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Crown Heights Trials: 1992 & 1997

A Bloody Knife And A Riot, "why Did You Stab Me?", Civil Rights Charges Brought

Defendants: First trial: Lemrick Nelson, Jr.; second trial: Lemrick Nelson, Jr. and Charles Price
Crimes Charged: First trial: Nelson: Murder; second trial: Nelson and Price: Violation of civil rights
Chief Defense Lawyers: Nelson: Trevor L.F. Headley, Arthur Lewis, Jr., James Neuman, and Christine E. Yaris; Price: Darrell Paster and Anthony Ricco
Chief Prosecutors: Valerie Caproni, Zachary W. Carter, David C. James, Sari Kolatch, and Alan M. Vinegard
Judges: First trial: Edward M. Rappoport; second trial: David G. Trager
Place: Brooklyn, New York
Dates of Trials: First trial: September 23-October 29, 1992; second trial: January 16-February 10, 1997
Verdicts: First trial: Nelson: Not guilty; second trial: Nelson and Price: Guilty
Sentences: Second trial: Nelson: 191/2 years imprisonment, plus 5 years probation; Price: 21 years and 10 months imprisonment

SIGNIFICANCE: The significance of the Crown Heights trials depends upon one's point of view. The Hasidic community labeled the riots as "the first pogrom in America." The African-American population said the violence rose from long-standing tensions. The clash dramatized the discrimination felt by both groups: Caribbean immigrants, many without U.S. citizenship and Lubavitchers, an Orthodox Jewish sect whose insular lifestyle made them susceptible to stereotyping. Civil rights were violated and civil disorder was uncontained, if not countenanced, by the police. And finally, political pressure produced a second trial after the first resulted in an apparent mockery of justice. Did this put the defendant in double jeopardy? No, for (as the U.S. Supreme Court has consistently ruled), when the second case is brought by a separate government "sovereign," the Fifth Amendment principle that bars trying someone twice for the same crime does not apply.

At 8:30 on the evening of August 19, 1991, a motorcade carrying Hasidic Jews moved through the Crown Heights neighborhood in Brooklyn. One car ran a red light, hit another car, spun onto the sidewalk, and crashed into a wall. It hit two seven-year-olds, Gavin Cato and his cousin, Angela, pinning them under the car. The Hasidic driver was injured. Gavin, an African-American native of Guyana, was killed. Angela was injured.

Two ambulances, one Hasidic, the other non-Hasidic, arrived on the scene. In the mostly African-American crowd that quickly gathered, rumors spread that the Hasidic ambulance, which got there first, ministered to the Hasidic driver rather than the injured and dying children. As the crowd and rumors grew, people threw bottles and rocks to protest the treatment of the children. At about 11:00 P.M., someone shouted, "Let's go to Kingston Avenue and get a Jew!" A number of black youths then set off toward Kingston, a street of predominantly Jewish residents several blocks away, vandalizing cars and heaving rocks and bottles as they went.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1989 to 1994