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New York's 1991 Race Battles Revisited in Man's Third Trial

May 04, 2003|John J. Goldman | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — It is the third run of a legal drama that has lasted more than a decade.

Once again, Lemrick Nelson Jr. is on trial in a fresh dissection of the racial turmoil that swept through the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn in August 1991.

Battles between blacks and Hasidic Jews over four days were so serious that a New York state investigating panel labeled the incident "the worst outbreak of racial violence in 20 years."

Yankel Rosenbaum, a 29-year-old rabbinical scholar, was killed.

In 1992, Nelson was tried and acquitted of murder in state court in Brooklyn in a case that drew international attention. During the proceedings, defense lawyers stressed the teenager never stabbed Rosenbaum, an Orthodox Jew who was visiting from Australia.

But the verdict failed to end the controversy.

Five years later, another jury found Nelson guilty in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn of federal charges of violating Rosenbaum's civil rights. He was sentenced to 19 1/2 years in prison.

In January 2002, the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, citing irregularities in the jury selection process, ordered another trial in federal court.

Now, at Nelson's third trial, his new defense team has made a startling admission. In opening arguments, Richard M. Jasper, one of Nelson's lawyers, told the jury last week that Nelson, who was 16 at the time, had stabbed Rosenbaum -- not out of prejudice but because he was drunk on beer and had became swept up in the emotion of the crowd.

Jasper said Nelson's actions resulted from a "terrible combination of alcohol, youth and tragedy," and that his client participated in the attack "not because he [Rosenbaum] was Jewish."

Assistant U.S. Atty. Lauren Resnick countered that Nelson was part of a gang that wanted "revenge" and was searching for a "scapegoat

The violence in Crown Heights began after a station wagon in a caravan escorting Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the world leader of Lubavitch Judaism, hit and killed 7-year-old Gavin Cato, who was black.

As news of the child's death spread, black youths attacked residents and stoned homes.

A grand jury declined to indict Yosef Lifsh, the station wagon's driver.

Nelson's new legal strategy is based on twin realities: New York state law prohibits him from being retried for murder. And if jurors can be convinced that racial or religious hatred was not the motive, they could vote for acquittal on the grounds that Rosenbaum's civil rights were not violated.

Government lawyers so far have called as witnesses two police officers who were present the night Nelson was taken into custody.

Both testified he appeared to be sober.

Det. Mark Hoppe told the court he never smelled alcohol on Nelson's breath when he arrested him.

Lt. Richard Sanossian said he escorted Nelson to Kings County Hospital when the defendant suffered an asthma attack after his arrest. Sanossian said Nelson was not drunk and had no difficulty walking up stairs.

During testimony Thursday, Nelson, who is now 28, suffered an asthma attack and was taken by ambulance to Long Island College Hospital. After treatment he was returned to federal court in Brooklyn.

When testimony resumed, Dr. Joaquin Gutierrez, an assistant medical examiner, told the jury that Rosenbaum was stabbed four times in the back and two of the wounds pierced his lungs. He died several hours later at Kings County Hospital.

It is uncertain whether Charles Price, 48, who was convicted with Nelson in 1997 of violating Rosenbaum's civil rights, will testify.

In April 2002, Price pleaded guilty and received a sentence of 11 years and eight months in prison.

At the time, he told the court that he urged the crowd, which had learned that a black child had been killed by a driver, to follow him.

"I told them it was an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth," Price said.

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