Moving On After Crown Heights Verdict

By Nacha Cattan

Published May 23, 2003, issue of May 23, 2003.
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Two days after the verdict in the third trial of Lemrick Nelson Jr., a mix of black and Jewish leaders met in Crown Heights to announce that the community would move forward not backward.

The message was delivered at a press conference May 16 on Kingston Avenue to a handful of passersby — mostly children — and even fewer journalists. Many more harried shoppers rushed by the spectacle without so much as a glance. After the press conference, perhaps reflecting the disinterested pulse of the Brooklyn, N.Y., neighborhood’s Jewish residents rushing to prepare for the Sabbath, Anti-Defamation League director Abraham Foxman told the Forward that both communities wanted a “quietus” on the 12-year legal struggle surrounding Nelson’s murder of yeshiva student Yankel Rosenbaum during the anti-Jewish riots of 1991.

Some Jewish communal leaders and Crown Heights residents are loath to see a new round of litigation. But for those caught at the center of this tragedy, the fight rages on — and it may spill over to Capitol Hill.

When asked about those who are ready to close the book on the legal battle against Nelson, the slain man’s brother, Norman Rosenbaum said, “By walking away from an injustice, you are actually condoning and endorsing the crime.”

One vocal leader of the Jewish community in Crown Heights, Chanina Sperlin, said the battle for justice should continue in court until Nelson “does not see the sunlight again.”

Rosenbaum and several Crown Heights Jewish leaders were outraged at the verdict. The jury found that Nelson, who admitted to the stabbing, was guilty of violating Yankel Rosenbaum’s civil rights, but not responsible for causing his death. As a result, instead of a life sentence, Nelson faces a maximum jail term of only 10 years, most of which he has already served. Sentencing is scheduled for June 30.

Rosenbaum told the Forward that he is exploring every legal option to contest a verdict that some experts say is all but written in stone. One possible strategy, he said, was to explore whether the jury’s determination about the cause of his brother’s death could be “set aside or appealed or reconsidered.”

A forewoman’s admission that jurors used impermissible information in reaching their verdict may provide one argument for overturning the case, Rosenbaum said. The New York Times reported last week that the jurors determined that Nelson did not directly cause Rosenbaum’s death after learning of old news reports that Rosenbaum’s family filed a malpractice suit against the hospital where he died. Although some experts say the forewoman’s admission is not likely to provide sufficient grounds for reversal, Rosenbaum said he is still exploring the option.

During the past decade, Rosenbaum has grown accustomed to fighting uphill battles. He was told to go home to Australia after Nelson was acquitted of murder in a state court in 1992. A barrister, Rosenbaum ploughed on with the backing of Jewish activists and powerful lawmakers. Two years later, he finally succeeded in convincing then-Attorney General Janet Reno to file federal charges against Nelson for violating Yankel Rosenbaum’s civil rights.

Once again, Rosenbaum said, he is planning to reach out to supporters in Washington. This time, however, he will push for stronger civil-rights statutes that would help others achieve the sense of full justice that has evaded his family.

“There’s Megan’s law,” said Rosenbaum, referring to a strict law in several states that publicizes the names of sex offenders. “Maybe we need Yankel’s law when it comes to civil-rights violations. If the maximum sentence was 20 years, we wouldn’t have had a problem now.”

Rosenbaum is hoping to correct what he described as a “disparity” in the justice system regarding crimes committed and their corresponding maximum sentences. For example, while Nelson faces a maximum sentence of only 10 years, a person convicted of mail fraud could get 20 years in the federal system.

Rosenbaum said that he would probably request support for legislation from Senator Orrin Hatch, a Republican from Utah; Senator Frank Lautenberg, a Democrat from New Jersey; and two New York Democrats, Rep. Anthony Weiner and Senator Hillary Clinton.

The case dates back to August 19, 1991, when a 7-year-old black boy, Gavin Cato, was struck and killed in Crown Heights by a car in a motorcade escorting the grand Lubavitcher rabbi, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Rioting erupted, and later that night, a mob of black youths shouting, “Get the Jew!” attacked Rosenbaum, 29. The rioting continued for four days.

After his state court acquittal, Nelson was convicted in his first federal trial in 1997 and sentenced to 19 years in prison. But in January 2002 an appeals court overturned the convictions because of the judge’s handling of jury selection. As a result of a Supreme Court decision in 2000 relating to a different case, in order to hand down a life sentence, jurors in the most recent trial were required to determine that the knife wounds directly caused Rosenbaum’s death. The lighter maximum sentence this time around has been attributed to this change in the law.

The verdict may have been disappointing, said Marc Schneier, president of the New York-based Foundation for Ethnic Understanding. “But,” he said, “the visual of Norman Rosenbaum sitting with Gavin Cato’s father is more reflective of the current state of black-Jewish relations than the lawyers revisiting those very ugly and difficult four days in Crown Heights.”

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