Lemrick Nelson, the black man who murdered 29-year-old Jewish doctoral student Yankel Rosenbaum during the 1991 Crown Heights riots, isn’t easy to find. His name last appeared in the New York press in December 2014, after police found him passed out in a parked car with an open bottle of scotch. Nelson had said he cleaned up his alcohol use, which was blamed for Rosenbaum's death. His murder of Rosenbaum, Nelson said in a 2003 trial, was just a mistake, if not the consequence of his crippling disease.
For a brief period of his life, Nelson was one of the luckiest men in the city. After he was acquitted in a criminal trial, Nelson faced no consequences for over a decade. Nelson’s murder trial turned into a nationwide spectacle with race baiters and agitators like Al Sharpton and other black church leaders rushing to his defense, simultaneously justifying Rosenbaum’s murder while also arguing his innocence.
The evidence was clear. Rosenbaum identified Nelson as the man who stabbed him in his last hours of life, and police found a knife in Nelson's pocket with blood on it that closely matched Rosenbaum's DNA. Police testified during the trial that Nelson admitted to the crime. But the jury found him not guilty of murder.
Why the jury ruled that way in the face of indisputable evidence remains a subject of debate—some say the prosecution botched the case, but others point to bias on the jury. According to the New York Times, jurors were seen "[hugging] and [kissing]" Nelson at a dinner organized by his attorney the day after he was proclaimed innocent.
New York mayor David Dinkins, the city’s first black mayor, declared that the city's criminal justice system "operated fairly and openly" in a speech following the verdict. His conduct following the verdict indicated, as New York Magazine explained in December 1992, Dinkins's belief "that it is necessary to accommodate black rage."
Much of the media viewed Nelson’s conduct through this ideological prism. A reporter at the Times wrote that the violence against Jews that took place in Crown Heights was the result of "rage" of New York blacks whose "grievances were not the well-articulated ones of the middle class." Another similarly wrote in April 1992 that the arrest of a suspect in Rosenbaum’s murder "served only to expose the scars left from the racial violence last summer," indicating that the community's Jewish population shared the blame.
Unlike his media allies, Nelson never bothered justifying his attack on Rosenbaum with some broader social or political message. Years after his acquittal, Nelson said he murdered Rosenbaum, a son of Holocaust survivors, not because of any anti-Semitic prejudice or economic anxiety but because he was drinking that day and "got caught up in the excitement" of the protests.
Nelson had a habit of getting caught up in the excitement. In 1994 he slashed a high school classmate with a razor blade in an Atlanta suburb and later pleaded guilty to carrying a concealed weapon and aggravated assault. He was banned from the state of Georgia.
A year later, Nelson responded to police questioning outside a Crown Heights apartment by assaulting the police officer. He was later charged with second-degree assault, resisting arrest, and disorderly conduct. Nelson’s lawyer, Trevor Headley, said his client was a victim of police brutality.
Nelson eventually served 10 years in federal prison for violating Rosenbaum’s civil rights, a charge Attorney General Janet Reno was reluctant to bring. New York senator Alphonse D'Amato, the last Republican to represent the state in the U.S. Senate, called the Clinton administration's inaction "a national disgrace." Not until the Senate voted 97-0 in favor of a resolution calling for a DOJ investigation did Reno change her mind. Following a conviction for civil rights violations in 1997, Nelson got the verdict vacated on appeal due to supposed jury bias. He was retried in 2003 and found guilty.
Nelson expressed remorse at the end of the 2003 trial, telling the court he would do anything to bring Rosenbaum back and wanted to change his life. "If there was anything I could do to bring him back, I’d do it in a heartbeat," Nelson said during his sentencing hearing in August 2003. "Now I would like to move on and put the past behind me and become a better man, rather than a belligerent young boy."
Because he had already served time prior to the sentence, he was released under a year later in June 2004.
Rosenbaum's murder wasn't the first instance of deadly anti-Semitic crime in Crown Heights. Nearly two decades earlier in 1975, a black mugger killed Auschwitz survivor Israel Turner as he returned home from a Sukkot celebration—the mugger would not accept Turner's explanation that his Jewish faith forbade him from carrying money on the Sabbath. During his funeral, a mob outside the synagogue yelled "Hitler was right" and "Heil Hitler" at Jewish mourners.
There were other murders, beatings, and violence against Jewish businesses, but none earned the kind of media coverage and outrage as Rosenbaum’s. Jewish intellectuals and local leaders long lamented the ethnic tensions in New York, although few others seemed to care. As journalist Dorothy Rabinowitz wrote in 1978, "The public expression of anti-Semitic sentiment, as a means of conveying political antagonism seems now to have become normal."
In other words, there was a broad acceptance by city leaders, and plenty of Democrats nationally, that anti-Semitism was a form of protest by the black community. They didn’t really hate Jews, they hated the system. Most of those victims were quickly forgotten and rarely made the front page of New York’s papers. Instead, Jews and New Yorkers alike were treated to lengthy soliloquies about "alienation and a growing despair" in the black community by the Times and other left-wing outlets.
But for Jews and other New Yorkers who grew increasingly mortified by the extent of senseless violence that plagued the city, Nelson transformed into a symbol of a broken system. Non-Jewish residents realized that toleration of anti-Semitism by political leadership was merely a symptom of a broader crisis. Dinkins never seemed to care and repeatedly dismissed his Jewish critics.
"I know what I did and what I said and I am satisfied with my behavior," Dinkins told reporters in January 2003, reflecting on his one term in office. As the results of the 1993 mayoral elections demonstrated, New Yorkers were not. Voters went on to elect the first Republican mayor since 1971 with Rudy Giuliani, who lost to Dinkins in 1989.
On a platform of law and order, Giuliani earned over 50 percent of the Jewish vote, a feat Republicans have yet to replicate in any large election since.