IN FULL. Corey Kilgannon
The witnesses in the trial of a white man accused of a racially motivated beating of a black man in Howard Beach last summer had been typical for an assault case in Queens. Until yesterday.
All of the previous witnesses — the hardened detective, the newsstand owner, the pizza maker, the career criminal and other assorted neighborhood characters — had offered plain-spoken testimony about Nicholas Minucci, 20, who is charged with using a racial epithet while attacking Glenn Moore with a baseball bat on June 29, 2005.
But the final witness for Mr. Minucci was a stranger to him, to Howard Beach and to the State Supreme Court in Kew Gardens, Queens. The defense got the Harvard Law School professor Randall Kennedy to travel from Boston to testify about the current usage of the racial epithet, sometimes referred to in court as the "n" word.
The epithet has become central to the trial, as a measure of whether Mr. Minucci attacked Mr. Moore because of his skin color. Several witnesses have testified that Mr. Minucci repeatedly spewed the epithet in anger while chasing Mr. Moore and beating him on the head. Mr. Minucci insists that Mr. Moore was about to commit a robbery and that he used the word as a form of benign address before subduing him with a few swats to the side and legs.
Mr. Minucci's lawyer, Albert Gaudelli, said he hoped Professor Kennedy's testimony would convince the jury that the mere use of the epithet did not constitute racism. On the stand yesterday, Professor Kennedy's explanation of the modern usage of the word seemed to support Mr. Gaudelli's claim.
"The word is a complex word," he testified. "It has many meanings."
Professor Kennedy had just taken the stand in a packed courtroom and rattled off his impressive credentials — which include attending Princeton, Oxford and Yale, a clerkship for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and his membership in the Bar of the Supreme Court.
He said the epithet was "a word that can be put to many different uses," ranging from a pejorative term to a friendly salutation.
Mr. Gaudelli asked Professor Kennedy, who is black, about his book on the subject.
"My second book is entitled, 'Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word,' " the professor responded. Mr. Gaudelli handed him a copy of the book, and had it entered into the case as Exhibit W.
Professor Kennedy said that in modern parlance, the word could have many different meanings and was no longer restricted to use by or about black people. In fact, he said, many new immigrants use the word casually after learning it from movies, music videos and popular songs. In San Francisco, he said, the word is commonly used among young Asian immigrants.
"It is used by all sorts of people, black and white, and other groups as well," he said.
Later, outside the court, Professor Kennedy said it was the first time he had testified in a criminal trial about the use of the word. He said he had agreed to come to Queens to testify "to advance the aims of justice," but not to take Mr. Minucci's side.
"I do not feel I was championing somebody's cause," he said. "I was asked to speak as an expert witness about a particular issue. Somebody's liberties are at stake here."
Mr. Gaudelli said that when he phoned Professor Kennedy and asked him to testify, for no fee, the professor initially declined. But Mr. Gaudelli persisted.
"I said: 'Do you believe what you wrote? Are you willing to stand by it?' Do you want to deprive my client of a fair trial?' " Mr. Gaudelli recounted. "He said, 'I'll call you in the morning.' "
Asked how the testimony went, Mr. Gaudelli said: "I think I did good; I got a Rhodes scholar to testify for nothing and all I had to do is drive him to the airport."
Early on, Professor Kennedy said the epithet, which dates to the 17th century, derived its name from the Latin niger, meaning black. It "seeped into English" through Spanish and Portuguese, he said.
In the cross-examination, Mariela Herring, a Queens prosecutor, asked Mr. Kennedy, "Are you here to tell us the "n" word is no longer a derogatory term?" She then asked more directly, "Is it a derogatory term?" Professor Kennedy responded, "It can be."
She asked Professor Kennedy if he had chosen the title of his book, published in 2002, for "shock value," and she cited a newspaper interview in which he said the "catchy title" would grab attention.
Professor Kennedy said the meaning of the epithet depended on the context in which it was used. Ms. Herring asked him to assume that the context was a white man wielding a baseball bat, about to attack a black man. Justice Richard L. Buchter disallowed the question, saying Professor Kennedy could not conjecture as to what the attacker would be thinking.
Justice Buchter also denied Mr. Gaudelli's attempt to enter a chapter of Professor Kennedy's book — "The Use of the Word Today" — as evidence, for the jury to consult.
Mr. Gaudelli maintains that Mr. Minucci, growing up in Lindenwood, a racially diverse neighborhood adjacent to Howard Beach, grew up with many nonwhite friends and used the term as part of his regular vocabulary.
The lawyer insists that his client, encountering a black man carrying a bag of tools at 3 a.m. in a middle-class white neighborhood, decided that Mr. Moore was about to commit a robbery and decided to use "reasonable force" to stop him. Mr. Moore has admitted that he and his friends intended to steal a car that night.
During yesterday's proceedings, Mr. Minucci responded to a question from the judge by saying that he would not take the stand. Five of the 19 counts against Mr. Minucci were eliminated, to streamline and simplify the indictment.
Both sides are to give their closing arguments today, and the judge is expected to give the case to the jury in the afternoon.(read entire article)