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Yankel’s Brother: It’s Not Over

Jewish Week
Norman Rosenbaum, Yankel’s Brother

Hospital settlement won’t end Norman Rosenbaum’s quest for justice in ’91 Crown Heights slaying.

Nearly 14 years after the death of Yankel Rosenbaum at the outset of the Crown Heights riots, his brother says he will continue fighting for action, even after a settlement last week over faulty medical treatment at Kings County Hospital seemed to signal the final chapter in the saga.

“This does not close the book,” Norman Rosenbaum, an Australian lawyer, said Monday. “We are exploring what options exist.”

Those options, he said, might include legal recourse against the doctors who cared for his brother.

Meanwhile, Rosenbaum has not given up hope of identifying all the rioters who set upon Yankel in the first hours of what would become a four-day melee on Aug. 19, 1991.

“If they stood in that mob, they are equally guilty,” he said.

After more than a decade of legal proceedings, two were convicted in the attack, which was spurred by misinformation about the accidental death of a black child hours earlier.

Lemrick Nelson was convicted of stabbing Yankel, and Charles Price of inciting the rioters. Norman Rosenbaum said he was still seeking information about the crime.

“We have had investigators working on it for many, many years,” he said.

Such information would be useful today only if suspects could be charged as accessories to murder, since the statute of limitations has closed the door on any lesser prosecution.

Insisting the trail wasn’t cold, Rosenbaum noted the 41-year-old case against Edgar Ray Killen in Mississippi that culminated Tuesday in the former Klansman’s conviction for the manslaughter of civil rights activists Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney.

“It took 40 years in that case, and we’re not even at 14 on this one,” he said. “We’re out in front. People said we would never get Lemrick Nelson retried after he was acquitted and we did. People said we would never get anybody else [prosecuted] and we did.”

But Rosenbaum’s efforts have not always succeeded. In 2003 he tried in vain to convince a federal judge to sentence Nelson to longer than the 10 years recommended by federal guidelines following his conviction on civil rights charges. Nelson was released from prison in June 2004 after completing a 10-year sentence, most of it served while awaiting trial.

Price in April 2002 was sentenced to a term of 11 years, eight months and remains in prison.

Jury selection was to begin last week in the civil trial before Judge Marcia Steinhardt of state Supreme Court in Brooklyn when the city’s Health and Hospitals Corp. agreed to pay $1.25 million to Yankel Rosenbaum’s estate, admitting that “diagnostic and treatment errors made during the emergency room care provided to Yankel Rosenbaum in the hours after his stabbing played a role in his death.”

Yankel’s stab wounds, though serious, were determined in a state Health Department investigation not to have been life-threatening had one of them — in the left side of his chest — not gone undetected by doctors for nearly an hour while Yankel bled internally.

Rosenbaum noted that the investigation found that two emergency room residents, whose names have not been released, did not conduct a thorough examination of Yankel, nor did they document his vital signs or order a chest X-ray until an hour after he arrived. He said he wanted answers as to why that pattern of mistakes was made.

“There was a decision-making process that resulted in my brother being denied proper medical treatment,” Rosenbaum said.

A spokeswoman for the city’s Law Department, Kate O’Brien Ahlers, said: “According to our attorneys, individual doctors are covered by the HHC settlement.”

Noted trial attorney Ben Brafman, who has advised Rosenbaum on various legal matters, said Tuesday that it was unclear to him whether last week’s settlement precluded any further action in the matter.

“There is certainly a precedent of going against a medical facility and the individual doctors in separate theories of liability,” Brafman said. “The issue that may arise is whether or not a statute of limitations has been passed.”

The questions about Yankel’s treatment that led to the settlement played a significant role in the most recent of three criminal trials — one state, two federal — that resulted from the stabbing.

A member of the federal jury who had been a Kings County Hospital employee refused to convict Nelson of causing Rosenbaum’s death because she was aware of the litigation against the hospital, which was barred from testimony in the trial.

“How can you hold two people responsible for the same death?” this juror was quoted asking in a New York Times story.

As a result, the jury voted to convict Nelson of violating Yankel’s civil rights but not of causing his death.

A prior civil suit by members of the Crown Heights Jewish community against New York City, alleging that the police failed to restore calm in the neighborhood during the riots, was settled in April 1998 for $1.55 million. The city also paid the family of Gavin Cato, the boy killed in the car accident, $400,000 to settle a lawsuit in 2001.

The Rosenbaum family in their civil suit had sought $10 million in damages. Rosenbaum said the settlement would cover legal fees of the last 13 years and that his family did not expect to benefit from the funds.

“The most important thing in this case,” he said, “is that the Health and Hospitals Corp. admitted what happened, that it was stipulated and read into the court record that … errors were made.”