Foremost among them is Loyd Hopkins, a black lawyer who defended Mark Boone. He says the prosecution of his client was "cynically and politically motivated." He insists that prosecutors were trying to create a racial case where none existed.

He accuses Mr. Watson, a basketball standout since childhood who maybe was accustomed to the deference due a varsity athlete, of crying wolf when he got licked in a fight he did nothing to avoid.

In a nation where racial incidents are all too real, Mr. Hopkins says, it is inexcusable for Mr. Watson to continue to make charges even after a jury has found them to be groundless.

But Mr. Watson, 23, who grew up in Philadelphia and came to rural Emmitsburg to play college basketball, has plenty of

defenders who have seen the videotape.

They question the jury's verdict about what happened the night of Oct. 30, 1994, at the Sheetz gas station and convenience store, just off Route 15 in Thurmont.

Don Anderson was eight miles away that night, in Emmitsburg, where he is assistant coach of the Mount St. Mary's basketball team. It was Mr. Anderson who took Mr. Watson back into Thurmont the day after the fight to swear out a complaint against the trio.

Cyrus Mehri is a civil rights lawyer in Washington. He now represents Mr. Watson and is managing a campaign to bring national attention to the case.

Richard Lapchick is director of Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society, in Boston, and a veteran civil rights activist in the world of sports. He is spearheading the campaign -- making copies of the video available, writing to leaders of collegiate and professional sports organizations, civil rights groups and Congress -- although he has never met Mr. Watson.

Today the FBI is investigating the incident to see if there are grounds for a federal civil rights case against Mr. Stackhouse and the Boone brothers.

Larry Faust, an FBI spokesman in Baltimore, said the agency has received expressions of interest in the case "from all over the state," from a wide range of people.

He said he would not characterize the interest in the case as political pressure.

The central question in the incident is not what physically happened, but how to interpret what happened that night.

What did a Philadelphia-born black athlete perceive as he faced three loud white men in a town that his coach, Jim Phelan, acknowledges has a "redneck reputation"?

What did three store clerks, who are white and local, and are the only known witnesses to the fracas, perceive?

How did the jury analyze a fight that left no one seriously hurt and, on videotape, looks like a typical Saturday night set-to?

It was about 1:30 a.m. when Mr. Watson and a friend, Melanie Anacleto, walked into the store on their way back to campus after a party.

The Sheetz in Thurmont is a big, brightly lighted rest-stop sort of place, selling snack food, hot sandwiches, maps, gasoline, coffee. The store has six coffee makers in a row, public restrooms, an area with booths.

Moments later, according to both prosecutors and defense lawyers, Mark Boone, 29, of Smithsburg, came in. He was, unarguably, in an obnoxious mood.

He announced loudly that he had come in to buy some condoms, and then asked if anyone had a problem with that. He went back to the men's room to buy some from a machine, and when he emerged passed Mr. Watson in one of the store's narrow aisles.

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