Justice lost in Crown Heights

January 15, 2002|By Sheryl McCarthy

HOWLS WENT up in Brooklyn, N.Y., and as far away as Australia when a federal appeals court ordered a new trial for Lemrick Nelson, the young black man who was convicted of stabbing to death Yankel Rosenbaum, an Orthodox Jew, during a Crown Heights race riot in 1991.

Fine. Since the trial judge played musical chairs in choosing several of the jurors, a new trial is called for.

What has always smelled fishy about this case, however, is not Nelson's conviction. The evidence against him is overwhelming.

It's the conviction of Nelson's co-defendant, Charles Price, the now 48-year-old black man who was found guilty of inciting the mob that attacked Rosenbaum. The appeals court has ordered a new trial for him, too.

Price, a drug addict and petty criminal, was pulled into the case primarily to help the prosecutors win a conviction against Nelson. And ironically, because of his record, he's serving more time for the crime (21 years) than Nelson (20 years) is.

The Crown Heights riot was one of the most painful incidents in New York City's history.

Black residents, chafing from years of preferential treatment of Jewish residents by city officials and enraged by the killing of a black boy by a car from then-Lubavitcher Rabbi Menachem Schneerson's motorcade, engaged in a night of violence and vandalism that included several clashes with their Orthodox neighbors.

An unsuspecting Rosenbaum, who was walking to his home, ran into an angry crowd of blacks and was attacked and stabbed fatally.

Nelson was acquitted in the state murder trial because prosecutors put on a poor case while the defense raised doubts about the stabber's identity.

In the Jewish community, there was outrage that Rosenbaum's murderer had gotten off scot-free.

Five years later, federal prosecutors arrested Nelson, charging that by stabbing Rosenbaum, he had violated Rosenbaum's civil rights.

To make the case, they had to show that the stabbing involved racial or religious bias.

They also arrested Price, with his long record of drug offenses, petty larceny and domestic violence, and charged him with inciting the attack on Rosenbaum with anti-Jewish rhetoric.

At the second trial, the prosecution's evidence against Nelson was more compelling than in the state trial: not only a bloody knife, allegedly taken from Nelson's pants pocket after the stabbing, but testimony from Nelson's girlfriend and another friend that he had confessed to the crime.

The evidence against Price, who wasn't even a defendant in the first trial, was more iffy.

The prosecution offered three videotapes of events in Crown Heights that night. On one, an agitated Price asked a group of blacks at the accident scene if they felt the same kind of pain he was feeling. There were no other discernible words from him.

Several witnesses testified that they saw and heard angry blacks making anti-Jewish remarks such as "Get the Jew!" and heard a bald-headed black man (like Price) discussing their shared pain and asking the crowd what they were going to do about it.

Another videotape showed a bald-headed black man following the crowd down President Street.

One witness to the attack on Rosenbaum, at President Street and Brooklyn Avenue, said he heard a voice that sounded like the voice of the bald-headed black man.

A race riot was going on that night. A black child was dead, and people were mad about it. There were clashes between blacks and Jews. Hostile remarks were undoubtedly made on both sides. Price, who stumbled onto the accident scene more than two hours after it occurred - from the halfway house for drug addicts where he was staying - went off on a verbal tirade.

Whether he said "Get the Jew!" or others in the crowd said it, whether his remarks were those of a man expressing pain and anger at a bloody scene or of someone calling for an attack on Jews, whether Nelson even heard him and whether Price was ever at the scene of the stabbing remain unclear to me after perusing the trial transcript.

What is clear is that Nelson, not Price, stabbed Rosenbaum, and that Price's angry, anguished sentiments were expressed by a lot of people who were on the streets of Crown Heights that night.

One could argue that the trial jury weighed the evidence and decided that Price was indeed the instigator. But it wouldn't be the first time that a ne'er-do-well who was considered expendable was used to obtain a conviction that was demanded by the public.

That's something that the next jury ought to think about.

Sheryl McCarthy is a columnist for Newsday, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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