What, Me Worry About Witness Intimidation?

John Lonuzzi, ex-Pres. of Brooklyn Bar Assn.

John Lonuzzi, ex-Pres. of Brooklyn Bar Assn.

Two days ago (12/11/13) I posted about the Brooklyn DA’s deplorable failure to investigate an apparent instance of witness intimidation. The alleged victim of Lebovits, MT, cooperated with prosecutors for almost two years. Suddenly, John Lonuzzi, a high-priced attorney, showed up purporting to represent the victim saying he did not want to testify because of external pressure. How did ADA Gregory respond? Did she investigate the possibility of witness intimidation? Did she insist on getting it from the horse’s mouth? No. She sent out four subpoenas which were unanswered and dropped the indictment. As anyone who works these cases knows, when you encounter this sort of thing, you send out ADAs and Detective Investigators, not pieces of paper. Later, the same witness reported feeling abandoned by the DA and police failure to reconnect with him.

This is an old pattern with the Brooklyn DA and in other jurisdictions where prosecutors kowtow to ultra-orthodox voting blocks. The Brooklyn DA added on another wrinkle. If an ADA discerned intimidation he or she was to refer it to ADA Louise Cohen in sex crimes. She in turned referred it to the Rackets Division for investigation. In Rackets, Mike Vecchione made it his business to never find anything.

According to Newsday (“Tripping up the Prosecution” by Stephanie Saul, May 28, 2003)

In 1995… Hynes’ office charged Rabbi Lewis Brenner with repeatedly sexually abusing a boy starting in 1992 and ending in 1995, when the boy, then 15, told police. Among other places, the alleged encounters occurred in the bathroom of the rabbi’s Brooklyn temple.

In a statement to the court, the boys’ devastated parents said he could not even attend school; he was so troubled by “a raging cyclone of hate.”

“Our son is with us physically today, but his self-respect, dignity and sense of worth were stolen from him at the tender age of 12,” the boys’ parents said. “Do you realize that you destroyed a world and our family, Mr. Brenner? You have stolen from our son the very essence of his life, his hopes, dreams and aspirations for the future.”

The charges against Brenner initially included 14 counts, including sodomy, sexual abuse, and endangering the welfare of a minor. But a plea agreement whittled the charges down to one felony, stunning a Brooklyn judge.

“Given the nature, gravity and frequency of the sexual contact alleged in the felony complaint, this court was surprised by the People’s plea offer and requested of the prosecutor a statement why it was forthcoming,” said acting Supreme Court Justice Charles J. Heffernan in a court ruling.

The district attorney’s office told the judge that the boy’s family agreed to the plea bargain … Recently, an official of the district attorney’s office said the family did not want to go through with a trial.

The plea arrangement left Brenner a free man — he got 5 years probation.

A variant of this line was also used when Menachem Deutsch got a sweetheart deal of six months jail time. As I posted back in June,

The Office of the DA claims the family agreed to the plea deal in order to spare the victims the trauma of testifying. This is the standard line of DAs dependent on Haredi votes when they cut sweetheart deals. But the sequence is strange. Normally it takes a while to get victims ready to testify. It is very unusual for them to be willing to testify from early on and then suddenly change their mind in the run-up to a trial.

In his twenty four years as Brooklyn DA, Charles Joe Hynes has never sent a single ultra orthodox witness intimidator to jail, not even for a single day. I do not believe this is an accident. Hynes understood that if he let the community get away with intimidating victims willing to testify, he would always have an alibi for dropping cases and giving out sweetheart plea deals. He would just blame it on those primitive ultra orthodox Jews who have a culture against testifying. Of course the truth is that consciousness of the issue is rising in the orthodox community and there are more rabbinical rulings and rabbis willing to support some victims in going forward. However, victims need protection from intimidators.

I am hoping that the incoming Thompson administration will take the problem of witness intimidation seriously, very seriously. If Thompson intends to fulfill his campaign promise to protect Jewish children from abuse, convicting some molesters will not be enough. He will have to successfully prosecute those who intimidate the victims. If he does that I believe more victims will come forward to testify against their abusers. I believe a determined DA can change the culture of silence instead of using it as an excuse for inaction.

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2 thoughts on “What, Me Worry About Witness Intimidation?

  1. This is such an important message regarding witness intimidation. It’s a crime and should be treated as such. I hope that Thompson will herald a new era in protecting both victims and witnesses.

  2. Thank you for writing this!! We need to start looking at Orthodox intimidators in sex-abuse cases similar to intimidation in gang murder cases. Their goals are the same – prevent a dangerous man from being convicted. Hopefully, we will see an aggressive push to punish those that seek to prevent justice from occurring.

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