NOW that Attorney General Janet Reno at last has taken over the investigation into the controversial Crown Heights case, her department has its work cut out for it.
Despite months of prodding from New York's Hasidic community to urge her to step into the legal process, one can understand her hesitancy: Not only is the case politically and racially charged, but some time has elapsed since the incident took place, which makes reconstructing evidence all the more difficult.
The case, in which a rabbinical student was murdered during riots in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn in August 1991, has been a point of deep contention in New York City. One reason for David Dinkins's defeat in last year's mayoral election is the public perception that his administration failed to take a sufficiently firm hand either in stopping the riots or in getting to the bottom of the killing. The riot began after a car driven by a Hasidic Jew accidentally struck and killed a black child. Whoever subsequently stabbed Yankel Rosenbaum - who was not in the car - was part of a larger mob.
State murder charges were brought against Lemrick Nelson Jr. The jury found him not guilty, and several members of the panel were said to have gone to a party with him after the trial. Outraged, the Hasidic community demanded a state report. The report held that the state trial had been seriously compromised by inept work by police and prosecutors.
Now, new evidence has pointed to another suspect, Ernesto Edwards. That is why a federal probe is so necessary. Mr. Nelson cannot be retried on state homicide charges. But he and Mr. Edwards could be brought before a federal court if a grand jury hands up indictments.
It is vital that the Justice Department take all possible steps to get to the bottom of the killing. New Yorkers of all races were appalled at Mr. Rosenbaum's murder, just as they were at the accidental death of the young child. The people of the racially mixed community of Crown Heights, who must live and work with each other day after day, deserve to have this terrible incident resolved.