Killer of 11-year-old girl will not get new trial, judge rules

1969 death of Esther Lebowitz, conviction of Wayne Stephen Young galvanized Northwest Baltimore

  • Members of the Baltimore Jewish community leave Courthouse East after a hearing for Wayne Stephen Young, who was convicted in 1969 of killing 11-year-old Esther Lebowitz.
Members of the Baltimore Jewish community leave Courthouse… (Jerry Jackson, Baltimore…)
April 24, 2014|By Justin George, The Baltimore Sun

A city judge declined Thursday to order a new trial for the man found guilty of killing an 11-year-old girl in Northwest Baltimore more than four decades ago, a victory for prosecutors who sought to prevent the release of another high-profile perpetrator under a court ruling that has freed dozens of convicted murderers.

The decision means Wayne Stephen Young will remain in prison for the 1969 abduction and death of Esther Lebowitz, a case that has kept the city's Jewish community on edge through years of appeals and challenges.

"I'm not excited about keeping anyone in jail for life, and it doesn't make me happy, but in this situation that's where he belongs," said Neil Schachter, president of the Northwest Citizens Patrol, one of the nation's first crime-watch organizations. "He's a very dangerous person."

Young's latest challenge was particularly alarming to Schachter and others because he based it on the 2012 ruling by the state's highest court that found that improper jury instructions had rendered many convictions before 1980 invalid.

In the so-called Unger ruling, the court found that juries were wrongly told that they could interpret the law as they wished, which led to unfair outcomes.

Baltimore Circuit Judge Edward Hargadon said Thursday that the jurors who decided Young's verdict in 1972 were adequately advised of how to try the case.

"While this Court acknowledges that the instructions could have been more crisp, the test is not whether the instructions were perfect, but whether they were, as a whole, sufficient," Hargadon wrote in his decision. "After examining the instructions in their totality, the Court finds them to be sufficient and constitutionally sound."

Young's defense attorney, Erica J. Suter, said she would appeal Hargadon's ruling. Michael Millemann, a University of Maryland law professor who has been closely involved in several similar cases, called the judge's decision "very disappointing."

"It's ... not a fair application of the Unger ruling," Millemann said.

The decision has proved difficult for prosecutors faced with either recreating decades-old cases or letting once-convicted criminals walk free — and for familes forced to relive their losses.

State's Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein's office has made deals to release many prisoners under the ruling, agreeing to modified sentences for inmates who agree to drop their retrial requests. Bernstein has said he would make such arrangements only with convicts who are not a threat to the public.

Some of those deals have proved controversial — such as the March release of former Black Panther Marshall "Eddie" Conway, convicted in a 1970 shooting in which one police officer was killed and another injured.

Conway agreed to abandon his court fight in exchange for his release on time served. Supporters, who maintained that Conway was railroaded during a racially charged era, hailed the deal. But it angered the family of the slain officer and the police union.

Bernstein has said he will work to keep violent offenders behind bars. In a statement, he praised Hargadon's ruling.

"Had the Court ruled otherwise, we would have continued our legal fight to keep this defendant where he belongs for taking the life of a child — in prison," Bernstein said.

Esther Lebowitz disappeared on Sept. 29, 1969, after a rabbi dropped her off on Park Heights Avenue.

Her body was found days later in a field off the side of the road with injuries including 17 lacerations to her head, which a medical examiner believed were caused by a hammer. Part of her body was covered in sand and blue paint, which led authorities to the tropical fish store in Park Heights where Young worked.

Young, then in his early 20s, confessed to investigators that he had killed the girl. His attorneys claimed he was temporarily insane. Jurors convicted him in less than 30 minutes.

The brutality of Esther's death sent shock waves through Northwest Baltimore.

"It wasn't just the Jewish community — it was the whole area," Schachter said. "What Kennedy was to the United States, Esther Lebowitz was to the Northwest area. People will tell you, 'I know where I was when I heard about Esther Lebowitz.'"

Schachter said the event still echoes. That was apparent late last month, when 200 members of the Jewish community packed courtroom benches and lined walls for Young's most recent hearing.

Similar demonstrations of community solidarity have marked the decades since Esther's death. Schachter said he has attended three hearings at which Young requested release.

He said someone had to represent Esther and her family, who relocated to Israel decades ago.

"It's important because you have an individual who was mercilessly killed, and that person is not here anymore," he said. "That person is gone. Her family is gone."

Schachter said a prosecutor called him Thursday morning to inform him of the decision, and he immediately sent the word out through a Northwest Citizens Patrol email list, website and Twitter and Facebook accounts.

"We thank the community for their outpouring of support in protest of Young receiving a new trial," he wrote on the Facebook page. "It is clear from the Judge's words at the end of the hearing that the community presence made a difference."

Baltimore Sun reporter Ian Duncan contributed to this article.

jgeorge@baltsun.com

twitter.com/justingeorge

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