Joseph Fama, imprisoned for the death of Yusuf Hawkins in a racial shooting in Bensonhurst, argues for his innocence in letters to a reporter, while the prosecutors from the case dispute his contentions.
One day last August, I opened an envelope with a return address from Clinton Correctional Facilty. It contained a 14—page letter from Joseph Fama, the first of many I would ultimately receive. As many New Yorkers may remember, Fama was the “trigger man” convicted in one of the most traumatic racial crimes of recent city history. His letters brought me back to the tense and divided New York of 1989, when angry protestors filled the streets calling justice in the slaying of a 16-year-old black teen Yusuf Hawkins, who had been shot while shopping for a used car in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bensonhurst.
In May of 1990, after a trial that drew national media coverage, Fama was convicted of second-degree murder for the killing of Hawkins and was sentenced 32 and 2/3 years to life. Now, 23 years later, after exhausting all of his legal options, Fama continues to proclaim his innocence, saying that he is not the man who fired the fatal shots on that hot summer night in Brooklyn.
“I was railroaded,” Fama said from the visiting room of Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, N.Y., where he has been for the majority of his sentence. As he entered the room, the five-foot-eight Fama wore a crisply ironed beige shirt, long pants and glasses.
How I came to be visiting Fama is a story within this larger story. For my last assignment in my Writing and Reporting class at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, I decided to write about follow-up on the Hawkins murder. I was inspired to reach out to Fama after we had a guest speaker, Brian McDonald, J School alumnus who wrote a book on the Cheshire, Connecticut murders. On July 23, 2007, Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her two daughters were murdered during a home invasion in their upscale suburban neighborhood. During the lecture, McDonald explained that, as part of his research, he had written letters to the convicted murderers. “You may only have one chance to write to an inmate,” he said. Taking his advice, I mailed the short yet extensive letter. Then, a week later, to my disbelief, Fama wrote back.
“You are not the first person to ask about my case from your university,” Fama wrote in his first letter to me on August 22, 2012, the day before the 23rd anniversary of the shooting. “I have gotten many letters from different colleges. I have answered none. You will be the first… It’s always this time of year I receive letters from journalists.”
On August 23, 1989, Hawkins, and three of his friends from the largely black neighborhood of East New York went to look at a used 1982 Pontiac for sale across Brooklyn in the predominately Italian-American section of Bensonhurst. When they got off the subway, the boys approached Twentieth Avenue, where they were met by an angry mob armed with bats. The mob was waiting for other minority teens to come to a birthday party that Gina Feliciano, 18, was having. Feliciano was the ex-girlfriend of Keith Mondello. Four shots were fired and Hawkins fell to the ground. He was rushed to Maimonides Hospital and was pronounced dead upon arrival.
A few letters and interviews with lawyers after my initial contact from Fama, I decided I wanted to make the trip to upstate New York and visit the man portrayed as a racist monster for all these years. After seven hours of driving from my Long Island home, I approached the picturesque town of Dannemora, N.Y. I couldn’t help but notice beautiful Lake Champlain and the perfectly painted mountains, but as I became closer to the maximum security prison this huge wall took over the beautiful scenery. The wall, about 30-feet high, surrounds the front of the prison. I parked my car and made my way into the first of security checkpoints. After an hour of waiting, I.D. checks and metal detectors, I was able to come face to face with Fama.
Eight teens faced charges in Hawkins’s killing, but only four were convicted. The most attention gathered around Fama, then 18, and Mondello, then 19. Mondello was later convicted of being the leader of the mob that set upon the four African-American teenagers.
After the jury deliberated for 11 days, Fama was convicted of murder in the second degree – that is, murder as a result of acting with “depraved indifference.” This was the longest jury deliberation in New York City for a homicide case at the time. Under New York State law, depraved-indifference murder means that a defendant acted with a “callous disregard for human life,” resulting in the victim’s death. Fama was found not guilty of first-degree – intentional, premeditated — murder because the jury could not be certain that he fired the fatal shots. The gun was never found. He was sentenced to 32 and 2/3 years to life.
During the Mondello trial, Feliciano’s mother, Phyllis D’Agata, testified that she saw an outline of a gun in Mondello’s pants just before those fatal shots were fired. According to a New York Times report, she also testified that she heard a conversation from her second-floor window between Mondello and Joseph Serrano. She told the court that she had heard Mondello say, ”Let’s club the niggers,” and then heard Serrano respond, ”Let’s not club the niggers. Let’s shoot them and show Gina.” In cross-examination of D’Agata, Stephen Murphy, Mondello’s lawyer, said there were some inconsistencies in various accounts she had given.
Mondello was acquitted of murder, but the jury convicted him of rioting, unlawful imprisonment, menacing, discrimination and possession of a weapon. He was sentenced to 5⅓ to 16 years in prison, but later had his sentence reduced to four to 12 years and was paroled in 1998 after serving eight years at the Attica Correctional Facility. There were two separate juries for Fama and Mondello because legal rules require that some of the prosecution’s evidence could not be used against both defendants.
John S. Vento was charged with rioting and served eight years behind bars. Pasquale Raucci was convicted of unlawful imprisonment and given community service in result from his charge with unlawfully possessing a weapon; the other convictions were dropped. Serrano was found guilty of possession of a bat and sentenced to 150 hours of community service. The other three men — Charles Stressler, James Patino and Steven Curreri — were acquitted of all charges.
During my interview with Fama, he said there was not enough strong reliable evidence to convict him, but in a recent interview with Brooklyn Ink, the lead prosecutor on the case rebutted. “You have to go where the evidence takes you, we charged everybody that we could legitimately charge with the evidence we had,” said Paul Burns, executive assistant district attorney in charge of trials. “In a case like that, you will hear complaints from both sides, some people will say that it’s outrage that anyone was convicted and arrested, and other people are going to say they should have arrested 20 or 30 people. But you can only charge the people that you have evidence against.”
Two of the three alternative jurors on the panel told the New York Times in 1990 they would have acquitted Fama of murder. “The three strongest witnesses for the prosecution were not believable, and that would give me reasonable doubt,” said alternate juror Gloria Weinrich. Fama agrees and pointed out many things he believes to be inconsistencies in his case and has since appealed eight times exhausting all of his legal options.
The main witness in the case was Franklin Tighe. Tighe said he saw Fama shoot Hawkins, but Tighe also had a long history of mental illness, which the prosecutor in the case acknowledged in a recent interview with the Brooklyn Ink. “Tighe identified Joey as the shooter,” Burns said. “But he did have a long history of mental illness… a stack of records, that was very high. He had been in and out of various institutions and treated for various illnesses. And given different psychotropic drugs to treat them. But that was all disclosed to the defense.”
“One of the things jurors have to do is they have to access credibility, they have to say, ‘Do I believe this person?’” said Jonah Bruno, deputy director of public information for the Brooklyn District Attorney.
Two other witnesses in the case were two well-known jail-house informants, Robert Russo and Charles Brown, also known as “Cee Cee.” Both had informed in other cases.
When asked in a recent interview about Russo, Fama said, “I say ‘liar’ because that is what he is. I just met this guy and the officers were telling everyone to stay away from Russo because he worked for the D.A.’s office. So why would I confess to him? Makes no sense.”
Burns responded by saying, “Trusting someone in jail: that is a question for the jurors. Robert Russo comes in and has a lot of baggage, has a long criminal record, which we disclosed to the defense. He was a convicted con artist and swindler with a long criminal career. Joey had talked to him while they were incarcerated together. So we wanted to use the statements that Joey Fama said to Robert Russo.”
Fama says he never confessed to anything while incarcerated. During his time in the protective custody unit of the Brooklyn House of Detention in September of 1989, Russo said Fama admitted “he popped him because he was a nigger.”
Judge Owens refused to allow a witness, Al Russo, to testify about a conversation he said he had with his son in September. Russo would have testified that his son Robert told him that ”he was looking to make a deal and would lie if he had to to make that deal,” David DePetris, Fama’s defense lawyer, told reporters in 1990. And in a letter from James E. Kohler, former deputy district attorney, to Pilar McDermick, who was the senior counsellor for the Eastern Correction Facility, he said that Russo “gave testimony that was most helpful in the prosecution… therefore, I recommend that he be considered for a work release program.” The letter was dated September 11, 1990.
Mike McAlary, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, wrote about Charles Brown, the second prison informant. in an article titled “Under new suit, same old Cee Cee.” The article in the Daily News which ran April 20, 1990 said that “Cee Cee’s jailhouse confessions were legend.” In Brown’s testimony, he quoted Fama as saying, “What the f—. I shot him. I shot him; I can’t bring the guy back. My lawyer’s going to take care of it. I’m going to plead insanity.”
“Cee Cee is a very smart guy,” a law enforcement official said to McAlary. “He reads the papers and then adds in a little bit of hearsay.” Brown became known in 1986 when he testified against Fat Cat Nichols for the execution of his parole officer. He also testified against mobster Fritzy Giovanelli saying that he confessed to him for the killing of Detective Anthony Vendetti. Brown later became known as The Pope of Rikers Island.
During our recent interview, Fama spoke about Brown: “Keep in mind what I’m accused of. Charles Brown is African-American — why would I confess to him for? Who opens up to someone the first day you meet them? Who does that?”
Burns, the prosecutor, said that Brown’s personality is not relevant. “Is Mr. Brown a nice guy?” he said. “No, but, he is a piece. So when you look at it all lined up together, then you have enough or at least it turned out we had enough.”
During the trial, Judge Thaddeus Edgar Owens described to the jurors the theory of acting in concert and described this to them during the deliberation explaining that in an orchestra, the cymbal player although having a small part in the orchestra, he is still acting in concert. This was the theory jurors said they used to finally convict Fama after 11 days of deliberation. The jurors decided that if Fama didn’t have anything to do with the incident, he wouldn’t have been there. Douglas Nadjari, a prosecutor who worked on Stressler’s case, said Judge Owens was the “fairest judge he ever knew.” Owens died in 2007 at age 88.
Fama’s account of what happened that night puts the gun in someone else’s hands. That night, Fama said, he came home from work, dressed, attended a wake then went home to change and met his friends. It was then that he was told something was going to happen on 68th Street and 20th Ave. “All I had I to do was take two steps to my left and I was home,” Fama said in a letter. “Instead I wanted to see what was happening. My parents would always tell me: ‘Your friends are going to get you in trouble one of these days.’ But when you’re young, who is trying to listen to that. I was 18-years-old when this happened, you think you know everything.”
James DiPietro, a Bensonhurst native and defense lawyer for Joseph Serrano, was interviewed by Lynn S. Chancer for her book High-Profile Crimes: When Legal Cases Become Social Causes. She asked DiPietro about his hometown and he replied: “When I was a teenager and all my friends… would have said, there’s a big fight tonight going on around the corner, I would have probably been on the corner with my friends… Cause when you’re a kid in your teens, that’s a big-time importance … now if I would have heard guns, don’t get me wrong, then I’m home in my basement.”
Fama said he would have taken a lie-detector test but his lawyer said it wouldn’t matter. “Everyone was on the verge of a race war if someone wasn’t convicted of this crime. I was the sacrificed lamb,” Fama said. “What chance did I really have? Everything the D.A. wanted, the judge would allow. If I wanted to present something into evidence, it would be denied.”
DePetris, said he repeatedly challenged the judge about the rulings. ”I was extremely restricted by the judge in terms of putting in my defense,” the lawyer said outside court to the New York Times in 1990.
Fama wanted to present a video of Franklin Tighe recanting his testimony to DePetris, made on May 7, 1990 at 7 p.m. in DePetris’ former office at 150 Broadway. Burns said that the video came up while the trial was in progress and there was a hearing about it since it was a last minute. However, Judge Owens decided that he wasn’t going to allow it in. His reasoning that it was not reliable given the timing of it, he was suspicious of the circumstances under which the video was taken.
In many trials, evidence is not permitted to be put in front of the jury because it is collateral, meaning evidence of another piece of evidence. Burns followed up saying that there’s a rule that says extrinsic evidence on a collateral issue in generally not admissible. “All that means is, you don’t want the jurors to get side tracked, and be lead down a garden path that doesn’t really have anything to do with the issue they have to decide.”
In this case, the judge decided that it was collateral.
In an affidavit filed in court on July 10, 1997, Tighe stated that he wishes to recant his entire testimony because he felt testified falsely. “I testified wrongfully and untruthfully and because of my actions I feel I sent Joseph Fama to prison for a crime that he didn’t commit,” the affidavit read. He continued to say that he was not present at the time of the shooting at 69th Street and that he never saw Fama shoot anyone. He went on saying that he provided a video tape in 1990 that will further support his affidavit. Tighe finished by saying that he wanted to “right that wrong.”
Burns said Tighe was a strong point in the case.
“I just think that the facts of the case really helped us,” he said. “I think that when you have a case that jurors want to do the right thing, they really do. And if you can help them find a way to get there, if you can give them enough evidence to get there, then they are going to go there. This was obviously a major event, and I think it really mattered to them.”
For his part, Fama continues to echo the words of his lawyer, DePetris, in 1990: ”Yes, the death of Yusuf Hawkins was a tragedy.Yes, whoever shot, and whoever the prosecution proves shot, Yusuf Hawkins should be punished. Your focus is whether they have proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Joseph Fama was involved in it.”
When asked by the Brooklyn Ink what he would say to Diane Hawkins, Yusef’s mother, Fama wrote, “ I am truly sorry for your loss. If I can change anything, I would in a minute. I can’t possibly know what you are going through.” He continued, “I hope one day you can find it in your heart to forgive me if you feel I have caused this heartache. I am truly sorry for everything that has happened.
He underlined the words “if you feel.”
Fama is in the Assessment and Program Preparation Unit. According the N.Y. State Department of Correctional Services , the APPU “is a program for inmates in need of protective custody in the system or who may be prone to victimization because of the nature of their crime.” The APPU has 258 beds at the Clinton Correctional Facility.
Since being in jail, Fama has received his G.E.D and many certificates including Aggression Replacement Training, Inmate Program Associate, HIV/AIDS Peer Educator Training and a Department of Labor Apprenticeship Training. He was a teaching aide for five years and is a certified paralegal. Fama has completed all of his required programs in this unit. In 2002, he was placed on the waiting list to become a porter. His first porter job was feeding convicts that were locked up from disciplinary infractions. Then he was a painter. “I don’t do it for the money,” Fama said in one of his last letters. He does it to break up his time and get away from everyone.
Lives were changed forever on the night Hawkins was murdered. Damon Fleming, a close friend to Hawkins, told the New York Times in 1990 that the jury had ”no other choice but to return a guilty verdict. Yusef was one of my best friends and I wish I could somehow let Bensonhurst know what I lost when they killed him, he said.”
Hawkins is buried in the Evergreen Cemetery in Brooklyn.
Fama explained that he thinks of that night everyday. “The past is the past. I live with it every single day,” he wrote. “There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think of that night. If I could change anything, I would of [sic] never went to 68th or 69th street to be part of something that I knew nothing about that night. If I would have known what was going on that night, I would have tried to stop it.”
Fama said he believes the truth will set him free and clear his name. He is eligible for parole in April 2022.
Yusuf K. Hawkins was born on March 19, 1973. He is survived by his mother, Diane Hawkins, and two brother Freddie and Amir. His father Moses Stewart passed away in 2003.
According to People, Hawkins maintained an 85 average and received awards in elementary school, junior high school. His mother told People in 1990 that he wanted to be a technical engineer. Hawkins was planning to attend Transit Tech, a vocational high school in East New York.