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Crown Heights Ruling Sparks Ire, but Also Resolve to Live in Peace

January 9, 2002
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Jewish leaders are frustrated with a decision to retry two men convicted of civil rights violations in the killing of a yeshiva student during the worst recorded riots between blacks and Jews in New York.

But few expect Monday’s ruling and the possibility of a new trial to reignite black-Jewish tensions in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights or elsewhere in the city.

Chanina Sperlin, executive vice chairman of the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council, said that while the neighborhood’s Jewish community is angry at the decision, “We will stand united with all our African American and Caribbean leaders with whom we have worked closely since 1991 to help build the entire neighborhood.”

“This will not take us back,” Sperlin said at a news conference Tuesday with representatives from the neighborhood’s Jewish, black and Caribbean organizations.

In ordering the new trial, a federal appeals court ruled that the judge in the 1997 federal trial had improperly manipulated the selection of jurors based on their race and religion.

However, the court also upheld the federal civil rights statute under which the defendants had been charged — something the defendants’ lawyers had appealed.

Lemrick Nelson, now 25, and Charles Price, now 47, were found guilty in violating the civil rights of Yankel Rosenbaum, who was killed during the 1991 riots in Crown Heights, which has a large Chasidic community.

Both Nelson and Price are currently in prison.

Nelson, who had been charged with Rosenbaum’s murder, was acquitted of those charges in a 1992 state trial.

Nelson and Price were part of a group of blacks shouting, “Get the Jew!” who chased down and fatally stabbed Rosenbaum, a 29-year-old Australian Jew who was studying in the United States.

The riots followed the death of a 7-year-old black child, Gavin Cato, who was hit by a vehicle in the motorcade of the late Lubavitch Rebbe Menachem Schneerson.

The Jewish driver of that vehicle was not charged and moved to Israel.

In Australia, Rosenbaum’s brother, Norman, told JTA his “resolve for justice in seeing Yankel’s killers punished has not diminished one little bit.”

Rosenbaum, who has made more than 100 trips from his Melbourne home to the United States in his fight to see his brother’s killers brought to justice, said he would leave for the United States within a week to explore the options for appealing the decision.

Rosenbaum, 44, also said he spoke Tuesday with Gavin Cato’s father, Carmel, who was supportive of his decision to appeal the retrial.

Rosenbaum and Cato met last summer in an effort to heal old wounds.

The 1991 riots came amid long-simmering tensions among the communities, and relations have improved significantly since then, according to community leaders.

At Tuesday’s news conference, leaders of all three communities said the ruling will not cause them to waver in their commitment to work together toward unity, progress and growth for the entire neighborhood.

“The bottom line is that we’re going to let the justice system take its course,” said Robert Matthews, chairman of the local community board and co-chairman of Project CARE, a communal relations group in Crown Heights.

“The communities are working together and we will continue to work together.”

Daniel Botnick, executive director of the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council, a member of Project CARE, said the retrial decision is “positively not going to reignite tensions. Conditions are completely different from the way they were 10 years ago.”

CARE is one of several projects in which Jews and other ethnic groups work together.

Botnick said the various groups in Crown Heights are now in constant contact with each other and “the lines of communication are just unbelievable and open.”

The reaction to the decision among Crown Heights Jews is “pretty consistent,” Botnick said.

“We’re dismayed by the reversal of this decision over what appears to be a small technicality. We’re very heartened by the fact that the civil rights statute was upheld and at the same time no one’s looking forward to another trial of this nature because it could open old wounds.”

“In the end the justice system will do the right thing, which is see to it that a murderer doesn’t walk,” he said.

Botnick — who moved to Crown Heights the exact August day the riots began — is intimately familiar with how bad things were in this neighborhood during and immediately after the riots and how much they have improved since.

Although he lived several blocks away from the epicenter of the rioting, he passed by it every day on his way to pray at the Lubavitch headquarters and en route to work in downtown Brooklyn.

The subway station then was quite tense and “kids yelled at me on the street.”

“The atmosphere around here is like day and night relative to that,” he said, noting that “The police watch this place with a microscope to determine whether any bias activity is going on.”

The Jewish Community Relations Council of New York issued a statement this week describing the retrial decision as “incredibly frustrating.”

“In a desperate attempt to avoid the consequences of their crime, the defendants appealed on the grounds that the jury reconstruction — of which they had affirmatively approved — violated their rights,” the statement said.

However, the JCRC statement expressed pleasure that the ruling upheld the federal civil rights statute under which Nelson and Price were convicted.

“We are gratified that the court clearly agreed that Jews” are “indeed protected by the civil rights laws,” the group said.

The court ruled that the federal judge in the case, David Trager of U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, had improperly allowed a potentially biased Jewish person — who had said he didn’t know if he could give a fair trial — onto the jury.

However, during the trial, defense lawyers had agreed to the jury, which consisted of seven whites, three blacks and two Jews.

Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, a group that promotes black-Jewish relations, said he doubted that the retrial will spark new tensions.

“It’s 2002, not 1991,” he said. “The relationship between African-Americans and Jews both in Crown Heights and greater New York has so markedly improved that this issue will not even cause a spark.”

Nonetheless, he said he was disturbed by the ruling.

“I question whether matters of life and death should be overturned on technical issues.”

Agudath Israel of America, which represents fervently Orthodox Jews, agreed. In a statement, the group “bemoaned the tragic bottom line that a cold-blooded murder of an innocent Jew may go unpunished as a result of this unfortunate ruling.”

The group, which is critical of the fact that no other actions were taken against the rioters, said in its statement, “If even that one set of convictions falls by the wayside, as may well happen in light of the new ruling, it would mean that the justice system totally failed the Crown Heights Jewish community, and all Americans and all who care about the rule of law.”

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