In a dramatic change of strategy, defense attorneys for Lemrick Nelson Jr. are not contesting the charge that he fatally stabbed Yankel Rosenbaum during the Crown Heights riots of 1991.
During opening arguments today, attorney Richard Jasper told jurors at the federal courthouse in Brooklyn that Nelson’s intention was not to violate Nelson’s civil rights. He said that Nelson, then 16, had been drunk at the time of the attack and was caught up in the "excitement" of the crowd.
"This is not a homicide case, this is not a manslaughter case, not an assault case," said Jasper. "This is a civil rights case and one of the critical issues is why the attack took place."
Jasper said he would introduce witnesses, including detectives and classmates of Nelson, to whom Nelson said that he carried out the attack because he was drunk, never mentioning a religious or racial motive.
In the previous civil rights trial, in 1997, in which Nelson was convicted, Nelson’s defense team had claimed mistaken identity. During the sentencing for that trial, Nelson said he was "a scapegoat." Prior to that trial, Nelson had been acquitted of murder charges.
Rosenbaum’s brother, Norman, an attorney in Australia, said of the defense team’s new approach, "This is a major change in strategy."
Given the defense’s move, prosecutors will now have to shift their emphasis away from forensic evidence and toward establishing Nelson’s motive.