Crown Heights Justice

From The Jewish Week

January 11, 2002

The Crown Heights tragedy of 1991 seems destined to go on haunting us.

More than a decade after Yankel Rosenbaum was murdered in the midst of the worst racial riot in New York post-World War II, a federal appeals court has ordered a new trial for the two men imprisoned for their role in his death. According to the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, the judge in the case was too zealous in his effort to balance the number of Jews and blacks on the jury and engaged in "racial and religious jurymandering."

In a legal system that saw Lemrick Nelson walk away free after a 1992 state murder trial in which the evidence against him was overwhelming (including a clear confession and being definitively identified by the victim), he was convicted five years later by a federal court for violating Rosenbaum's civil rights - a legal euphemism for saying, in this case, he fatally stabbed the 29-year-old chasid in the chest. Charles Price, caught on videotape provoking the rioters, was also convicted, and both men are serving lengthy prison terms.

Now comes a ruling - not based on guilt or innocence - that the federal trial judge acted improperly in trying too hard to fashion an unbiased jury. That panel was made up of three blacks, four Hispanics, two Jews and three other whites, and was approved by the defense as well as the prosecution. The dissenting judge in the 2-1 decision wrote: "I do not believe that vacating the sentence provides a sensible remedy in this case." But shockingly, the two men convicted will be given a new trial unless the Justice Department appeals this ruling in a case where truth and fairness have been trampled repeatedly.

First, blacks rose up against Jews in August 1991 in the wake of a tragic but accidental death of a young black boy at the hands of a Jewish driver, and that anti-Jewish sentiment led to the murder of Rosenbaum. On many occasions since then, and even this week in describing those frightening days and nights, the media described the riots as an outbreak of violence between blacks and Jews when in fact it was blacks on the attack and Jews who were victimized. And now, once again, it is the justice system that is distorted so that men with blood on their hands may go free because a trial judge sought a jury with a balance of blacks and Jews. It is a tragedy and travesty that this case remains an open wound

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