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Agudath Israel Reacts to Crown Heights Ruling


NEW YORK – Agudath Israel of America expressed its “profound pain” over the ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals vacating the federal civil rights convictions of Lemrick Nelson, Jr. and Charles Price for their role in the killing of Yankel Rosenbaum during the Crown Heights riots of 1991. The issue over which the convictions were vacated concerned the trial judge’s desire to ensure that the jury display racial and religious diversity. Toward that goal, when an ailing black woman was excused from the jury panel, the judge, David G. Trager, obtained the consent of both the prosecution and defense lawyers to remove a non-Jewish white juror and empanel a Jewish man and a black non-Jew from the alternate jury pool. The Appeals Court, in a divided opinion, found that the shuffling of jurors amounted to “racial and religious jurymandering.” The court’s majority acknowledged that Judge Trager’s actions were motivated by “the best of intentions,” but nonetheless found that they were “highly unusual’ and “improper,” and vacated the convictions.

Agudath Israel, which had urged and applauded the federal prosecution that resulted in the convictions, bemoaned the “tragic bottom line that a cold-blooded murder of an innocent Jew may go unpunished as a result of this unfortunate ruling.” Indeed, the Orthodox Jewish organization pointed out, no action has been taken to bring to justice any members of the marauding mobs that terrorized the Jewish community of Crown Heights for four long days in the summer of 1991 – thus rendering the conviction of Nelson and Price the only tangible display of justice for the entire pogrom-like incident.

“If even that one set of convictions falls by the wayside, as may well happen in light of the new ruling,” said David Zwiebel, Agudath Israel’s executive vice president for government and public affairs, “it would mean that the justice system totally failed the Crown Heights Jewish community, and all Americans and all who care about the rule of law.”

What makes the court’s ruling especially troubling is the fact that “Nelson’s and Price’s lawyers both consented to the very practice that the appellate court now says prejudiced their clients’ rights,” according to the Agudath Israel attorney. Indeed, one of the appellate judges dissented from the majority opinion, asserting that to vacate the sentences was not “a sensible remedy in this case.”

Despite his disappointment in the court’s decision, Mr. Zwiebel noted that the decision rejected the appellants’ challenge to the constitutionality of the civil rights statute under which the rioters were convicted. “The silver lining in this otherwise cloudy ruling is the court’s rejection of the contention that Congress had no authority to criminalize racially or religiously motivated attacks against Jews.

“That at least will allow the Justice Department to pursue new convictions against Nelson and Price, and bodes well for any future cases of this sort – may they never, ever happen again.”

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