Jewish leaders, frustrated and pained by the split verdict in the federal retrial of Lemrick Nelson, are searching for a course of action as a clearer picture emerges of the tense deliberations that led to the verdict.
Nelson was convicted of civil rights charges in the Crown Heights killing of Yankel Rosenbaum in 1991 but absolved of causing the chasidic man’s death.
Published comments by the jury forewoman Saturday indicated that she and others ignored the judge’s instruction to consider only evidence presented at trial when they pondered whether Rosenbaum’s death resulted from inadequate care at Kings County Hospital.
That caused a furor among Jewish leaders, activists and Rosenbaum’s brother, Norman, who were frustrated already by an outcome that could see Nelson (who now admits to stabbing Rosenbaum) released from jail in less than a year.
Some called for legal action against the jurors, others for a campaign to reopen the case. One activist called for a large-scale demonstration of civil disobedience to express grassroots outrage over the mixed outcome.
The reaction showed that last week’s verdict would not bring to an end to the Crown Heights saga, now nearly a dozen years old.
"We will leave no stone unturned," Rosenbaum told a small gathering of rabbis and organizational leaders at a breakfast Tuesday at Congregation Mount Sinai, a Conservative temple a short walk from the federal courthouse where Nelson was tried. "What we are embarking on is not an easy road. [But] we can’t allow this to stand."
The government has no further options in prosecuting Nelson, who was acquitted in state court, convicted in a federal trial, then retried after a successful appeal.
But Rosenbaum and his supporters said they would convene a panel of prominent legal minds to explore options in the case.
Nelson is to be sentenced June 30, and Rosenbaum said his mother, Fay, who lives in Australia, would deliver a victim’s impact statement, as she did after the 1997 federal conviction.
Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, who convened Tuesday’s meeting and is president of the New York Board of Rabbis, called on the Jewish community to pack the courtroom during the sentencing.
"There needs to be representation from all denominations," he told Rosenbaum. "Your brother is our brother."
Rosenbaum also said he would push for a new federal law in honor of his brother that would strengthen the penalties for civil rights crimes, or perhaps one that would give prosecutors the right to appeal a verdict, a privilege now afforded only defense lawyers.
"It took ‘Megan’s Law’ to get some changes" in the reporting of convicted sex offenders’ whereabouts, Rosenbaum said. "Maybe ‘Yankel’s Law’ is necessary now. … This is an issue that goes well beyond the Jewish community. What the jury did was give carte blanche to every bigot in this country."
No Jewish organization seems to be calling for acceptance of the verdict with no further action. The executive vice president of the Jewish Community Relations Council, Michael Miller, who did not attend the breakfast, later said he was consulting with Rosenbaum and "exploring the various options."
Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, who attended the breakfast, told Rosenbaum that Jewish leadership would take its cue from him.
"Let us know the marching orders," said the rabbi. "We’ll help you break the door down."
It was Rabbi Avi Weiss of the Coalition for Jewish Concerns-Amcha who cited the weeks of protests over the police shooting of unarmed African immigrant Amadou Diallo as a model.
"There has to be nonviolent civil disobedience … 100 rabbis stepping across the line and facing arrest," said Rabbi Weiss, who has seen his share of arrests during various protests. "We have to stand up and say, ‘This hurts.’"
But Devorah Halberstam, an anti-terrorism and victims’ rights activist whose son Ari was killed in the 1994 Brooklyn Bridge attack, noted that despite the Diallo protests, the police officers who killed him never went to jail.
Nelson could be released in less than a year because the maximum penalty for a civil rights violation that did not result in death is 10 years. He has been in prison for eight years, and has credit for good behavior.
But one lawyer consulted by Rosenbaum told The Jewish Week Tuesday that the law allowed for harsher penalties if a defendant is found to have intended to kill his victim.
"An attempt to kill can be punishable by life imprisonment or even capital punishment," said Nat Lewin, a Washington-based attorney specializing in constitutional law.
Others said to be advising Rosenbaum include criminal lawyers Ben Brafman and Mel Sachs.
"We have some very good legal minds ready to examine this expeditiously," said Rabbi Potasnik.
The comments by the jury forewoman, whose name has not been revealed, in a New York Times interview, together with notes from the jurors and transcripts from conferences in the judgeís chamber made public last week, shed some light on what went on in the jury room during six days of tense deliberations. Jurors on three occasions told the judge they were deadlocked.
The communications suggest that the forewoman was at odds with many of the other jurors. In one note to the judge shortly before the verdict, the forewoman complained of "a lot of intimidating and influence" and that the others were "beating up on [her]" because she had made up her mind and would not budge from her position. She also complained about another juror who called Nelson a "thug."
The forewoman, a native of Trinidad and a part-time instructor of medical terminology at Brooklyn College, later told the Times "everybody knew" about a wrongful death lawsuit against Kings County Hospital, and asked the reporter, "How can you hold two people responsible for the same death?"
Defense attorneys had sought to question the coroner who examined Rosenbaum about whether he might have lived if he had been properly treated. Judge Frederic Block ruled that the question was not pertinent.
The forewoman, who lives near Crown Heights, was a former manager at Kings County Hospital, a fact she disclosed during the selection process, according to a transcript examined by The Jewish Week.
A prosecutor asked the judge at the time to inquire about when the forewoman, known as Prospective Juror 32, worked at Kings County, and she answered that it was for "a few years" beginning in October 1997, more than six years after Rosenbaum was a patient.
Alan Vinegrad, a former federal prosecutor who won the 1997 conviction against Nelson, believes the jury forewoman violated her oath to weigh the case only based on evidence presented in court. But he said it is unlikely anything could be done about it.
"There are rare times that action is taken against a juror, when it involves corruption or taking bribes," he told The Jewish Week. "But I’ve never heard of a case where action is taken against a juror for reaching a verdict based on extraneous information. You get a lot of cases where this issue is raised if the jury relied on information detrimental to the defendant, but that’s clearly not the case here."
Marc Stern, the American Jewish Congress’ expert on legal issues added, "The tradition is fairly strong that, short of bribery, we don’t prosecute jurors for violating directions. That would discourage jury service, and give prosecutors a weapon I’m not sure we want to give them."
See analysis of the verdict on next page.