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Split Ruling in Crown Heights Trial Leaves Jewish Groups Still Dismayed

May 15, 2003
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For many Jewish groups, the tragedy of Yankel Rosenbaum and the black-Jewish violence of Crown Heights that began 12 years ago struck a painfully mixed note this week.

A federal court jury found Lemrick Nelson guilty of violating Rosenbaum’s civil rights, but ultimately not responsible for stabbing him to death on Aug. 19, 1991.

The verdict means that Nelson, who had been serving a 19-and-a-half year jail term from a previous 1997 New York state court conviction for violating Rosenbaum’s civil rights, faces a maximum of 10 years in prison.

Norman Rosenbaum, Yankel’s older brother, praised prosecutors in the case. Outside federal court in Brooklyn, however, he voiced his frustration over the jury’s decision and his rage at Nelson.

“One thing I sincerely wish him is that he has a short, painful life,” Rosenbaum said, surrounded by reporters.

Still, Rosenbaum added that he feels “relief,” since Nelson “could have walked.”

Jewish leaders also voiced mixed emotions over the case’s climax.

“What’s important to know is that Lemrick Nelson is guilty of violating Yankel’s civil rights, but we’re frustrated because the jury’s compromise verdict

flies in the face of the evidence presented by the medical examiner at the trial, who said the” knife “wounds led to Yankel’s death,” said Michael Miller, executive vice president of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York.

Rabbi Marc Schneier, executive director of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding in New York, a group dedicated to fostering ties between Jews and other minorities, said: “I always believed this was a racially motivated attack.”

“I don’t agree with the sentencing, and believe he should have received the maximum” jail term,” Schneier said.

In 1992, Nelson was acquitted of second-degree murder in the case. Under pressure from the Rosenbaum family and others, however, federal officials brought civil rights charges that led to a 1996 federal court trial.

Nelson fatally stabbed Rosenbaum, 27, after a car in a motorcade ferrying the Lubavitch rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, accidentally struck and killed a Gavin Cato, a 7-year-old black child, and injured his cousin, Angela.

Rumors quickly spread throughout the Brooklyn section of Crown Heights, a neighborhood of fervently religious Jews and blacks, that Jewish ambulance workers at the accident scene ignored the children and treated an injured Jewish driver.

Police later said they had ordered the ambulance workers to leave the scene.

But it was too late, and the riots that broke out lasted for days. The violence rocked already-tense black-Jewish ties in the area, and black-Jewish relations throughout the United States plummeted.

During the latest trial, Nelson admitted for the first time that he stabbed Rosenbaum to death. However, he said he didn’t target Rosenbaum as a Jew, but because he was drunk after a day of guzzling beer.

That explanation was designed to defend Nelson, who could have faced a life sentence if he were found responsible for Rosenbaum’s murder.

Nelson’s defense team also tried to blunt charges of responsibility by claiming that Nelson was swept up in a violent crowd that hunted Rosenbaum down, chanting “get the Jew” and “kill the Jew.”

While Jewish leaders greeted the verdict with ambivalence and disappointment, they also said black-Jewish relations have improved since 1991.

“We must also view this verdict and the other two trials as benchmarks in the continuing strengthening of black- Jewish relations,” Schneier said.

Black-Jewish relations have warmed locally and nationally, these Jewish leaders said.

Miller, for example, pointed out that Carmel Cato, Gavin Cato’s father, sat with Norman Rosenbaum during this latest trial.

That image “is a living example of the change in Crown Heights over the past 12 years,” he said.

Jewish leaders in the neighborhood have echoed that state of affairs, saying that while the communities don’t always see eye to eye, there is an ongoing dialogue and new outbursts of violence are unlikely.

Miller, meanwhile, says blacks and Jews in the New York area now work together on “quality-of-life” issues such as health care, while Schneier said new political alliances have developed at the national level.

Other Jewish groups voiced dismay at the ruling.

“While we are gratified that the jury found Lemrick Nelson liable for violating the civil rights” of Rosenbaum, “we are saddened and disappointed by this compromise verdict that did not recognize what the evidence in the case sustained: that Mr. Nelson’s actions led to Mr. Rosenbaum’s death,” said the Anti-Defamation League’s regional chairman, Marin Karlinsky, and regional director, Joel Levy, in a prepared statement.

American Jewish Committee spokesman Kenneth Bandler said he is “gratified” by the civil-rights conviction, but “sorely disappointed” that Nelson was not found responsible for the death.

At this trial Nelson “decided, for tactical reasons, to admit his culpability. That delayed admission makes the jury’s failure to find that Nelson’s actions were a proximate cause of Rosenbaum’s death even more disheartening,” Bandler said.

The American Jewish Congress echoed that sentiment, calling the ruling “only a small measure of justice.”

The Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs said “Nelson clearly murdered Yankel Rosenbaum in an act of racism and anti-Semitism.”

The presiding justice in the case, U.S. District Court Judge Frederic Block, is expected to hand down a sentence soon.

One observer of the case said prosecutors could ask for the judge to extend the recommended 10-year term, even as Nelson’s defense team predicted that he could be freed within about one year.

Prosecutors could also appeal the decision to the Supreme Court.

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