Closure On Crown Heights


Calling Lemrick Nelson Jr.’s attack on Yankel Rosenbaum a "horrendous and pathetic act of racial and religious bigotry," a federal judge sentenced him to 10 years in prison (most of it already served) on a civil rights conviction Wednesday.

The sentence, handed down exactly 12 years from the day Rosenbaum succumbed to his wounds, will likely spell the end of Nelson’s protracted journey through the legal system, an odyssey that has resulted in three trials with numerous twists and turns.

But despite the apparent exhaustion of all avenues to keep Nelson, who now admits stabbing Rosenbaum, in prison as long as possible, Rosenbaum’s family, denouncing the sentence as too light, is far from reconciled with the outcome.

"If there is any way [to pursue this], we will do it," said Norman Rosenbaum, Yankel’s brother, outside Brooklyn Federal Court after the sentencing.

"There is no closure," said Fay Rosenbaum, Yankel’s mother, who came to New York from Melbourne Australia to attend the sentencing. Referring to Nelson’s denial of the crime at a 1997 federal trial in which he was convicted of the same charge, she said: "When he didn’t do it, he got 19 and a half years. When he did do it, he got 10 years."

The first conviction was overturned by an appeals court last year because the presiding judge took race and religion into account during jury selection.

In a tearful victim’s impact statement Wednesday, Fay Rosenbaum spoke of a "profound, unnatural numbness that has only increased over time." She extolled Yankel’s "good and productive life" and denounced Nelson as a "pathological liar of criminal proportions" who "lacked the very qualities of honesty that he destroyed."

Asking for the stiffest sentence, prosecutor Lauren Resnick told Block that Nelson’s crime had a "lasting impact on the Orthodox Jewish community of this city," and insisted that Nelson was "far from changed from the man he was when he took a knife and plunged it into Yankel Rosenbaum. He has shown an utter lack of remorse and a smug sense of indignation."

But in his own statement to the judge, Nelson, clad in a blue prison shirt and tan pants, apologized for his participation in the attack "which unfortunately led to the untimely death of Yankel Rosenbaum. If there was anything I could do to bring him back I would do it in a heartbeat."

Nelson added that he now wanted to "move on" to "have a better life than the one I had in the past."

As widely expected, Block imposed the maximum sentence allowed. But because a jury ruled that Nelson was not responsible for his death, despite his admission that he carried out the attack, Nelson was sentenced to the penalty for aggravated assault, not murder.

Block, who said the death of Rosenbaum was a "natural and foreseeable consequence" of Nelson’s actions, added several years because of the nature of the crime and the use of a deadly weapon, but the maximum was 10 years. With time served and credit for good behavior, his lawyers expect him to be free in less than a year.

But Block ordered that Nelson be supervised for three years following his release, including nine months in a halfway house in Newark with an intensive job training and placement program.

"You still have a life ahead of you, unlike Mr. Rosenbaum," said Block. The judge denied a request by prosecutors to place restrictions on Nelson’s activities after his release, except to bar him from owning a weapon and ordering that he undergo psychotherapy. "You have a criminal history that shows that you are prone to becoming angry and volatile and in such a state can be dangerous to those around you," Block told Nelson. He declined to impose a substantial fine on Nelson because, he said, he has no ability to pay, but said federal law required that he be charged $50.

Following the sentencing, Norman Rosenbaum said he had expected to be joined in the courtroom by Carmel Cato, the father of Gavin Cato, whose accidental death touched off the Crown Heights riots. But he said Cato had to tend to a medical emergency with one of his other children.

On Tuesday, the 12th anniversary of the fateful day the riots erupted, the Rosenbaums ate lunch with Cato at a deli in Manhattan.

It was the third time Norman Rosenbaum and Cato had marked the anniversary together in as many years. During Nelson’s trial last May, Cato sat beside Norman Rosenbaum, on the opposite side of the courtroom from Nelson’s family and supporters.

"I think it’s fair to say that he’s supporting us," said Rosenbaum.

But Cato seemed to send a different message in an interview with the Daily Challenge, a black community newspaper, published on Wednesday. According to the paper, Cato said of his meeting with the Rosenbaums: "People might feel that I am supporting their position, but I just want to show love."

He also said "Lemrick has served his time, why won’t these people let it go," and "I’m very scared for Lemrick Nelson. If they could give him the maximum of 10 years or more they would."

Norman Rosenbaum said the comments were "inconsistent with sentiments expressed to my parents and I over a long period of time."

Cato did not return calls to his home on Thursday.

Reacting to the sentence, the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council said, "We respect the system: while we are relieved that the trial is over, we concur with the statement of Yankel Rosenbaum’s mother, …Time simply does not heal, and there is no such thing as closure."

Michael Miller, executive vice president of the Jewish Community Relations Council, said "No sentence given to Mr. Nelson would ever be sufficiently severe to balance the scales of justice."

Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding," said that while disappointed with "this unjust resolution: in no way does it reflect the current state of black-Jewish relations.