Scores of supporters of John White packed a Brooklyn courtroom Friday as an appeals panel sharply questioned his lawyer and a Suffolk County prosecutor about White's 2007 manslaughter conviction for a racially tinged shooting of a white teenager at the end of his driveway.
With both White, an African-American, and the mother of victim Daniel Cicciaro Jr. looking on, defense lawyer Richard Mischkin urged reversing the conviction in the "interests of justice" because White was defending his home against a gang intent on attacking his son.
"It was presented to a jury," responded Justice Steven Fisher, head of the four-member state Appellate Division panel. "You're asking us to undo that determination even though we haven't seen the witnesses or heard the witnesses, and the jury has."
The judges didn't tip their hands. But appeals typically are an uphill battle for the side trying to overturn a jury verdict, as Fisher's rejoinder suggested, and the judges at times seemed to be struggling to find a legal rationale for intervening in the case.
White, 56, shot an intoxicated Cicciaro, 17, who had come with four other teens to White's Miller Place home to pursue an argument with his son, Aaron.
, and tilted the playing field by barring testimony about the impact of race on White's mindset and about racist comments allegedly made by Daniel Cicciaro in the weeks before the incident.
While the packed courtroom was quiet during arguments, the pro-White crowd watching on a television in an overflow room burst into derisive laughter as prosecutor Thomas Costello told the judges, "This case is not about race. It was a series of unfortunate circumstances."
Some judges seemed to share the crowd's skepticism. Justice Randall Eng pointed out that the Suffolk district attorney's office, in opening statements to the jury, made a point of denying that race was an element - and then blocked the defense from trying to prove otherwise. If it really wasn't, Eng asked, "Why did the prosecution feel the need to make a pre-emptive strike?"