An attorney for two Tennessee gun makers on trial for liability in the 1994 Brooklyn Bridge shootings began his defense last week by trying to link the chasidic victims of the crime to Hebron murderer Baruch Goldstein.
At the opening of a $39 million federal lawsuit Friday against Wayne and Sylvia Daniel, who manufactured the parts for a gun used in the shootings, the defense questioned survivors of the attack about Goldstein, whom he referred to repeatedly as “Rabbi Goldstein.”
“Did you know a man named Rabbi Goldstein, and was he a member of your church?” attorney Daniel Kane asked Yitzchak Reiter, who emerged unscathed from a van filled with chasidic students that was fired on by Lebanese national Rashid Baz in March 1994.
Four fellow passengers were shot, including Ari Halberstam, who died several days later, and Nachum Sosonkin, who was seriously injured. The families of Sosonkin and Halberstam are the plaintiffs in the civil suit, which charges the Daniels couple and the seven companies they own with recklessly marketing parts that may be used to construct the Cobray M11/9, one of two guns wielded by Baz in the attack.
Through a legal loophole, callers to an 800 number may obtain the gun kits without background checks. The guns do not bear serial numbers, making them attractive to criminals, according to the plaintiff lawyers.
In opening statements at the U.S. District Court in Brooklyn and during the cross-examination of Reiter, a plaintiff’s witness, Kane attempted to link the shootings to the massacre in Hebron that occurred several days earlier. Kane also raised the possibility that the chasidic driver of the van, Shlomo Wilhelm, had pointed a gun at Baz during the violence, as Baz had initially claimed during police questioning.
Joseph Cruz, a detective who investigated the bridge shootings, later testified that there was no evidence that anyone other than Baz was armed during the incident.
Attorneys on both sides said they would call Baz, who is serving a 141-year sentence, to the stand this week.
Last Friday, Kane, following a recollection of the shooting spree, seized on a statement from Reiter that someone in the van had shouted “an Arab is shooting at us” during the melee. He inquired about interaction between Jews and Arabs in Crown Heights, and whether Reiter immediately associated terrorism with Arabs.
“Not necessarily,” replied Reiter, who also said he had no idea where Goldstein — a medical doctor from Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, who had no known affiliation with the Lubavitcher community — came from.
Kane resumed the same line of questioning Monday during the testimony of Levi Zislin, another survivor of the attack.
During a recess in the trial Friday, Kane said he was trying to “learn more about how Arabs and Jews get along” and determine “whether people live in constant fear of Arabs.”
But noted trial attorney Nathan Lewin, who is not involved in this case, said the tactic was a “scurrilous appeal to the emotions of the jury.”
“The minute they can put the plaintiffs together with Baruch Goldstein, they become people who shouldn’t be able to collect,” he said.
Devorah Halberstam, mother of the slain student, added: “They are trying to get the jury to think about it as a political thing, not that the gun was basically a killing machine made solely for people like Rashid Baz and drug lords.”
The trial was charged with emotion as Reiter and another witness, Levi Wilhelm — who was lightly wounded in the attack — recalled the terror-filled ride across the bridge on the way home from visiting the Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, at Manhattan Eye and Ear Hospital.
“When [it was over], I lifted my head up and the first thing I noticed when I turned right was Nachum Sosonkin sitting a row behind me with blood coming out of the top of his head, his hands in the air, and leaning backward,” said Reiter.
During the testimony Devorah Halberstam appeared emotional as the Cobray gun used in the attack, as well as the bullet removed from Ari’s skull, were handled by attorneys on both sides.
Sosonkin’s expression was blank as he leaned on one hand, listening intently. During a recess he persuaded one of his Jewish lawyers to don tefillin.
The case before Judge Jack Weinstein was filed by the Washington-based Center to Prevent Handgun Violence headed by Sarah and Jim Brady, and the Lawyers Committee on Violence, a group of prominent New York City attorneys.Attorneys Richard Davis of the firm Weil, Gotshal & Manges and Thomas Barr of Cravath, Swaine & Moore are representing the families pro bono. It is the first case of its kind to go to trial.
The plaintiffs argued in opening statements that the gun companies, through ads in such publications as Shotgun News, targeted criminals as their main clientele. One such ad featured a caricature of a 1920s-style gangster.Kane and his co-counsel, Steven Harfenson, who represents the Daniels’ corporations, argued that there is no evidence Baz saw any of those ads and purchased his gun illegally on the street.
Further, Kane said ballistics tests had not linked the Cobray to the shots that killed Halberstam and wounded Sosonkin. Both the Cobray and a Glock pistol fired during the attack fired 9mm rounds. The bullet removed from Halberstam was not traced to any gun, while the bullet that struck Sosonkin remains embedded in his brain. The bullet that wounded Wilhelm in the buttocks and abdomen was linked to the Glock pistol, said Kane.
But a source involved in the criminal trial, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said evidence showed that “the bullet recovered from Ari Halberstam was consistent with the Cobray and inconsistent with the Glock.”