Crown Heights Trials: 1992 & 1997

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Crown Heights Trials: 1992 & 1997

Defendants: First trial: Lemrick Nelson, Jr.; second trial: Lemrick Nelson, Jr. and Charles Price
Crimes Charged: First trial: Nelson: Murder; second trial: Nelson and Price: Violation of civil rights
Chief Defense Lawyers: Nelson: Trevor L.F. Headley, Arthur Lewis, Jr., James Neuman, and Christine E. Yaris; Price: Darrell Paster and Anthony Ricco
Chief Prosecutors: Valerie Caproni, Zachary W. Carter, David C. James, Sari Kolatch, and Alan M. Vinegard
Judges: First trial: Edward M. Rappoport; second trial: David G. Trager
Place: Brooklyn, New York
Dates of Trials: First trial: September 23-October 29, 1992; second trial: January 16-February 10, 1997
Verdicts: First trial: Nelson: Not guilty; second trial: Nelson and Price: Guilty
Sentences: Second trial: Nelson: 191/2 years imprisonment, plus 5 years probation; Price: 21 years and 10 months imprisonment

SIGNIFICANCE: The significance of the Crown Heights trials depends upon one's point of view. The Hasidic community labeled the riots as "the first pogrom in America." The African-American population said the violence rose from long-standing tensions. The clash dramatized the discrimination felt by both groups: Caribbean immigrants, many without U.S. citizenship and Lubavitchers, an Orthodox Jewish sect whose insular lifestyle made them susceptible to stereotyping. Civil rights were violated and civil disorder was uncontained, if not countenanced, by the police. And finally, political pressure produced a second trial after the first resulted in an apparent mockery of justice. Did this put the defendant in double jeopardy? No, for (as the U.S. Supreme Court has consistently ruled), when the second case is brought by a separate government "sovereign," the Fifth Amendment principle that bars trying someone twice for the same crime does not apply.

At 8:30 on the evening of August 19, 1991, a motorcade carrying Hasidic Jews moved through the Crown Heights neighborhood in Brooklyn. One car ran a red light, hit another car, spun onto the sidewalk, and crashed into a wall. It hit two seven-year-olds, Gavin Cato and his cousin, Angela, pinning them under the car. The Hasidic driver was injured. Gavin, an African-American native of Guyana, was killed. Angela was injured.

Two ambulances, one Hasidic, the other non-Hasidic, arrived on the scene. In the mostly African-American crowd that quickly gathered, rumors spread that the Hasidic ambulance, which got there first, ministered to the Hasidic driver rather than the injured and dying children. As the crowd and rumors grew, people threw bottles and rocks to protest the treatment of the children. At about 11:00 p.m., someone shouted, "Let's go to Kingston Avenue and get a Jew!" A number of black youths then set off toward Kingston, a street of predominantly Jewish residents several blocks away, vandalizing cars and heaving rocks and bottles as they went.

A Bloody Knife and a Riot

One block past Kingston, 29-year-old Australian Hasidic student Yankel Rosenbaum was walking from an evening class, unaware of the nearby accident. The mob spotted him and chased him for three blocks, shouting "There's a Jew, kill the Jew!" Caught, he was stabbed repeatedly and left bleeding.

Finding a bloody knife in his pocket, the police apprehended 16-year-old Lemrick Nelson, Jr. At a "show-up" identification in the hospital, Rosenbaum positively identified Nelson as the person who stabbed him. The victim died the next day, reportedly of a back wound that had not been treated by Kings County Hospital doctors who failed to turn him over. Nelson soon made an oral confession to the police.

Rioting in Crown Heights continued for three days. During this time, according to later reports, Jewish residents were beaten up, cars were overturned and set afire, and stores were looted and firebombed. Police officers, reportedly forbidden by their commanders to respond to calls for help, in some cases were told they would be suspended if they left their posts to protect Jews who were being beaten only yards away. Finally, after three days, hundreds of police in riot gear arrived on foot, motorcycle, and horseback to restore order.

The Democratic administration of Mayor David Dinkins, an African American, was widely blamed for imposing a strategy of inaction by the police. The following year Dinkins lost his re-election bid to Republican Rudolph Guiliania result many pundits attributed to Dinkins's inept and belated response to the Crown Heights riots.

"Why Did You Stab Me?"

Nelson's background revealed that he was a special-education student who read at the third-grade level and understood math at the fifth-grade level. He was charged, as an adult, with second-degree murder.

As the trial began, the jury comprised six African Americans, four Hispanics, and two whites. Prosecutor Alan Vinegard called 10 police officers to describe the accident and riots.

The key prosecution witness was officer Mark Hoppe, who said he caught Nelson after seeing him jump a fence near the bleeding Rosenbaum; Hoppe took him back to the victim, who looked up and asked, "Why did you stab me?" Hoppe also said that in Nelson's right front pocket he found a blood-stained knife with the word "killer" painted in red on the handle.

During the cross-examination, defense lawyer Arthur Lewis, Jr., suggested that Hoppe had mishandled evidence by storing the knife and bloody dollar bills from Nelson's pocket in a paper bag he had found "someplace" in the station house.

Two officers testifying about Nelson's oral confession said he told them he had been caught up in the frenzy of the crowd. Others testified that the victim had identified Nelson as his attacker. Three forensic experts described the results of tests indicating that blood on Nelson's knife, his jeans, and the dollar bills matched Rosenbaum's.

Attorney Lewis said the defendant's confession had been coerced and that the evidence was planted by cops eager to make a quick arrest. Observers noted that the African-American defense lawyer seemed to work on the jury's sympathyputting himself in the role of victim and playing on the vulnerability of the jurors to anti-Semitic appealsprovoking Judge Edward M. Rappoport to berate him for such blatant tactics.

The jury found Nelson not guilty. Interviewed later, jurors said they did not believe police testimony that he had confessed or that he had been read his Miranda rights. They then accepted an invitation to go out to a celebratory dinner with the defendant, with defense lawyer Lewis as host.

In the meantime, Nelson moved to Atlanta, Georgia, to live with friends and go to high school. There he attacked a classmate with a razor blade for telling authorities he had stolen some money. When arrested, he was carrying a hidden scalpel. Charged with aggravated assault and carrying a concealed weapon, he pled guilty and was sentenced to 90 to 120 days in a boot camp program, three years' probation, and expulsion from the state of Georgia.

Civil Rights Charges Brought

Although Nelson could not be tried again on the murder charge, over the next year, Hasidic leaders and Yankel Rosenbaum's brother, Norman, who made many trips from his home in Australia, pressed local politicians to seek justice. In Washington, D.C., Senator Alfonse D'Amato and Congressman Charles E. Schumer worked to pass a Senate appropriations bill that carried an amendment stating " the United States Department of Justice should investigate whether any Federal criminal civil rights laws were violated as a result of (1) the murder of Yankel Rosenbaum on August 19, 1991, and (2) the circumstances surrounding the murder and accompanying riots in Crown Heights." The bill was unanimously approved.

As a result, Attorney General Janet Reno launched an investigation into the affair, and on August 10, 1994, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York charged Nelson with violating civil rights, stating that he and others "did willfully injure, intimidate and interfere with Yankel Rosenbaum, an Orthodox Jew, because of his religion and because he was enjoying the facilities provided and administered by a subdivision of the State of New York, namely, the public streets provided and administered by the City of New York, and bodily injury to and the death of Yankel Rosenbaum did result."

The charge included Charles Price, 43, who had been identified as the man who touched off the riots by shouting, "Let's go to Kingston Avenue and get a Jew!"

The Second Trial Begins

Court documentation for the second trial included transcripts of a tape secretly made in 1995 by an undercover informant who got Price to talk about the rioting. Price was quoted describing his reaction when he saw the mortally injured African-American child: "I saw that blood mix with that oil and it was like a bolt of lightning hit me, bam, and I started runnin' my mouth."

Prosecutor Valerie Caproni described for the jury of three African Americans, two Jews, three Hispanics, and four whites the "raw anger" of the attack on the victim. Witness Chaya Popack, who had not been' called to testify during the 1992 trial but who had watched the attack from her car said, "I saw them strike him again and again and again." Officer Hoppe repeated his earlier testimony about catching Nelson and finding the bloody knife, adding that he saw a "bald black man"Price was baldshouting at the crowd, "Do you feel what I feel? Let's get a Jew." Police Sergeant Richard Sanossian testified that Price's voice "was the loudest and most angry voice there, and that is the voice I was watching."

Convincing testimony came from Nelson's Atlanta girlfriend, Travionne Shaw, 20. She said Nelson had told her, "The black people in Crown Heights rioted. And some friends and him [Nelson] had been drinking, and they saw this man and were fighting him. And the police were coming, and the guy was holding his shirt, and the guy wouldn't let him go, and hehe stabbed him."

"They Set Him Up"

After two weeks of testimony from 28 witnesses, the prosecution rested. Defense attorney Christine Yaris, describing her client as a "sacrificial lamb," said the police "took the first kid they found and set him up." She asked Nelson to put on the blood-spattered, baggy jeans that police had testified he had worn during the killing. The astonished courtroom saw them fall to Nelson's knees. Then, showing photos of the jeans Nelson had actually worn that night, she noted that the belt loops were empty. "If those pants are the pants in evidence," she said, "they had no visible means of support." In rebuttal, the prosecution detailed how nine police and civilian witnesses would have had to have plotted to frame the defendant. The jury was excused and Nelson was ordered to put the pants on again. This time, they stayed up without a belt.

Price's attorney Darrell Paster described his client as a scapegoat implicated "to carry away the sins of unknown people the government can't find."

After four days of deliberations, the jury found both defendants guilty of violating Rosenbaum's civil rights. Judge David G. Trager sentenced Nelson to 191/2 years in prison, plus 5 years' probation. Price received 21 years and 10 months imprisonment. Under federal law, neither could expect parole. Lawyers for both defendants said they would appeal.

Following the trial, New York City Mayor Rudolph Guiliani formally apologized to the residents of Crown Heights and to the Rosenbaum family. The city agreed to a $1.1 million settlement of a lawsuit brought by the Hasidic community for the city's failure to protect its citizens.

Bernard Ryan, Jr.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Daughty, Reverend Herbert D. No Monopoly on Suffering: Blacks and Jews in Crown Heights and Elsewhere. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 1997.

Fletcher, George P. With Justice for Some: Victims' Rights in Criminal Trials. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1995.

Lenowitz, Harris. The Jewish Messiahs: From the Galilee to Crown Heights. New York: Oxford, 1998.

Smith, Anna Deavere. Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and Other Identities. New York: Doubleday, 1993.

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Crown Heights Trials: 1992 & 1997

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