Brooklyn Bridge gunman Rashid Baz refused to testify in a civil trial against two Tennessee gun dealers, leaving unanswered questions about where and how he obtained a weapon used in a deadly 1994 attack on a van full of chasidic students.
Baz, serving a 141-year sentence for the murder of student Ari Halberstam and the wounding of three others, appeared in Brooklyn Federal Court last Friday. He was subpoenaed by defense attorneys in the civil suit, which charges that the defendants are liable for the attack because they market parts that form a gun favored by criminals.
On the advice of his court-appointed attorneys, Baz refused to answer questions about the incident, citing his constitutional right against self-incrimination.
His lawyer, Richard Greenberg, said an appeal of Baz’s sentence was pending and that his testimony in the civil suit could be used against him in future criminal proceedings.
“I’m not going to answer,” Baz said repeatedly, tilting his head back to listen to his lawyers after each question. Both sides had intended to ask Baz why he selected the 9mm Cobray assault weapon he used in the attack and where he obtained it. During the criminal trial he said he obtained the gun from a street dealer.
Baz declined to say whether he had ever met or spoken to the defendants, Wayne and Sylvia Daniel, heard of their companies or seen any of their advertisements for the Cobray. The Daniels’ lawyers unsuccessfully petitioned Judge Jack Weinstein to direct Baz to answer those questions, arguing that they had no bearing on his criminal case.It was the first time Baz, wearing a red sweatshirt and tan jacket, was in the same room as Devorah Halberstam, the mother of his victim, since he was sentenced in 1995. He is serving his term at the Auburn Correctional Facility upstate.
Although Halberstam had announced that she would leave the courtroom during Baz’s appearance, she remained in her seat, glaring at her son’s killer until he was removed from the courtroom. “I did it for Ari,” she said during a recess.
Baz’s silence in court contrasted with a videotaped confession made the day after the attack that was replayed Tuesday before the jury.
During the confession he gave a detailed account of the incident, claiming a van carrying Lubavitch students cut off his cab on the Manhattan ramp of the Brooklyn Bridge. Baz also claimed the driver called him a “f—-ing Palestinian” and fired a shot at him before he opened fire with two weapons, striking Halberstam, Nachum Sosonkin, Yakov Shapiro and Levi Wilhelm. Halberstam later died while Sosonkin was seriously injured — a bullet remains in his skull. The others were lightly injured.Baz also claimed in the confession that two of the van passengers, yeshiva students who were returning from a vigil for the Lubavitcher rebbe at a Manhattan hospital, got out of the van brandishing guns during the attack.
Police have found no corroborating evidence that the yeshiva boys were armed.Attorneys on both sides of the civil suit downplayed Baz’s refusal to testify. “The testimony was unimportant,” said Thomas Barr of the Manhattan firm Cravath, Swaine and Moore, who is representing the Halberstam family pro bono. “We don’t argue that there is a difference between foreseeing in general what is going to happen when you sell these guns and foreseeing that Rashid Baz is going to shoot some kids on the Brooklyn Bridge on March 1, 1994. The law doesn’t require us to.”
Defense attorney Daniel Kane of Atlanta, Ga., who conducted a deposition of Baz in prison last year, before Baz was represented by his current lawyers, said he had expected that Baz would plead the Fifth Amendment. But he said he wanted the jury to see Baz in person.
“We wanted them to have a visual, a sense of the man who pulled the trigger,” said Kane.
During examination of several witnesses called last week by the plaintiff — survivors of the bridge attack — Kane alluded to the violence that took place in Hebron several days before the incident. The questions were an apparent attempt to link the two incidents, although neither Baz nor his lawyers ever asserted in court that the Lebanese-born gunman was acting in retaliation for the death of 29 Muslims at the hands of a Jewish settler.
Outside the courtroom on Tuesday, Kane and his co-counsel, Steven Harfenist, who represents the Daniel-owned companies, accused the plaintiff lawyers of manipulating the court in order to get the case before Judge Weinstein.
Both Barr and Richard Davis, who represents Sosonkin, are members of a lawyers committee that champions anti-gun cases.
“The plaintiffs lied [in their papers] and said this case was related to another case before Judge Weinstein,” said Harfenist.
But Davis replied that “they never raised this issue when they had the chance to do so in the year and a half before the case.” He said the other case Weinstein is presiding over also involves a Daniel-owned company.
Harfenist further accused the opposing counsel of exploiting Sosonkin and the Halberstam family. “They are being used by these lawyers for a political agenda, and personally I feel sorry about that.”
But Davis replied: “We would be more than happy if Ari Halberstam wasn’t dead and Nachum Sosonkin didn’t have a bullet in his head and we didn’t have to be here.”
Closing arguments in the 2-week-old trial were expected Wednesday. The case will likely go to the jury of seven women and five men as early as Thursday.