More than three months after an appeals court overturned guilty verdicts in the federal Crown Heights trial, prosecutors have reached a plea deal with one defendant and are reportedly discussing an agreement with murder suspect Lemrick Nelson, Jr.
Charles Price, 49, saw his original sentence cut in half Friday, from 22 years to 11 years, eight months after admitting that he incited black rioters to kill Yankel Rosenbaum on Aug. 19, 1991.
Nelson, 27, who was acquitted in state court of stabbing Rosenbaum to death and was later convicted on civil rights charges, remains in legal limbo at a federal prison while prosecutors decide their next move in the racially charged case.
In a statement, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District, Alan Vinegrad, said the sentence for Price was “meaningful and serious punishment” and that the Justice Department “will pursue our civil rights prosecution of Lemrick Nelson, Jr., until he, too, is brought to justice.”
But Nelson’s lawyer, James Neuman, told reporters last week that he has discussed a plea deal with prosecutors.
In a phone interview, Vinegrad would not comment on whether a plea deal had been discussed, but said he is still considering whether to contest the ruling that overturned the convictions. “We have filed a motion asking for an extension of the period to file a petition for a rehearing [of the appeal]. We now have until April 26 to make that motion.”
It is the fifth such extension granted to Vinegrad, who is also mulling his next moves in the Louima police torture case, in which several convictions were also overturned on appeal.
The U.S. solicitor general, Theodore Olson, has said he would authorize no request for a hearing of the Crown Heights case before the full appellate court. The remaining option is a rehearing before the same tribunal, which voted 2-1 to void the convictions on the grounds that race was considered during jury selection.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, did not take issue with the reduced sentence for Price, but said he opposed such an agreement for Nelson.
“How do you plea bargain with a murderer?” asked Foxman. “He has gotten off on all kinds of technicalities or judicial mis-happenings. But there is no question in anyone’s mind that he is a murderer. The case is not closed, and that’s what matters.”
Price was caught on videotape urging fellow black men to attack Jews on Aug. 19, 1991, the night a chasidic driver accidentally killed a black child, Gavin Cato. Prosecutors referred to Price as “the bald black man” for years until a suspect in an unrelated case produced a tip that led to his arrest.
With credit for time served, Price could be out of jail by 2006. Appearing Friday before Judge David Trager of Federal District Court in Brooklyn, the same justice who sentenced him in 1997, prosecutors said he had urged a crowd to “take Kingston,” a heavily Jewish avenue in Crown Heights. He insisted that while he was not biased against all Jews, he felt at the time that Jews in the area received preferential treatment and “revenge was appropriate.” He said that as a result of his actions, Rosenbaum was attacked and that he “felt sorry for all the people who were hurt and died” during the riots, which lasted four days.
Rosenbaum’s brother, Norman, an Australian who has been waiting here for a Justice Department decision in the case, attended the plea hearing. He said that while the final sentence was “not insignificant,” Price’s statement constituted “the bare minimum required in order for the judge to accept the plea bargain. The fact is, he has no remorse and made no apology.”
Rosenbaum said he was “disgusted” that authorities had not contested the appellate court ruling. “They’re going soft on justice, and soft on law and order,” said Rosenbaum, an attorney. “The Justice Department in this case refuses to bring the full weight of the law down on Lemrick Nelson and Charles Price. I’ve been speaking to the Justice Department regularly and they have never had an explanation for why the solicitor general has refused to authorize the appeals. They’re giving a freebie to the defendants.”