By Stepahanie Clifford (New York Times)
May 16, 2014
A sexual abuse case that divided the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn and created rifts in the borough’s district attorney’s office ended on Friday as a once-prominent cantor pleaded guilty to molestation.
Under the terms of the plea agreement, the cantor, Baruch Lebovits, will receive a sentence of two years, but will receive credit for the 13 months he has already served under a previous conviction on the same charges.
The initial conviction in 2010, which was overturned, was seen as a high-profile victory for Charles J. Hynes, then the district attorney, who was trying to combat criticism that he was too lenient in prosecuting sexual abuse cases among ultra-Orthodox Jews. Mr. Lebovits was found guilty of molesting a teenage boy on eight occasions several years earlier, and was sentenced to between 10 ½ and 32 years in prison.
But in 2012, an appeals court overturned the conviction and authorized his release, ruling that he had been deprived of a fair trial because prosecutors took too long to turn over a detective’s notes about a witness.
The case then took a strange turn when Samuel Kellner, who had helped investigators in the case against Mr. Lebovits, had charges filed against him.
In 2008, Mr. Kellner’s son, who was 16 at the time, told his father that Mr. Lebovits had molested him. Advised by law enforcement officials that a trial was unlikely because the allegations involved misdemeanors, Mr. Kellner began working with a detective to find other victims of Mr. Lebovits, which helped bring forth the victim who testified at Mr. Lebovits’s trial.
A day before Mr. Lebovits was released in 2012, Mr. Kellner was indicted on charges of paying $10,000 to a third young man — not the youth Mr. Lebovits was convicted of molesting — to tell a grand jury that he had been abused by Mr. Lebovits, and of trying to extort $400,000 from Mr. Lebovits’s family.
The indictment came as Mr. Hynes was receiving more criticism for ceding authority in abuse complaints to rabbis. Advocates for victims denounced Mr. Kellner’s indictment, saying he was being punished for his activism.
On the day Mr. Kellner’s trial was to begin in 2013, prosecutors said that the young man who said he received $10,000 from Mr. Kellner had gotten money from Mr. Lebovits’s supporters. The young man also frequently changed his story.
The trial was delayed. Then this year, at the request of prosecutors, a judge dismissed all charges against Mr. Kellner, as prosecutors said two of their witnesses had lost their credibility.
Kenneth P. Thompson, who succeeded Mr. Hynes, appeared to be proceeding toward trial with a new case against Mr. Lebovits. In November, just after Mr. Thompson was elected, he asked Mr. Hynes not to take a plea from Mr. Lebovits so that Mr. Thompson could review the case once he took office. In January, Mr. Thompson added Anna-Sigga Nicolazzi, a top homicide prosecutor, to work on the case.
The victim, however, was reluctant to testify again, according to a lawyer who worked on the case, who asked not to be identified because some discussions were confidential. And both prosecutors and the defense felt that the sentence in the initial case was harsh given that Class E felonies, which Mr. Lebovits was convicted of, usually receive much less time.
Prosecutors had been offering Mr. Lebovits four to 12 years, according to the lawyer. Last week, Mr. Lebovits’s lawyers sent a memorandum to Justice Mark Dwyer of State Supreme Court in Brooklyn, arguing for a lighter sentence, citing those given to others who had pleaded to similar crimes. The judge said he favored a two-year sentence based on his research into typical sentences, and asked prosecutors to return with their best offer, according to the lawyer. Prosecutors returned with an offer of two to six years.
Because Mr. Lebovits will get credit for his time served, he will most likely only serve a few months in prison, after an expected sentence reduction for good behavior is factored in.
A lawyer for Mr. Lebovits, Arthur L. Aidala, praised Justice Dwyer, saying that he “looked at this case for what it was.”