NEW YORK (Jul. 21)
The investigation into the stabbing death of Hasidic scholar Yankel Rosenbaum was mishandled from beginning to end, making it unlikely that anyone will be convicted for the crime, according to a state report on the Crown Heights riots of August 1991 that was released Tuesday.
The report, authored by Richard Girgenti, New York state’s director of criminal justice, strongly criticizes action by the police and prosecutors, from the initial investigation minutes after Rosenbaum was stabbed to the subsequent prosecution of Lemrick Nelson, a black teen-ager who was acquitted of the crime.
Rosenbaum had been attacked by a mob of black youths on the first night of rioting, hours after a black child, Gavin Cato, was accidentally killed by a Hasidic driver. Nelson, 17, was the only person prosecuted for the murder.
The state report details the ineptitude of the investigation by the police and the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office, headed by Charles Hynes.
Shortly after Rosenbaum was attacked, police apprehended at least four men and showed them to Rosenbaum. Two were released without police recording their names, and one was arrested and later released.
Although scores of people, both civilians and police officers, were at the scene of the stabbing, police did not record the names of those present, making it difficult to identify witnesses later, according to the report.
Eight days later, police failed to remedy this earlier error by canvassing only a one-block area east and west of the scene.
In the three hours before Rosenbaum died, he was not questioned by police. He was lucid at the time and could have provided a detailed account of his attack and a description of his attackers, according to the report.
Additionally, there was a significant delay in taking a statement from Nelson. Detectives testified that they obtained a confession from Nelson but did not properly document and record his statements. Nelson later refused to give a videotaped statement to the prosecution.
Police also mishandled critical physical evidence, such as a knife stained with Rosenbaum’s blood that was found on Nelson. The knife was apparently passed among three police officers and then commingled with other bloodstained evidence found on Nelson. The result was that the value of the evidence was compromised at trial, the report says.
PETITIONS PRESENTED TO JUSTICE DEPT.
Another important piece of physical evidence, Nelson’s pants, which were also stained with Rosenbaum’s blood, were handled improperly.
Because police did not document whether Nelson’s pants contained the stains when he was first caught, testimony at the trial questioned whether the blood could have resulted from his being shown to Rosenbaum later by police.
As a result of problems with evidence and inconsistencies in testimony by prosecution witnesses, the jury had ample basis for acquitting Nelson, the report states.
Based upon available information, not all of which was presented to the jury, however, the report states that “it is most probable that Lemrick Nelson participated in the attack that resulted in Yankel Rosenbaum’s death.”
Although many jurors were not convinced that Nelson inflicted the fatal stab wounds, most believed that he was present at the scene of attack and probably as a participant.
According to the jurors, if the judge had better explained the legal principle of “acting in concert,” they might have reached a different verdict.
The report criticizes the manner in which Judge Edward Rappaport presided over the case, saying comments he made during the trial appeared to have influenced the jury’s decision-making.
In light of the state report, Jewish leaders and other activists have called on U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno to step up the federal investigation into Rosenbaum’s death.
A federal inquiry by the Justice Department into the rioting and possible violations of the victims’ civil rights was initiated last year, but that investigation has been stalled for months.
Reno, who received a hand-delivered copy of the report Tuesday morning, pledged to oversee the investigation personally.
U.S. Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.) and Norman Rosenbaum, the brother of Yankel Rosenbaum, along with approximately 30 other people, marched on the Justice Department in Washington on Wednesday to deliver a petition containing 50,000 signatures calling for a full federal investigation into the Crown Heights riots.
“The government’s first and foremost role is to protect its citizens. When it fails in this responsibility, everything else becomes meaningless,” D’Amato said in a statement.
“What happened at Crown Heights was a disgrace. We need a full federal investigation into these riots.”