Lawyers for Rabbi Baruch Lanner have given official notice they intend to appeal his conviction for sexually abusing two teenage girls while he was their principal at a New Jersey yeshiva.
The notice of appeal, filed by New York defense attorney Nathan Dershowitz, comes on the heels of Rabbi Lanner being freed on bail last Friday by a two-judge New Jersey appeals court panel.
The rabbi had spent four days in jail to begin serving a seven-year sentence.
In granting the emergency appeal, the judges from the Superior Court Appellate Division in effect agreed with the defense’s contention that there were “substantial” questions about aspects of the June trial that led to the 52-year-old rabbi’s conviction and sentence imposed by Superior Court Judge Paul Chaiet.
“Having concluded that the case involves a substantial question that should be determined by the appellate court concerning the instruction to the jury on the second degree endangering the welfare of a child charge, we find that defendant satisfies the criteria for admission to bail pending appeal,” Judges Mary Catherine Cuff and Michael Winkelstein ruled.
As directed by Cuff, Chaiet raised Rabbi Lanner’s bail to $150,000 from $100,000. Bail was posted by Newark Dr. Nathan Zemel, the brother of one of the defense attorneys, Fred Zemel.
Rabbi Lanner is free pending the appeals process, which experts said could take many months.
An appellate court can do several things.
If it decides there were major errors in the trial made by the judge or jury, Dershowitz said the court could reverse the conviction and order a new trial, either with the same charges or dismissing some.
Or the court can uphold the conviction, and Rabbi Lanner would serve the sentence handed down Oct. 4.
“We will be arguing that the trial was sufficient and nothing needs to be done to it,” said Monmouth County Assistant Prosecutor Peter Boser told The Jewish Week Tuesday.
While it is too early to know the entire basis for Rabbi Lanner’s appeal, Dershowitz said several of the technical legal issues he raised at the bail hearing last week would undoubtedly be included.
“We have not articulated all the appellate issues,” Dershowitz said Tuesday.
Perhaps the most crucial defense challenge will be about Rabbi Lanner’s conviction on the most serious charge — endangering the welfare of a child, of which a 12-member jury in Freehold, N.J., convicted him in the case of a 14-year-old and 15-year-old girl between 1992 and 1996.
The women, now 23 and 21, testified that Rabbi Lanner touched their breasts and thighs over their clothes, and called them at home making inappropriate advances.
Dershowitz said he is appealing the endangerment charge because the prosecution did not prove, and the jury was not specifically directed to find, that Rabbi Lanner’s conduct “impaired or debauched the morals of the victims” — a criteria of making the charge.
Lawyers familiar with the case said that had Rabbi Lanner not been charged or convicted on the endangerment charges and convicted on only several lesser charges, he would have received probation and not had to serve any jail time.
At the sentencing Chaiet said, and the defense conceded, that prison sentences are virtually mandatory for second-degree child-endangering charges.
So if an appeals court decides that Rabbi Lanner being charged with or convicted of endangerment was somehow flawed, it could dismiss those charges, legal experts said.
If that happened, the potential punishment could drop dramatically.
In the case of the 21-year-old woman, that would leave only a charge of harassment by offensive touching, considered a relatively minor disorderly persons charge that would yield perhaps 30 days in jail.
In the case of the 23-year-old, that would leave only charges of aggravated criminal sexual contact, with a maximum of five years in prison. However, practically speaking, there would be no jail time, an expert explained.
Fred Zemel, a friend of Rabbi Lanner, said the ruling shows that God “did not forget Baruch Lanner.”
“He is an innocent man and with the help of God he will be vindicated,” said the Newark attorney.
Murray Sragrow, a rabbi and leader of a parental group urging more oversight for NCSY activities, expressed concern that “the possibility that the whole conviction could get overturned is a problem because it undercuts the entire reform effort within the Orthodox Union,” which for decades turned a blind eye to allegations of sexual misconduct by Rabbi Lanner.
Of Rabbi Lanner’s tearful pre-sentencing courtroom speech last week — where the rabbi admitted to making mistakes but did not directly apologize to the victims — Sragrow said: “There can be no doubt that his remarks at sentencing were crafted and designed in the most clever of Lanner methods.”
Dershowitz said that Rabbi Lanner has a lot of people who are very strong supporters, and those people have raised the funds to pay for the defense.