The third trial stemming from the Crown Heights murder of Yankel Rosenbaum began Tuesday at the federal courthouse in Brooklyn with new prosecutors, a new defense team and a new judge.
But the facts in dispute were the same as they have been for nearly a dozen years.
Lemrick Nelson Jr. is one for two in convincing a jury that he is not the man who fatally stabbed Rosenbaum while a crowd of rioters shouting "get the Jew" attacked him on Aug. 19, 1991.
Federal prosecutors are getting a second crack at proving Nelson is the assailant after the U.S. Court of Appeals voided his 1997 civil rights conviction. Nelson was acquitted on state murder charges in 1992.
Eastern District Judge Frederic Block on Tuesday questioned some 17 prospective jurors from a pool of more than 400 who filled out questionnaires about the case. Most of those who appeared were black, but among the whites were two Russian immigrants and two Orthodox Jewish men.
It was the jury composition in the last federal trial that led the appellate court to rule that Judge David Trager had improperly taken race and ethnicity into account during the selection process.
The only discussion of race on Tuesday concerned whether members of the jury pool could be objective about the case, despite its racial overtones. The rioting that led to Rosenbaumís death began after a black child was accidentally killed by a car in the motorcade of the Lubavitcher rebbe.
Block questioned prospective jurors about their knowledge of the case and their feelings about it. The African Americans insisted they could be objective.
"Do you have a problem putting all that racial stuff out of your mind?" Block asked a woman.
"We are all one people," she answered, adding that she spends her free time watching church programs on TV.
But one of the Russian immigrants, who said she was Jewish, told the judge she did not believe she could be objective because of her strong feelings about anti-Semitism.
"[Jews] have been hated by other nationalities," she said. "I am an emotional person. I don’t have a cool head."
She was dismissed from the jury pool, as was another Russian immigrant who said she did not fully understand English.
Several prospective jurors had answered on the questionnaire that they felt it was unfair that Nelson could be retried after having been acquitted.
Block instructed the prospective jurors that "it is lawful and proper" for the government to prosecute the case because the charge, violation of Rosenbaum’s civil rights while on a public thoroughfare and because of his religion, was different from the state murder charge.
Some of the African Americans questioned, including several who live in or near Crown Heights, said they recalled the murder but had not kept up to date on the latest developments.
The jury selection was to break for Passover and Good Friday and resume next week. Opening arguments are scheduled for April 28.
The federal prosecutors, Lauren Resnick and Christine Dugger, were not part of the team that won the 1997 conviction, which came under a previous U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District, Zachary Carter. Roslyn Mauskopf is now in charge.
The defense team that won Nelson his acquittal and filed his successful appeal has also been replaced. The court-appointed firm of Quijano and Ennis has taken over for Trevor Headley and others.
Other than two federal investigators, the only people in the courtroom Tuesday with prior experience in the case were Nelson himself and Norman Rosenbaum, Yankel’s brother. Rosenbaum has flown in from Melbourne, Australia, to witness every proceeding related to the murder. Nelson and Rosenbaum seemed to avoid each other’s gaze.
Nelson, who was 15 at the time of the murder and is now 27, wore a suit and tie and seemed to be taking copious notes of the proceedings as he occasionally gestured to supporters.
Rosenbaum, who came directly from the airport to the courtroom, looked tired but upbeat as he also took notes.
During a break, Rosenbaum said he would remain in New York through Passover, until the trial’s conclusion.
"I’m taking one day at a time," he said. "I believe the last verdict was the right verdict, and that hasn’t diminished over time."
In one awkward and somewhat tense moment outside the courtroom, Rosenbaum was confronted by the brother of Charles Price, the man convicted with Nelson of civil rights violations in 1997. (After the reversal, he pleaded guilty to avoid a retrial in exchange for a lighter sentence.)
The man denounced Rosenbaum for calling his brother "malicious killer" on television, and announced that he would be filing a lawsuit against Rosenbaum.
"I’ll see you in court," Rosenbaum responded.