Verdict in N.Y. reopens wound in Baltimore case

February 16, 1997|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Two hundred miles from Baltimore, a Brooklyn, N.Y., jury last week convicted two men of violating the civil rights of a Hasidic Jew named Yankel Rosenbaum, who was stabbed to death during the 1991 Crown Heights race riots. In the modern vernacular, sometimes they take the word murder and substitute the term hate crime in the search for justice.

Kenneth Lee heard the news out of Brooklyn, and it slashed at the wound that never heals. How is there such a verdict in New York, he wondered, and not in Baltimore, where his son, Joel Lee, 21, was murdered in front of witnesses two years ago and the courts and the prosecutors let his killer slip away?

In New York when justice was mocked, the system righted itself; in Baltimore, 18 months after a jury in Circuit Court heartlessly sloughed off Joel Lee's murder, federal officials with the chance to find truth, to look for the same kind of justice here that was done in New York, decided last month that they could do nothing.

"Why?" Kenneth Lee asked one night last week. After two years, the emotional wounds haven't healed. His wife has been devastated by the murder. His second son, a college senior, withdraws from all talk of it. The Korean community, lately stunned by a series of shootings, talks of conspiracies and unequal justice.

And on Charles Street the other night, Kenneth Lee talked about bringing his family here from Korea 24 years ago, and about America embracing them.

"But look," he said plaintively, "I could not protect my family."

"You can't blame yourself for what happened to Joel," he was told.

"Yes," he replied softly. "Yes."

He should blame others - for the killing, and for the disgrace that has followed. In Circuit Court, four eyewitnesses testified that they saw a man named Davon Neverdon fire the shots that killed Joel Lee. Two others said Neverdon told them he'd done it. Neverdon, convinced he was on his way to a guilty verdict, offered to plead guilty in exchange for a 40-year sentence. Kenneth Lee and his wife said: No deals on the murder of their child.

When the jury came back with its verdict after 11 hours of deliberating, it landed like a body blow. Neverdon was not guilty, jurors said. It stunned much of Baltimore, and it caused the pointing of fingers: at the case in New York, and at the Neverdon jury.

In New York in the summer of 1991, Lemrick Nelson was acquitted by a mostly black jury in the stabbing of Yankel Rosenbaum - even though he had a bloodstained knife in his pocket and was photographed wearing pants soaked in blood, and three witnesses, including a former girlfriend, said they heard him confess to the stabbing.

His acquittal in 1992 brought such public outrage that U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno launched an investigation. (While this was going on, Nelson got himself arrested several more times, and pleaded guilty to slashing a kid with a razor.)

Nelson was indicted two years later - on federal charges of violating the civil rights of Rosenbaum because he was a "Jewish person" in a public street. Also indicted was Charles Price, who was charged with inciting a mob to "get Jews."

Last week, when a jury of five whites (two of them Jewish), three blacks and four Hispanics found Nelson and Price guilty of violating the civil rights of Rosenbaum - a federal charge originally put on the statutes in order to protect blacks from persecution from racist aggressors and indifferent local juries - Baltimore was already witnessing a mirror effect here.

For months, federal authorities had investigated the possibility of bringing such civil rights charges in the Joel Lee murder. Not only had the original not-guilty verdict against Davon Neverdon seemed an outrage, but there was added impetus: assertions from Neverdon's uncle, Eric Dewitt Dunsen, that his nephew "hates Koreans,"

No dice. Dunsen, a career criminal with a history of perjury, was considered a bad witness. He continues to sit in his prison cell. As does Neverdon, currently doing three years on narcotics charges. As prosecutors see it, Neverdon was looking for money when he shot Joel Lee, and it didn't matter whose money it was.

This is not New York and the clear case of ethnic antagonism, prosecutors say; this was just a routine outrage for which there are no legal statutes.

"The hardest thing is to say no," U.S. Attorney Lynn Battaglia said at week's end. Yes, she knew about the verdict in New York; yes, she wished the same statute might have been used here; but, no, there was no chance of the case being reopened.

"We needed credible evidence that race was a factor," Battaglia said. "The city looked at the hate- crime statute and couldn't make it work. The FBI looked at it. We looked at it, and so did our civil rights division, independent of us.

"The uncle just isn't credible, and there isn't further evidence that this was a hate crime. It's tragic.

"The tragedy is the loss of a son, and a jury acquitting someone who everyone believed was guilty. That's the tragedy."

Battaglia has met with the Lee family, and with others in Baltimore's Korean community. She said she is trying to find ways to honor Joel Lee's memory. She says she wants to find ways to heal relations between the black and Korean communities.

"At this moment," she said, "I understand that we're perceived as part of the problem. We want to be part of the solution."

There may be no words - in English, or in Korean - to translate such sentiment to the family of Joel Lee.

Pub Date: 2/16/97

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