Twist in Crown Heights trial brings fresh wave of outrage

NEW YORK — Chanina Sperlin spits out the words like a bad taste to describe Lemrick Nelson Jr., now standing trial in the 1991 slaying of a Chassidic Jew.

"This is one rotten apple that came out. So what do you do with a rotten apple? You throw it in the garbage."

Sperlin, chairman of the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council, was reacting to the latest, alcohol-laced, legal twist in the infamous Brooklyn case that marked four days of race riots in New York City 12 years ago and soured black-Jewish relations for years.

Nelson, 27, is facing a retrial on civil rights charges in the Aug. 19, 1991, stabbing death of 29-year-old yeshiva student Yankel Rosenbaum, an Australian studying in the United States.

Jews across the area widely echoed the distaste for Nelson, who at the trial's opening on Monday admitted for the first time that he killed Rosenbaum, but insisted it was because he was drunk and not because Rosenbaum was Jewish.

"I would hope that a jury would recognize that being filled with beer doesn't preclude being filled with hatred," said Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, a fervently Orthodox group.

At the same time, Jewish leaders say the new trial and their skepticism about Nelson's latest tack should not reopen old black-Jewish wounds.

This is the third trial in the Crown Heights saga, which began when a motorcade carrying the late Lubavitch Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson fatally struck a 7-year-old black child, Gavin Cato.

Rumors quickly spread that a Chassidic ambulance service aided the injured driver but ignored Cato and a young cousin, touching off long-simmering tensions in Crown Heights between the fervently Orthodox Lubavitch Chassidim, and Caribbean Americans and African Americans.

In a 1992 state trial, Nelson was acquitted of murder and related felony charges. Five years later, then Attorney General Janet Reno won a federal court civil rights conviction that sent Nelson to prison for 19 years.

A co-defendant, Charles Price, 47, was convicted at the same time of leading a mob, including Nelson, that shouted either "get the Jew" or "kill the Jew," according to various reports, and hunted down Rosenbaum.

But a federal appeals court last year overturned the convictions on grounds that the judge manipulated the jury's racial makeup, and ordered a new trial.

In the opening of the retrial in Federal District Court in Brooklyn on Monday, Nelson's attorneys introduced a new defense.

In a dramatic reversal, they admitted that Nelson stabbed Rosenbaum. But, they said, he did it because he was drunk, not because the victim was Jewish, and therefore Rosenbaum's civil rights were not violated.

But two New York police detectives who arrested Nelson the night of Rosenbaum's stabbing testified in court Tuesday that they did not detect any signs of Nelson being intoxicated.

And Jewish leaders in the area insist that Nelson was fueled by anti- Semitism and not by a day of drinking 40-ounce beers.

Still, they say, blacks and Jews in Crown Heights have worked hard to foster better relations since 1991.

"The relationship has changed 100 percent, because there is communication," Sperlin said. "You can't compare then to now."

For example, the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council sponsored the rehabilitation of a 112-unit low-income rental building that will largely house blacks.

Sperlin said he and other local Jewish leaders and leaders of the African American and Caribbean American communities also regularly keep in contact.

"I have their home numbers; they have my home number, my beeper number, my cell number. We are always in communication, even when we are not in crisis."

Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the New York-based Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, which promotes black-Jewish ties, said the latest Crown Heights trial must be seen "on both a micro and a macro level."

Locally, the Nelson trial is once again moving through a "tense" jury selection that should ultimately reflect the community's demographics, he said.

Yet the case "has little to do with blacks and Jews nationally," he added.

Still, in the wake of the latest Crown Heights twist, Jewish anger was apparent over the case that does not seem to go away.

In a statement, Michael Miller, executive vice president of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, called Nelson's new defense a "cynical manipulation" of the legal system and "a cruel twisting of the knife in the back of Yankel's family and friends."

Schneier, too, believes it was indeed a "racial attack," but does not want to "reopen these old wounds" by dwelling on it.

This time, "we can disagree in a respectful manner, and that was not the case in 1991," he said.