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Lingering effects of a store scuffle Issue of race: Unhappy with the acquittal of three white men with whom he scuffled in a store, a black manin Frederick pursues a civil rights complaint.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

THURMONT -- The grainy, jumpy store video shows Paul Boone pushing Michael Watson in the chest. Jeffrey Stackhouse and Mark Boone join in, land a blow or maybe two, and now three young white men are pursuing Mr. Watson down past the coffee machines, their fists clenching.

His fists, too, are clenched, and he's backpedaling like the college basketball player he was at the time. In a matter of seconds, the video is over.

The incident it records took place more than a year ago, but people are still watching that video. In a criminal trial in Frederick, an all-white jury watched it over and over, and then acquitted Mr. Stackhouse and the Boone brothers of assault and of committing a hate crime against Mr. Watson, who is black.

Now Mr. Watson's defenders are calling that acquittal a miscarriage of justice. They're comparing the verdict with the Rodney King case in Los Angeles, in which police officers beat a black man while being videotaped and nonetheless were acquitted. They're talking about whether blacks can get fair treatment from a white court system.

And they're pressing for a new federal trial on civil rights charges, trying to launch a national campaign on behalf of

the former Mount St. Mary's College star -- and passing that video around.

"I wanted it to stop at the Frederick court," Mr. Watson said, in an interview at his lawyer's office in Washington. "I just wanted to get justice. But now I see I can't get justice in a predominantly white county like Frederick."

But there are those who say the campaign by Mr. Watson's supporters is more about politics than about justice.

Foremost among them is Loyd Hopkins, a black lawyer who defended Mark Boone. He says the prosecution of his client was "cynically and politically motivated." He insists that prosecutors were trying to create a racial case where none existed.

He accuses Mr. Watson, a basketball standout since childhood who maybe was accustomed to the deference due a varsity athlete, of crying wolf when he got licked in a fight he did nothing to avoid.

In a nation where racial incidents are all too real, Mr. Hopkins says, it is inexcusable for Mr. Watson to continue to make charges even after a jury has found them to be groundless.

But Mr. Watson, 23, who grew up in Philadelphia and came to rural Emmitsburg to play college basketball, has plenty of

defenders who have seen the videotape.

They question the jury's verdict about what happened the night of Oct. 30, 1994, at the Sheetz gas station and convenience store, just off Route 15 in Thurmont.

Don Anderson was eight miles away that night, in Emmitsburg, where he is assistant coach of the Mount St. Mary's basketball team. It was Mr. Anderson who took Mr. Watson back into Thurmont the day after the fight to swear out a complaint against the trio.

Cyrus Mehri is a civil rights lawyer in Washington. He now represents Mr. Watson and is managing a campaign to bring national attention to the case.

Richard Lapchick is director of Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society, in Boston, and a veteran civil rights activist in the world of sports. He is spearheading the campaign -- making copies of the video available, writing to leaders of collegiate and professional sports organizations, civil rights groups and Congress -- although he has never met Mr. Watson.

Today the FBI is investigating the incident to see if there are grounds for a federal civil rights case against Mr. Stackhouse and the Boone brothers.

Larry Faust, an FBI spokesman in Baltimore, said the agency has received expressions of interest in the case "from all over the state," from a wide range of people.

He said he would not characterize the interest in the case as political pressure.

The central question in the incident is not what physically happened, but how to interpret what happened that night.

What did a Philadelphia-born black athlete perceive as he faced three loud white men in a town that his coach, Jim Phelan, acknowledges has a "redneck reputation"?

What did three store clerks, who are white and local, and are the only known witnesses to the fracas, perceive?

How did the jury analyze a fight that left no one seriously hurt and, on videotape, looks like a typical Saturday night set-to?

It was about 1:30 a.m. when Mr. Watson and a friend, Melanie Anacleto, walked into the store on their way back to campus after a party.

The Sheetz in Thurmont is a big, brightly lighted rest-stop sort of place, selling snack food, hot sandwiches, maps, gasoline, coffee. The store has six coffee makers in a row, public restrooms, an area with booths.

Moments later, according to both prosecutors and defense lawyers, Mark Boone, 29, of Smithsburg, came in. He was, unarguably, in an obnoxious mood.

He announced loudly that he had come in to buy some condoms, and then asked if anyone had a problem with that. He went back to the men's room to buy some from a machine, and when he emerged passed Mr. Watson in one of the store's narrow aisles.

He asked Mr. Watson, who is 6 feet 4 and weighs 190 pounds, if he had a problem about his buying condoms.

Mr. Watson replied, "I got a problem with you," according to Dino E. Flores Jr., the Frederick County assistant state's attorney who prosecuted the case against Mr. Boone and the others.

The videotape shows Mr. Boone, shorter than Mr. Watson and a little stockier, walking over to a coffee machine and pouring himself a cup. Mr. Watson follows.

At the trial, Mr. Watson testified that Mr. Boone told him, "You don't belong here. This is Klan country.

He testified that Mr. Boone used a racial epithet and called him "boy."

Neither of the two other witnesses called by the prosecution -- clerks at the store -- corroborated that allegation. Both said they had not heard any racial remarks.

The videotape has no sound. Mr. Watson's account was the sole evidence to support the hate-crime charges against the three defendants.

The video shows Mr. Watson standing almost nose to nose with Mr. Boone. Then Mr. Boone's younger brother, Paul, enters the store with Mr. Stackhouse.

The video image jumps distractingly from camera to camera within the store, but it is clear that Paul Boone walks right up to Mr. Watson, gets his attention, and in a moment shoves him hard in the chest.

The brief melee follows.

The four men left the store apparently when a Thurmont Police Department car showed up, responding to a call from a clerk, Sherry Lynn Shindledecker. Some words were exchanged on the parking lot, and then they went their separate ways. No one was arrested.

Ms. Shindledecker, who was standing closest to the fight, was never called as a witness at the trial, nor was she interviewed by prosecutors. Now living in Hagerstown, she said in an interview earlier this month that she never heard Mark Boone use any racial epithets.

"And I don't believe he did say anything," she said. "But Boone did push Mike first. He started the fight. I told them to stop, and I called the police."

Although it is not clear on the video, she said the three white men managed to throw Mr. Watson onto a counter, where they were pummeling him. "But Mike was putting up a fight," she said.

Another clerk who was there that night, who agreed to be interviewed if she were not identified, said:

"In my mind, race wasn't it. I didn't hear it. It was just man-to-man. They got mad and it turned into a free-for-all. I was afraid he was going to beat them to a pulp, or they would beat him to a pulp, I didn't know which. But he strode out like an athlete."

More than a year later, after several procedural delays, the trial against the three defendants got under way at the county courthouse in Frederick.

Misdemeanor assault and battery charges had been filed shortly after Mr. Watson swore out his complaint against the Boones and Mr. Stackhouse. After he was interviewed by prosecutors, the hate-crime charge, also a misdemeanor, was added.

Sixty people were on the panel from which the jury was selected when the three-day trial opened in late November. All were white.

"Factually," said Mr. Flores, "it was a very simple case. It started with the tape and it ended with the tape."

The prosecution called two store clerks in addition to Mr. Watson. In an aggressive cross-examination, Mr. Hopkins apparently rattled Mr. Watson, and this had its effect on the jury, according to interviews with several jurors.

The defense called only one witness: Larry Boone, father of the Boone brothers, who testified that Mr. Watson had incorrectly identified the man who first pushed him. It was Paul, not Mark.

The jurors were surprised that no other witnesses were called.

"The racial [charge] gave us no trouble at all," said juror Philip Lindenstruth, a biologist with the Environmental Protection Agency who lives in Frederick.

Jurors quickly agreed there was insufficient evidence to convict on the hate-crime count.

"I don't think the white person went in to confront the black person, and it was the black person who spoke up," he said.

"The assault and battery was tough," Mr. Lindenstruth said. "But it's very difficult to get something out of that tape. It depends on the interpretation."

Said another juror, who requested that she not be identified, "It wasn't as clear in some parts as you wanted it to be. You saw aggression on both sides. To me, parts of it looked like little boys playing."

"All parties concerned had any number of opportunities to walk away," Mr. Lindenstruth said. "And that is the saddest part of all -- it didn't have to happen. But no one would back down once the juices started to flow."

Mr. Watson takes strong exception to that view.

"I'm not running away from a convenience store where some guy is telling me I don't belong," he said. If the clerks didn't hear any racial epithets, he added, it was because they didn't want to.

L His supporters also view the tape differently from the jury.

"It's very easy to see who goes after who first," said Mr. Anderson, the assistant coach, who helped investigators transfer the store tape to a standard-format tape because Mount St. Mary's is one of the few places in northern Frederick County that has the necessary equipment.

"It's very easy to tell who's the aggressor," he said.

"It was a disgrace," said Mr. Mehri. "If three black kids were on tape beating up a white kid, they'd be in jail right now."

"I thought it was as clear as it could possibly have been," said Mr. Lapchick. "There was no ambiguity at all.

"Often, white jurors have an expectation of what happened, and see it through those eyes. When whites and blacks have a conflict and it goes to trial, there's plenty of history to discourage African-Americans about the outcome."

Mr. Lapchick, in a column he wrote for the Sporting News, points out that a Klan rally, and a counter-demonstration, were held in Annapolis a few hours before the incident at the Sheetz store.

"Those tensions," he wrote, "clearly spilled over across the state into Thurmont, which was near the home of the leader of the Maryland Klan."

Thurmont has had a history of Klan activity, but Mr. Lapchick has no evidence that the three defendants are linked to the Klan. Prosecutors, who were looking for material to support the hate-crime charge, also could find no Klan link.

"It's not against the law to be a white man from Thurmont," said Mr. Hopkins, the defense attorney. "And it's not against the law to get into an argument with a black man. My client is being demonized. But the system worked. It's not the Rodney King case."

Mr. Watson's back was hurt in the incident and he missed about three games for Mount St. Mary's, "none of importance," according to Mr. Phelan, the team's head coach. The injury was not serious.

"It wasn't the physical injury -- it was the mental trauma he went through," Mr. Phelan said.

A forward, Mr. Watson was the "sixth man," the first one off the bench, the spark plug when the team began flagging.

As the season started last year, he was having trouble. Mr. Anderson said he was in what athletes call a "zone" -- but it was the wrong zone. He couldn't concentrate on the game. He ran into foul trouble often. He missed free throws.

Finally, in a game against Marist College, Mr. Watson was facing three free throws. Mr. Anderson took him aside.

" 'Michael, are you going to be a man, or are you going to be a little boy?' " he demanded. "And that's when he decided. He made it back mentally."

Mr. Watson went on to become the team's third-highest scorer, was second in rebounding and second in blocked shots -- even while playing every game but one off the bench.

Mount St. Mary's won the Northeast Conference -- after Mr. Watson sank six free throws in a row against Rider College -- and made it to the NCAA tournament for the first time in Coach TC Phelan's 42-year career there.

Of Mount St. Mary's 1,400 undergraduates, about 5 percent are black. The adjustment for many of them can be difficult, especially for those who have come to the small-town college from a big city, according to Andre Smith, director of multicultural affairs. Young African-Americans find themselves stuck in a largely white world, he said, out of their "comfort zone."

Mr. Watson did indeed have some troubles at first -- he was diagnosed with a slight learning disability, he said -- but he managed to bear down and overcome them. He did have one advantage over some of the other black students, besides his basketball talent.

He had come to Mount St. Mary's from Roman Catholic High School in Philadelphia, where about 30 percent of the students are black and most of the rest are working-class whites.

The young Michael Watson, who lived in the West Philadelphia neighborhood of Mantua, had moved easily in that world, remembered Sal Poidomani, assistant principal for student affairs. He was used to living in an integrated setting.

"I was always taught to judge a person by the caliber of that person," Mr. Watson said, and not by race.

Those who know him insist that he is a mild-mannered, even self-effacing young man.

"He never, ever got into any trouble," Mr. Poidomani said. "He did his work. He wasn't a wise guy."

Mr. Watson's mother was especially interested in his going to Mount St. Mary's because it would be a chance to get away from the dangers of big-city life.

"He was not the kind of guy who went looking for trouble," Coach Phelan said.

"I only wish Michael had been more macho -- we might have won some more games," said Mr. Anderson.

Mr. Watson graduated with his class in June and decided to stay in Frederick County. He works for a used car dealer in Frederick and is preparing to start a part-time master's of business administration course this spring.

Mr. Watson said he had not made a public issue of the incident last year because he did not want any further distractions.

"I wanted it that way," he said. "I wanted to keep the team and the school out of the publicity."

He said he figured the court system would take care of the whole incident.

But the acquittals astonished him.

"I was thinking, how could these people say, no assault, no battery, no racial crime?" he said of the jury. "They were saying the tape was lying, that I was lying.

"You're telling me, I have to accept what's happening to me?"

Now his backers are trying to bring national attention to the incident.

"We have started to try to mount a national campaign," said Mr. Lapchick, who is a veteran of the anti-apartheid movement within the sports world. "We want him to know, there are people out there who care about him."

Mr. Watson wants to see a federal trial against Mr. Stackhouse and the Boone brothers, yet he seems slightly uneasy about the attention building around him.

"You had a lot of people coming out of the woodwork and jumping on the bandwagon," he said. "I thought I would have gotten more reaction by throwing free throws against Rider. But I think I'm getting more reaction from this."

As for the Boone brothers and Mr. Stackhouse, they aren't talking.

"We had a jury trial and my boys were found not guilty," said the Boones' father, Larry, at his home in Thurmont. "I figured that would be the end of it.

"Mr. Watson -- I don't know -- we don't have no hard feelings about it. The boys are OK, but it upset me a lot. We're best off keeping our mouths shut."

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