How Murder of Esther Lebowitz Changed Jewish Baltimore Forever

Brutal Killing of 11-Year-Old Girl Shakes City 45 Years Later

Taken Too Soon: Esther Lebowitz (left, front) with her family.
Courtesy of Lebowitz family
Taken Too Soon: Esther Lebowitz (left, front) with her family.

By Michael Kaplan

Published May 05, 2014, issue of May 09, 2014.
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A lot has changed for Baltimore’s Northwest Orthodox community since 1969. For one, it’s grown from a tight colony of a few hundred families to tens of thousands of residents. It’s also drifted northward as small synagogues have sprouted up and down the community’s streets.

But people still remember.

The store near the corner of Park Heights and Rogers avenues houses a hair salon and a pizza and sub shop today. And the section of Park Heights in which it sits is now heavily African American. But a living community is a repository of memory, and people still recall the brutal murder that took place there nearly 45 years ago.

And so it was that when court convened at the Baltimore City Courthouse, on March 20, it was standing room only; rows of Orthodox Jews filled the seats and aisles, waiting to hear what would happen to the man who murdered 11-year-old Esther Lebowitz in the basement of what was a popular local aquarium store.

The Jews had come to the Calvert Street courthouse to protest the possible retrial of her murderer, Wayne Stephen Young, who was convicted back then and thought safely put away for life. Young, who confessed to his crime, has been denied parole 12 times since his conviction. Now 68, a gray and balding Young is appealing for a retrial based on a 2012 case in which a Maryland judge ruled that jurors in criminal cases before 1980 were given unconstitutional instructions.

In Unger v. State, the Maryland Court of Appeals reviewed the routine failure of state judges to instruct juries before 1980 that a defendant enjoyed a presumption of innocence, and that the burden was on the state to show the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. This meant, the court ruled, that all trials before then were structurally flawed. As a result some 200 people convicted before 1980 who are still in prison are now entitled to request a new trial.

On April 24, Baltimore Circuit Judge Edward Hargadon handed down a ruling against Young’s request, stating that Young failed to bring forth compelling evidence that the case should be reopened. “There was virtually no dispute or doubt as to the facts surrounding the actual homicide,” Hargadon’s written statement noted.

Perp Walk: Wayne Stephen Young is arrested and charged with the 1969 murder.
Baltimore Sun Media Group
Perp Walk: Wayne Stephen Young is arrested and charged with the 1969 murder.

But Young, who claimed in his first trial that he was temporarily insane, plans to appeal the decision, which means the case could soon be back in court.

“Permitting an individual to be convicted and sentenced on a standard that is less than ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ endangers the liberty of every single one of us,” Young’s attorney Erica Suter wrote in an email to the Forward. “I…look forward to the opportunity to seek redress in the Court of Special Appeals.”

Even as it celebrated Hargadon’s decision, the looming appeal had Baltimore’s Orthodox community on its guard and raking over the still warm embers of its 45-year-old trauma.

“Don’t tell me after 45 years that he’s earned the right or deserves the right to walk free,” said Abba Poliakoff, who was 17 at the time his cousin was murdered. “Esther Lebowitz is never going to have that right.”

Rabbi Shaye Taub of Arugas Habosem, whose daughter was in Esther’s class, said just hearing that Young’s case could go to retrial had awakened disturbing memories for him and his congregation.

“At the time, we thought of the city as being a safe and pleasant place to raise children,” Taub said. “We lost that when we lost Esther.”

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