After third trial, Black man
convicted in frame-up for
1991 Crown Heights killing
BY SAM MANUEL
After being tried three times for the same crime, 27-year-old Lemrick Nelson was convicted May 13 on charges resulting from the 1991 stabbing death of Yankel Rosenbaum, a member of an Orthodox Jewish sect. Nelson, who is African-American, received a 10-year sentence. He has already served much of this time and is expected to be out of jail within a year.
Twelve years ago, the big-business press trumpeted the incident that led to Rosenbaum's death as an anti-Jewish riot. The outburst at the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn actually erupted in response to racist treatment of Black residents of that neighborhood by the cops and emergency personnel after a Black child was killed in a traffic accident.
The incident began when a station wagon, which was part of a motorcade for the leader of an Orthodox Jewish sect, ran a traffic light and careened off opposing traffic onto a sidewalk, striking a seven-year-old Black child, Gavin Cato. The youth was dragged underneath the vehicle and his cousin Angela was pinned against a window grate.
The uninjured driver of the vehicle, Yosef Lifsh, was treated and taken away by emergency response medical personnel of the Hatzolah, an Orthodox Jewish ambulance service. Gavin Cato remained trapped under the vehicle and died of his injuries. A cop revealed later that he ordered the ambulance to leave with Lifsh out of fear for his safety, while leaving the dying child untreated. Charges were never filed against Lifsh, who now lives in Israel.
The jury in the latest trial deliberated over six days. One day before reaching a verdict the judge received three notes from jurors, prompting him to comment that he felt the jury was "muddled and confused." The notes, one of which came from the jury forewoman, indicated that a unanimous verdict could not be reached. The judge denied requests by defense attorneys for a mistrial and instead called the forewoman in for a "rare mid-deliberation sit-down," according to court papers, which were unsealed following the trial.
Nelson was convicted on charges that he violated Rosenbaum's civil rights because the stabbing was supposedly motivated by anti-Semitism. In the most recent trial Nelson's attorneys conceded that their client had stabbed Rosenbaum. But they argued that Nelson committed the assault not out of hatred for Jews but because the youth had been drinking and was caught up in the anger of the crowd. The prosecutors paraded a string of cops who testified that in their opinion Nelson was sober when he was arrested shortly after the stabbing.
The jury also concluded, however, that prosecutors failed to show that Rosenbaum's death resulted from his wounds.
During the first trial a city medical examiner had testified that Rosenbaum's four wounds were not disabling, but that two of them "could potentially have caused death." Nelson's attorneys were not allowed at any of the trials to inform the jurors of a state health department report that found Rosenbaum died as a result of inadequate treatment at the hospital.
Nelson, who was 16 at the time of the incident that led to his conviction, was charged with stabbing Rosenbaum to death on circumstantial evidence that relied heavily on the word of the cops. A jury of six Blacks, four Latinos, and two whites acquitted Nelson in his first trial in a state court in 1992, with jurors openly saying they did not believe the cops' story.
Within two days of that verdict, the U.S. Attorney General's office initiated a federal investigation of the case. Nelson was retried and convicted in 1997 on federal charges of violating Rosenbaum's civil rights. Prosecutors argued that Nelson stabbed Rosenbaum because he was Jewish. Nelson, who continued to deny committing the stabbing, was sentenced to 19 and a half years.
Leading up to Nelson's second trial the prosecutor's office also filed the same charges against Charles Price, based on a five-year-old videotape in which he is alleged to have been seen encouraging the "assault on Jews."
Five years after his second trial, the convictions and sentences of Nelson and Price were thrown out due to jury tampering by the presiding judge. The judge was found to have allowed the seating of one juror who had admitted having a possible bias against the defendants. Rather than dropping the charges, the government decided to try the two men again—Nelson for the third time. Having already served half of the maximum penalty he could receive, Price chose to cop a plea of guilty in exchange for an 11-year sentence.
Ironically, the federal charges were brought against Nelson and Price under statutes that had been won in response to the refusal of segregationist courts to try and bring to justice the murderers of civil rights activists in the South in the 1950s and '60s. Under pressure from the advancing fight for Black rights, the federal government was forced to take action. Federal prosecution of those acquitted of racist acts in state courts was a gain for the working class. The application of this precedent in the case of Nelson, however, a young Black man framed up by the police, was a travesty of justice.