Halloween Hate Crime: A Ghost of a Story

It's a case with headline-grabbing details, even for Southern California -- home to the trial of the century.

Girls and boys gone wild on Halloween night. An alleged hate crime, a violent attack fueled by racial slurs. The "F" word. The "B" word.

Parents of the suspects accuse prosecutors of making a rush to judgment. Meanwhile, a virtual stable of defense attorneys is accused of putting prosecution witnesses at risk by leaking their names.

There are reluctant witnesses and those facing intimidation by reported gang members. A witness known as the Good Samaritan may now be too afraid to return to the stand. And then there's the race card.

Defense attorneys charge that the case is being tried in the media by an aggressive local newspaper.

But there are critics who say the story hovers ghostlike on the national scene garnering little attention, perhaps because it turns traditional notions of racially motivated violence on their head. The victims are white and the suspects are black.

Nightmare on Bixby Road

In the affluent Bixby Knolls neighborhood of Long Beach, Calif., Halloween is a big event. Homeowners go all out, creating an eye-popping fright night that draws trick-or-treaters from around Southern California.

But last October 31, the festive evening turned into a brutal nightmare for three young women attacked by a mob outside a haunted house.

Trial testimony during the past two months indicated the three young white women had some exchange of words with a group of black revelers outside the haunted house. That encounter reportedly escalated from playful banter to aggressive taunting and physical violence.

According to prosecutors, the three victims were pelted with lemons and small pumpkins by a crowd that grew to about 30 people. Racial epithets were reportedly hurled at the victims as well: "We hate white people, f------ whites!

A black witness dubbed the Good Samaritan because he came to the aid of one of the victims testified: "I heard 'all right b----, all right b----, what it do?!" The mood of the crowd grew darker and darker, according to testimony.

Eventually, fists and feet replaced angry words and the mob set upon the women, even using a skateboard as a weapon.

One witness for the prosecution -- an 18-year-old black woman -- said she was driving away as the attack began but returned and called 911.

Sobbing on the witness stand, the 35-year-old Good Samaritan testified that he tried to shield one of the victims with his body as he yelled for the crowd to disperse and warned authorities were coming.

By the time police started making arrests, the women had suffered broken bones in their faces and cuts and bruises on their bodies.

The victims are between the ages of 19 and 21. The suspects are minors: 12 youths -- 12 to 17 years old when the crimes occurred.

Of the 12 young people arrested, 10 cases are currently being tried by veteran juvenile court judge Gibson W. Lee. They include nine girls and one young man, who have since turned 18. All are charged with felony assault and most face an additional hate crime charge.

A Double Standard?

It is not uncommon for the national spotlight to glare down on race-related crime in the nation: Reginald Denny. Rodney King. Abner Louima. The Duke Lacrosse team. So why the relative uninterest in this crime?

"Southern California has a million ethnic fault lines, and any one of them can be triggered at anytime," observed veteran Los Angeles civil rights attorney Connie Rice. "The level of violence must be particularly atrocious to get coverage."

Another explanation -- at least when it comes to the attitude of the broadcast media -- is that cases involving minors are very hard to cover when a picture is worth a thousand words.

"When the defendants are minors, they can't be shown on television. You can't get show their faces. You can't re-create it. You can't identify them in any way," explained University of Southern California journalism professor Judy Muller. "That's a hard story for television to tell."

But social and political analyst Earl Ofari Hutchinson sees something more significant: "Black violence against whites can't match the scale and history of white beatings and killings and intimidation, but that still does not cancel out, let alone justify kid-glove treatment and silence when blacks are the perpetrators and whites are the victims."

According to the Department of Justice, while whites still commit the majority of hate or bias crimes, attacks by blacks account for 20 percent of the reported offenses.

"When racism is manifested among minority groups, I think it is an interesting story," said Muller, a former ABC News correspondent "But it is not always a story people want to touch because it is delicate. But if we aren't capable of saying, yes, this is racism -- even in if it is black on white racism -- then we've lost our ability to tell the truth."

The trial is expected to last at least another week. If found guilty, the young suspects could face sentences ranging from simple probation to confinement at the California Youth Authority until they're 25 years old. Long Beach is a prosperous and racially diverse port city of about 490,000 residents. Whites make up about 45 percent of the population, Latinos about 30 percent, blacks approximately 15 percent and Asians 10 percent.

Kevin O'Grady of Orange County's Anti-Defamation League, said that away from the headlines, multiracial community groups have begun meeting in the wake of disturbing events of that Halloween night. "If anything good can come of this, it is a dialogue about race and race relations," said O'Grady, "and the condition of them."