The defense and prosecution made their closing arguments on July 24 in the trial of a prominent Hasidic man from the upstate New York community of New Square who stands accused of sexually molesting a young neighbor from the age of eight till shortly after his bar mitzvah.
“Let no man be judged by one man’s words,” defense attorney Gerard Damiani declared, referring to Laiby Stern’s allegations that Moshe Menachem Taubenfeld, who according to Stern’s testimony is one of “the most powerful men” in New Square, sexually abused him for years.
“There’s so much [testimony] that’s been offered that contradicts Laiby’s testimony,” Damiani said in his closing arguments. The prosecution, he argued, did not establish beyond a reasonable doubt that his client is guilty, citing the lack of physical evidence.
“I ask the court to…bail the chestnuts out of the fire at this time,” Damiani appealed.
Assistant District Attorney Steve Moore countered with an impassioned summation, calling on the judge to examine the nature of sex abuse, and what would motivate a young boy to fabricate a lie of this nature, as the defense claims he did.
“There may not be another witness to say he [Laiby] was abused, but everyone corroborated the other details of his testimony,” Moore said, reminding the judge of Taubenfeld’s family members who confirmed Laiby’s recollection of the room where he alleges he was abused.
Moore jokingly referred to the three daughters under one name, saying they testified in “lockstep with a choreographed narrative.”
At least Stern admitted to struggling with his memory, Moore said, but the defense witnesses were adamant about their recollection of certain events, while struggling to remember more recent ones.
“Sprinkle some fairy dust and she remembers what happened fifteen years ago,” he said, referring to the daughters’ testimonies.
Taubenfeld, 55, who is also known as Mendel Zarkowsky, denies the accusations. He kept his eyes downcast throughout most of the proceedings, wiped his forehead/eyes repeatedly during Stern’s testimony and prayed during breaks. He faces a charge of second-degree course of sexual conduct, a felony. He faces up to seven years in prison.
The judge announced that he will hand down a verdict on July 30th.
Stern told a packed courtroom on July 16 that Taubenfeld first molested him when the he sought reassurance after hearing about the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.
“He called me into his office, closed the door and told me to pull my pants and underpants down,” Stern, now 22, recounted multiple times during his testimony and cross-examination.
Taubenfeld then allegedly proceeded to rub the boy’s penis. “He then told me to lay flat on the desk and inserted a finger in my anus,” he told the rapt courtroom.
This happened multiple times over the course of six years, Stern said.
Supporters of the accused man, who has 20 children —some of whom are stepchildren from his second marriage — and who works as a premarital counselor, were plentiful. They arrived each morning of the trial proceedings with prayer books in hand, filling up all four benches on the right-hand side of the courtroom.
Interns at the Rockland County DA’s office, as well as supporters of the victim and his family, filled up most of the seats on the left side of the courtroom.
“I’ve been doing this for decades,” Moore said outside the courtroom, “and I’ve never had such a packed room.”
The defense spent three days calling witnesses to testify to Mr. Taubenfeld’s innocence, including three of his daughters and his son-in-law.
On July 20, the defense called Taubenfeld’s son-in-law, Joseph Brailofsky, who claimed that the room in which Stern said he was abused was renovated into a study only in 2004, undermining Stern’s assertions.
But Brailofsky and Taubenfeld’s three daughters, Gittel Stauber, B’shava Richter and Pearl Brailofsky, also contradicted Taubenfeld’s claim to police when he was first arrested that he did not know Stern.
“So Mr. Taubenfeld knew Laiby?” Moore asked.
“Everyone knew Laiby,” Stauber said. “He was the child that messed up everything,” her sister, Pearl Brailofsky later corroborated. He was violent and aggressive to the other children he played with in the house, the sisters testified.
The tape of the interrogation, which was played in the courtroom on the first day of the trial, shows a visibly nervous Taubenfeld sitting in a police interrogation room in the town of Ramapo.
“You want me to cry?” Taubenfeld asked after a detective told him what he’s accused of. “I’ve been through so much in my life. I don’t touch a person. I don’t do such things.”
He later reiterated: “I don’t touch a person, You can ask anyone in the community.”
Taubenfeld lost his first wife and baby son in a terrorist attack in Jerusalem in August 2003. His daughter B’shava was injured in the attack and sobbed while recounting the tragedy during her testimony on July 22.
Damiani explained to the judge that Taubenfeld opted for a non-jury trial because he feared that a jury in the suburban county might not give a fair hearing to a Hasidic defendant.
A “Rockland County jury will likely be biased,” Damiani said.