When is a long prison sentence too long?
That’s the question many inside and outside the ultra-Orthodox community are asking this week after a judge dealt Nechemya Weberman a 103-year term behind bars for abusing a young girl.
“The abuse of a child cannot be swept under the rug or dealt with by insular groups believing only they know what is best for their community,” Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes said at a press conference following Weberman’s sentencing.
The prosecutor’s statement closely echoed his thoughts in a written statement published in the New York Daily News on January 19, in which Hynes compared the Hasidim to organized crime groups. He proudly trumpeted the Weberman sentencing as a way to “send a message” to the community as a whole.
“I compare it to the Mafia, but at least in Mafia cases we can offer victims witness protection. That does not work in these insular communities,” Hynes wrote. “I hope the verdict and sentence sends a very clear and unmistakable message to people in certain parts of the Orthodox community.”
But is the role of a judge and jury to “send a message” to any community? Aren’t they supposed to adjudicate guilt or innocence, and mete out the appropriate punishment given the nature and circumstances of that individual crime?
“The public had a desire to create symbolic meaning out of Weberman’s religious status and standing,” said Nathan Dershowitz, the brother of famed civil rights lawyer Alan Dershowitz and a top New York lawyer in his own right. “There is a perceived view of what goes on in the Hasidic community and the system wants to change that. But this trial was an audience trial, playing to these perceptions rather than to the truth and justice of the matter.”
Michael Farkas, one of Weberman’s lawyers called the sentence “draconian.” “A cynic might feel that this is a vindictive sentence, that appealed emotionally to the judge,” Farkas said. The lawyer added that he believes state Supreme Court Justice John G. Ingram was trying his best to follow sentencing guidelines laid down in statutes.
In addition to question of whether using a case to send a message is an appropriate use of the justice system, there is also the question of whether sending this message in this way will have the desired impact of encouraging victims within the ultra-Orthodox community to come forward to secular authorities with accusations against others.
Leaders in the community have traditionally encouraged victims to take complaints to rabbis first, before going to police or prosecutors. While those in the D.A.’s office may see this as a way of stifling complaints or protecting revered figures from punishment, many in the community see it as a centuries-old pillar of their social structure.