New Trial In Crown Heights Slaying

Overturned police car in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, during 1991 racial riots.
Two black men convicted in the slaying of a Jewish scholar during the 1991 Crown Heights riots won a new trial Monday from a federal appeals court that found a judge's attempt to create a racially and religiously balanced jury was unconstitutional.

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel threw out the convictions of Lemrick Nelson Jr. and Charles Price, who are serving 20-year sentences for civil rights violations in the racially charged case that shook the city a decade ago.

The court said U.S. District Judge David Trager's effort to secure an unbiased jury was flawed, and instead gave the defendants a Jewish juror who had "expressed grave doubts about his ability to be objective."

"What the district court did in its effort to achieve a racially and religiously balanced jury was unquestionably highly unusual," the court said in its 2-1 ruling. "It was also improper."

No new trial date was set. Nelson, 27, and Price, 47, were sentenced in 1998.

Isaac Abraham, a spokesman for the family of the slain student, Yankel Rosenbaum, called the ruling "absolutely shocking."

"The decision today shows that the entire state and federal systems are worthless," Abraham said. "It's like taking Yankel's body out and killing him again. He was lynched for one reason: He was Jewish. It's only fair that someone should pay for it."

Defense lawyer James Neuman said he was pleased with the order for a new trial but disappointed that the appeals judges did not agree Nelson and Price were improperly charged in federal court.

"It's not a complete victory," he said. "I do think they stand a lot better chance because it's a second trial. They have a lot better idea what the prosecution is about."

Nelson is serving 19½ years in prison. Price, who was videotaped provoking the rioters, was sentenced to 21 years and 10 months.

Prosecutors did not return a telephone message seeking comment.

The case dates to Aug. 19, 1991, when a black 7-year-old, Gavin Cato, was struck and killed by a Jewish driver from the ultra-Orthodox Lubavitch community that is headquartered in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn.

Hours later, a gang of blacks shouting, "Get the Jew!" chased down and fatally stabbed the 29-year-old Rosenbaum. The violence over the next two days — including 188 injured and angry crowds breaking windows, shouting "Heil Hitler!" and burning the Israeli flag — reverberated around the world.

Nelson, then 16, was charged with killing Rosenbaum and was acquitted in state court. However, he and Price were convicted during a 1997 federal trial before Trager of violating Rosenbaum's civil rights.

The appeals court noted that Trager began the trial by announcing his intention to impanel "a moral jury that renders a verdict that has moral integrity."

During jury selection, the judge declined to exclude the Jewish man who had expressed doubts about his ability to be objective.

When a black juror was later excused, Trger did not simply replace the juror with the first alternate, who was white, but instead removed a white juror from the panel and filled the two spaces with a black juror and the Jewish juror, the appeals court said.

The selection of the jurors out of order from the list of alternates was a "clear violation" of the rules of jury selection, the court said.

"The trial court's race- and religion-based reconstruction of the jury, whatever its motivation, is impermissible in light of the courts' special commitment to equal protection," the judges wrote in their 109-page ruling.

In his dissent, Judge Chester Straub agreed with two other appeals jurists that the jury was improperly chosen but suggested it was not a severe enough error to warrant a new trial.

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