Thomas Demakos, Judge in Howard Beach Murder Case, Dies at 98

Thomas A. Demakos, the New York State Supreme Court justice who delivered a landmark ruling that lawyers for three white defendants could not automatically exclude Black people from the jury in a notorious, racially-motivated murder case in the Howard Beach section of Queens in 1987, died on Feb. 22 at his home in Queens. He was 98.

His death was confirmed by a nephew, Michael Demakos.

The case began on Dec. 20, 1986, when a group of white youths severely beat three Black men whose car had broken down outside a pizza parlor in Howard Beach, a predominantly white neighborhood. One of the victims, 23-year-old Michael Griffith, fled on foot onto a parkway, where he was fatally struck by a passing car.

When Justice Demakos (pronounced dah-MAH-kohs) sentenced the first three defendants to prison for up to 30 years for manslaughter and assault, he declared: “What should be obvious to everyone here is that racism breeds hatred and hatred breeds racism and it is a vicious circle.”

In upholding the convictions, an appeals court rejected the defense’s argument that the judge had denied the defendants a fair trial because he had refused to let their lawyers reject jurors on the basis of their race.

In 1986, the United States Supreme Court ruled against a similar bias in jury selection, but that decision concerned the screening of potential jurors by the prosecution, not the defense.

Mr. Demakos played a key role in several other marquee cases as a presiding judge and earlier as a prosecutor.

In 1968, as an assistant district attorney in Queens, he successfully prosecuted two people who professed to be Black revolutionaries — Herman B. Ferguson, a former assistant principal in the city’s public schools, and Arthur Harris — on charges of conspiring to kill two national civil-rights leaders, Roy Wilkins and Whitney M. Young Jr. While free on bail pending appeal, however, both defendants fled. Mr. Ferguson absconded to Guyana in South America, returned in 1989 and was imprisoned for several years. Mr. Harris made his way to Sweden.

In 1971, Mr. Demakos secured the conviction of Alice Crimmins, a former cocktail waitress, who was depicted as “a modern-day Medea” for killing her 5-year-old son, which brought a murder charge, and her 4-year-old daughter, resulting in a manslaughter charge, in 1965.

The Appellate Division of State Supreme Court overturned the conviction in 1968, in part because of Mr. Demakos’s statement during his summation that Ms. Crimmins “doesn’t have enough courage to stand up and tell the world she killed her children!” But New York’s highest tribunal, the Court of Appeals, reinstated the verdict.

In 1974, Mr. Demakos prosecuted Thomas J. Shea, the first New York City police officer indicted on charges of murder committed in the course of duty. The officer, a white man, had shot a 10-year-old Black boy, Clifford Glover, in South Jamaica, Queens, in what he said was self-defense. An all-white jury acquitted him, and the shooting and the verdict spawned riots.

In 1989, as some 250 police officers in the courtroom cheered, Justice Demakos sentenced a 23-year-old drug dealer to the maximum of 25 years to life in prison for the murder of Edward Byrne, a rookie New York City police officer, the previous year.

“This vile act was also a deadly declaration of war against the very foundations of our society and a defilement of the cornerstone on which our criminal-justice system is based,” Justice Demakos said during the sentencing.

He was born Anastasisos Demakos, a son of Greek immigrants, on Nov. 28, 1923, in Manhattan and raised in the Bronx. (He was at Yankee Stadium in 1939 when Lou Gehrig delivered his famous “luckiest man in the world” speech.) His father, Gust C. Demakos, was a restaurant owner. His mother, Jane (Chrisomalis) Demakos, was a homemaker. He legally changed his name to Thomas in 1955.

After serving in the Marine Corps from 1943 to 1946, he earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting from Long Island University in 1949 and a master’s in business administration from New York University in 1952.

He practiced accounting for several years but became bored and enrolled in N.Y.U.’s School of Law, graduating in 1957. He was named an assistant prosecutor in 1962, after the Greek Orthodox Church flexed its political muscle for the appointment of a Greek American to the district attorney’s office. He was made chief assistant in 1975.

Justice Demakos served on the Criminal Court from 1980 to 1985. He was elected to the Supreme Court in 1985 and served until 1999, when he reached the mandatory retirement age of 76. He was a judicial hearing officer until 2011.

He is survived by his wife, Mary Contovasilis, along with their sons, Dennis and James. He lived in the Astoria section of Queens.

For all the notorious cases he prosecuted or presided over, Justice Demakos will probably be best remembered for his decision about racial bias in jury selection. Howard Beach was not about convicting an entire white community, he said, but nor was it “just a fight between a group of boys.”

“Make no mistake about it, no ifs ands or buts about it,” he said. “It was a racial incident that triggered this violence.”

The columnist Les Payne wrote in New York Newsday, “Free of the orthodoxy of ho-hum judicial practice,” Justice Demakos “would not allow justice again to be denied.”

As a white man in his mid-60s, a former prosecutor and a product of the Queens Democratic machine, Justice Demakos had a “background that made him seem so predictable,” Jimmy Breslin wrote in The Daily News the day after the verdict. But, he added, “he read a decision that puts him in another place forever.”

“Yesterday,” Mr. Breslin wrote, “Tom Demakos put splendor on his record.”

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