NYC hate-crime trial: Jewish vigilante or too zealous prosecution?
Yitzhak Shuchat, a white member of a Jewish neighborhood watch group, faces trial for an assault on a black man in Crown Heights in New York. Hate crime or something else.
New York — Yitzhak Shuchat, a white member of a civilian patrol group, and Andrew Charles, the black son of a police officer, came face to face in 2008 in a neighborhood with a history of racial strife — that much is certain.
But six years later, the circumstances of the encounter in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn remain murky, even as prosecutors pursue charges against 28-year-old Shuchat alleging he attacked Charles because of his race. Shuchat's supporters in the neighborhood's Orthodox Jewish community have reacted with dismay over what they call a hate crime investigation gone awry.
Authorities "took a minor incident and made it into a very serious situation," said state Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who is Jewish. "This could have been resolved a long time ago. It makes absolutely no sense."
The case received renewed attention last month when deputy U.S. Marshals retrieved Shuchat from Israel after he lost a lengthy extradition fight. He pleaded not guilty July 18 in a Brooklyn court to second-degree assault as a hate crime, attempted assault and other charges and was released on $300,000 bail put up by Jewish benefactors.
Prosecutors have yet to explain why they're treating the case as a racial incident, said Shuchat's attorney, Paul Batista. In other hate crime cases, there are typically racial slurs or other clear evidence of bias.
"I don't know where the hate element came in," Batista said. "Yitzy has no racial animus toward anyone."
Asked in a recent television interview to describe their encounter, Charles responded, "They attacked us, and that's about it." He didn't elaborate.
The Brooklyn district attorney's office declined to comment.
The case resurrected old wounds in Crown Heights, where violence exploded in 1991 after a black child, Gavin Cato, was accidentally hit and killed by a car in a Jewish motorcade. A group of blacks responded by stabbing to death a rabbinical student from Australia who was walking down the street.
Over the years the tensions in Crown Heights have dissipated as the neighborhood has become more gentrified. But occasional violence linked to race or religion has persisted — and can still stir up old fears.
In 2008, the New York Police Department increased patrols in Crown Heights after the incident with Charles and a report that a Jewish teenager was robbed and beaten by black kids.
According to police, Charles was walking with a black friend when they they were confronted by a white man who pepper-sprayed Charles. Then an SUV pulled up and a white passenger — later identified by police as Shuchat — jumped out and hit him with a nightstick.
Authorities concluded Shuchat and the other man were volunteers with the civilian patrol, Shmira, and convened a grand jury to look into the matter — a move criticized by the Jewish community but welcomed by black leaders.
"You can't have a group, whether it's the Bloods, Crips or Shmira, acting like vigilantes," then-District Attorney Charles Hynes told a local Jewish newspaper.
As The Christian Science Monitor has reported, there is more than one Jewish neighborhood watch group in Crown Heights.
“Citizens should be responsible for preserving safety and order in their own neighborhoods,” says Peter Moskos, a criminologist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “But the question to ask is if Shomrim fights against all crime they see or just against crime done to their people. If it’s the latter ... then they’re more like a private security agency.”
While the Jewish patrols have had the occasional flare-up with outside groups, they also sometimes feud among themselves.
“To be blunt, we have a rival patrol, and they’re not well-disciplined,” says Hershkop, referring to Shmira, whose members also operate in Crown Heights and who can easily be mistaken for Shomrim.
After learning he was wanted as a suspect, Shuchat fled to Israel through Canada amid claims he couldn't get a fair trial. He was indicted on the hate crime charges a few weeks later after prosecutors concluded bias was the only motive.
The defense doesn't dispute that Shuchat had a run-in with Charles. But it says Shuchat was responding to a radio call reporting that two black men were throwing rocks and cursing at Jews. It also claims Charles wasn't harmed despite being taken to the hospital.
"It was an argument between two people on the street," Batista said. "There's nothing more to it."
Shuchat started a family in Israel before Brooklyn prosecutors sought his extradition. While he fought it, Crown Heights Jewish leaders circulated letters of support and started a defense fund.
"Ytizy's young family does not deserve to be torn apart by a prosecution out to pander to rabble-rousers in the community," wrote the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council.
Community activist Taharka Robinson, who's advising Charles' family, said Shuchat's decision to leave the country was telling.
"I don't believe anyone would flee and go through Canada to get into Israel if they did not engage in an act that injured someone," he said.
Shuchat's supporters see the extradition as an opportunity for vindication.
"I'm glad he's back so things can be cleared up," Hikind said.
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