A tale of two killings

Did politics play a role when Rudy Giuliani demanded a federal civil rights suit against the killer of Yankel Rosenbaum, but opposed one in the Diallo case? Ya think?

Published March 1, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

An innocent man is killed in New York. A state jury acquits his assailant of all criminal charges, sparking public outrage. A leading New York political candidate stands on a platform with a relative of the victim, at the front of a rally of thousands in the neighborhood where the killing took place. The candidate also immediately calls for a federal civil rights investigation. The mayor, meanwhile, declares that the system has operated fairly.

If you guessed that victim was Amadou Diallo and the candidate was Hillary Clinton -- or maybe even Al Sharpton -- you'd be wrong: actually, that candidate was Rudy Giuliani.

In November 1992, mayoral contender Giuliani stood with former Mayor Ed Koch and then-U.S. Sen. Alfonse D'Amato on a platform in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, before a rally of more than 4,000 people outraged over the acquittal of the alleged killer of Hasidic scholar Yankel Rosenbaum. Rosenbaum was the victim of an apparent anti-Semitic attack on the first day of riots that would engulf that neighborhood for four days during the summer of 1991.

His assailant, a young African-American named Lemrick Nelson, walked scot-free three days earlier. The day of the acquittal, Giuliani called for the Justice Department to "immediately assume jurisdiction of this case." (Nelson was eventually tried and convicted on federal civil rights charges in early 1997 and sentenced to nearly 20 years in prison.)

Giuliani's reaction to the Diallo verdict, of course, couldn't be more different. After the verdicts were announced in the trial of four police officers accused of murdering the unarmed African immigrant, the mayor acknowledged the pain felt by Diallo's family, but then confidently declared that justice had been served and no federal civil rights prosecution would be justified.

"I know those rules like the back of my hand," he said of the Justice Department's criteria for bringing a federal civil rights prosecution. "I administered them maybe over 1,000 times. This case doesn't fall within those rules. The crux of those rules is a conclusion by the Justice Department that someone did not receive a fair trial. And I don't know how any fair-minded person could look at the way this case was conducted and not come to the conclusion that it fits well within the parameters of a fair trial."

Giuliani also decried the efforts of protesters before the trial who "tried to get this case resolved in the streets," and dismissed the possibility of reaching out to African-Americans disappointed with the verdict. Asked if he planned to reach out to people of color, and perhaps visit Harlem in the wake of the acquittal, he responded: "No. I think the very best thing to do would be for people to reflect on the trial, take a look at the evidence and not to engage in the same sort of analysis that took place as if, before the trial, as if the trial never took place."

The contrast between Giuliani's behavior in 1992 and now should not suggest that there is no merit to either of his positions: Most obviously, Rosenbaum's killing was certainly motivated by anti-Semitism (members of the crowd reportedly yelled, "Let's get the Jew!"). And in the Diallo case, a jury that included four African-Americans found the shooting a tragic accident, not murder or manslaughter.

However, as Giuliani embarks on yet another political campaign, his different reactions raise questions about whether and how he has used both cases for political advantage. Giuliani has long counted on Jewish voters -- particularly Orthodox Jews -- as one of the most reliable parts of his political base, and his alliance with Jews offended by the Nelson acquittal made political sense.

His stance after the Diallo verdict, meanwhile, may be seen as trying to flee from an issue that could only help energize groups that he has long since discarded: people of color and white liberals. (But Hillary Clinton is unlikely to raise the issue of Giuliani's potential hypocrisy; it is easy to imagine how such a contrast could quickly devolve into a war between Jews and African-Americans.)

The Crown Heights riots served as a potent symbol in Giuliani's 1993 campaign against David Dinkins, as he successfully drove home the message that lawlessness ruled under the incumbent administration. He called the riots "a pogrom," and appeared at a rally in City Hall Park in the middle of the campaign demanding a new investigation into the riots. "Never again!" he cried out.

Indeed, their significance continued to resonate into Giuliani's second term. In 1998 he formally apologized for the city's response to the 1991 riots and said the city would pay more than $1 million to settle a civil lawsuit by Hasidic residents of Crown Heights.

"In 1992, his political instincts and his legal instincts coalesced," said one longtime observer of city politics and sometimes admirer of the mayor. "Here they also coalesce: Politically, he wants to put this behind him and legally it's the appropriate thing to do."

Ken Fisher, a Democratic city councilman from Brooklyn, offered two potential explanations for the change in the mayor's behavior. "I don't think anyone suggested that the last words the cops said was 'Let's kill the black guy,'" said Fisher. "So if you give the mayor the benefit of the doubt, there's some striking differences between mob action and what happened with the police officers.

"If you want to ascribe some political motives," Fisher continued, "I think the mayor is not going to empower people who are his political enemies, like Al Sharpton, and is trying to slam the door on the notion that the police officers or the department did anything wrong -- because that would only help Sharpton and [Rev. Calvin] Butts to keep the issue alive through the fall election."

Mayoral spokeswoman Sunny Mindel said the two cases were very different. "In the case of Yankel Rosenbaum, he was killed because he was a Jew," said Mindel. "There was a mob mentality there, they were after a Jew. He was killed because of his religion. When you look at the situation around the Diallo incident, these guys got involved in a very unfortunate accident, but this was not racially motivated."

Mindel also pointed out that there was widespread agreement that the state prosecution of Nelson had been mishandled.

Giuliani is only partially correct in stating that the fairness of the state proceeding in the Diallo case -- and the racial motivation of the shooters -- determines whether a federal prosecution is necessary. Civil rights lawyers agree that determining whether another case should be pursued is extremely complicated.

There is at least one more similarity between the aftermath of the two verdicts: In 1992, then-Mayor Dinkins reacted to the acquittal of Nelson with seeming nonchalance. "I have no reason to doubt that the criminal justice system has operated fairly and openly," said Dinkins, who opposed a further investigation by the U.S. Justice Department.

In a typically Dinkins-esque maneuver, he soon changed his mind after searing criticism. (After Diallo, however, the former mayor had no such confidence in the state court verdict, and immediately announced that federal officials should review the case.) The chances that Giuliani will mimic his loathed predecessor -- and change his mind -- seem unlikely.

Former Mayor Ed Koch, who stood with Giuliani to protest the Nelson verdict in 1992, said he does not think a federal prosecution is warranted in this case, since there has been no allegation of bias by the police officers. Nevertheless, he was critical of the mayor's reluctance to reach out to New Yorkers upset by the verdict.

"He has no credibility at this moment and he should understand that people are going to boo him," said Koch. "But notwithstanding that he should try to reach out -- because he's the mayor. That's his job: to reach out to people, even to those who believe you're not fair. That's your job and if you don't like that job you shouldn't be mayor."

"The only time that he's able to show compassion," Koch added with a chuckle, "is when it's directed at people who support him."

By Jesse Drucker

Jesse Drucker covers politics for Salon from New York.

MORE FROM Jesse Drucker

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Hillary Rodham Clinton Rudy Giuliani