The Final Call Online Edition



WEB POSTED 01-22-2002




Crown Heights verdict overturned

by Charles Brooks

NEW YORK (—The Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has vacated the 1998 convictions of Lemrick Nelson Jr. and Charles Price for civil rights violations in the death of Yankel Rosenbaum during the infamous 1991 Crown Heights riots.

The three-judge panel ruled Jan. 7 that Eastern District Judge David G. Trager’s attempts to ensure the jury had an appropriate racial and religious mix that represented the "community" actually amounted to "racial and religious jurymandering."

Prosecutors have to retry or free Mr. Nelson, who was 16 at the time of his conviction, and Mr. Price.

"Although the motives behind the district court’s race-and-religion-based jury selection procedures were undoubtedly meant to be tolerant and inclusive rather than bigoted and exclusionary, that fact cannot justify the district court’s race-conscious actions," the appeals court said.

"The significance of a jury in our polity as a body chosen apart from racial and religious manipulations is too great to permit categorization by race or religion even from the best of intentions."

Mr. Nelson, 27, is currently serving a sentence of 19-1/2 years while Mr. Price, 47, is serving 21 years and 10 months in prison.

The ruling has sparked divided reactions amongst Blacks and Jews within the Crown Heights community. Reverend Herbert Daughtry, who was one of several Black activists at the center of the 1991 firestorm, says he wasn’t too surprised at the federal judge’s decision.

"The judge, Mr. Trager, was trying to get a composition of the jurors that wasn’t all Black or all Jewish to give the appearance of fairness but he overstepped his bounds," said the Rev. Daughtry. He went on to say that he’s glad for Mr. Nelson and Mr. Price that the federal judge ruled in their favor as well as Mr. Nelson’s mother.

"I attended the trial every day and I was with Lemrick’s mother. Because of this ruling, they will get another chance for justice," he said.

There is broader concern about whether recent developments will have any bearing on the current state of relations between Blacks and Jews in Crown Heights.

Mr. Daughtry explains, "I don’t know how (orthodox Jews will) respond in the Crown Heights community, but ideally, it ought not do anything. The Hasidim leadership has a right to express themselves but they need to keep in mind that the state court acquitted Lemrick and they were never convicted of murder but of civil rights violations. I would hope that they would step back, the Hasidim leadership, and remember that Lemrick was found not guilty and let the judicial process proceed and they should not inject any anger, frustration or turmoil into it," said Rev. Daughtry.

While Crown Heights Jewish leaders expressed disappointment in the decision they stressed that a different relationship exists between Black and Jewish community leaders. They held a press conference designed to illustrate a united front. Chanina Sperlin, executive vice chairman of the Crown Heights Jewish Community, called the decision "disturbing" and "upsetting."

"Many in the Jewish community are angry at the decision, but we will stand united with all our African American and Caribbean leaders with whom we have worked closely since 1991. We are looking forward not backward," he said

Former City Councilwoman Una Clarke, who represented the Crown Heights community during 1991 riots, said the judge’s ruling shouldn’t reopen old wounds. "We all believe in the judicial system and when the courts speak, whether we approve or not, this is our form of government and system. The community has been working hard since 1991 to make sure that there’s one community and that everyone in Crown Heights has a stake in it," she said.

Mr. Daughtry expressed some reservations. "As far as I know, it’s simmering. It appears that on the surface that everything is calm, but beneath, it still simmers and then when something happens, there’s a lack of understanding as to why," Mr. Daughtry continued.

"There’s still an imbalance in the community where the Hasidim are in the minority, maybe 10 percent, but are treated with parity and want to be and are treated comparable with the majority of those who live in Crown Heights, who are of African ancestry," he said.

Past tension in Crown Heights has included disputes over housing, private schools, Jewish facilities, and concern about clashes between Blacks and Jewish security patrols and complaints that orthodox Jews receive preferential treatment in the area.

One resident who wished to remain anonymous said, "Sure there’s still tensions here over what happened to little Gavin (Cato). But at least (Nelson and Price) will get some justice. Black people deserve some justice."

Riots erupted in Crown Heights after a seven-year-old Gavin Cato was struck and killed by a car in an Hasidic motorcade, which often sped through the mostly Black neighborhood. His cousin was seriously injured in the accident. Some said rescue workers paid more attention to the Jewish victims than the children. Federal prosecutors charged Mr. Nelson stabbed Mr. Rosenbaum in retaliation for the death of the Black youngster and that Mr. Price incited a crowd to violence.

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