Jewish man's hate crime case over attack on black man reopens old wounds in NYC neighbourhood

Tom Hays / The Associated Press
August 1, 2014 10:35 PM

FILE - This May 16, 2008 file photo provided by the New York City Police Department shows Yitzchak Shuchat. Shuchat has been extradited from Israel to face charges stemming from a 2008 attack on Andrew Charles, who was sprayed with mace and beaten with a nightstick in what an official called "an unprovoked attack." Brooklyn prosecutors say Shuchat pleaded not guilty, Friday, July 18, 2014 to second-degree assault as a hate crime, attempted assault and other charges. (AP Photo/NYPD)

NEW YORK, N.Y. - 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 New York City neighbourhood with a history of racial strife. That much is certain.

But six years later, the circumstances of the encounter in Brooklyn remain unclear, even as prosecutors pursue charges against 28-year-old Shuchat alleging he attacked Charles because of his race. Shuchat's supporters in the neighbourhood'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."

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 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.

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 reopened 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 neighbourhood has become more gentrified. But occasional violence linked to race or religion has persisted.

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 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.

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 defence 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 prosecutors sought his extradition. While he fought it, Crown Heights Jewish leaders circulated letters of support and started a defence fund.

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.


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