Israel Weingarten, the yeshiva teacher charged in Brooklyn, N.Y., federal court with sexually abusing his daughter for seven years, since she was 9years old, was found guilty Wednesday on all five counts.
With 14 federal marshals lining the courtroom, Eastern District of New York Judge John Gleeson warned the audience against emotional outbursts, but the verdict was met with near silence. With its pro se defendant, sensational charges and furtive peeks behind the closed doors of the secretive Satmar society, United States v. Weingarten has transfixed the Brooklyn legal community.
Following the announcement of the verdict, Weingarten, who appeared pro se, told the court, “As I said to the judge in the beginning, I need adjournment because I was unprepared and I was denied that.” Gleeson responded, “You have your objection, you have my ruling. I’ll see you [for sentencing] on April 3.”
The victim, surrounded by five marshals, sat in the front left aisle; six of Weingarten’s other seven children, who claim their father is innocent, sat in the front right. Afterwards, the victim compared being cross-examined by her father to “being molested again.”
Asked why she came to hear the verdict announced, she said, “Because I’ve been waiting my whole life for this, since I was 10 years old.” The other six children, who accuse their mother and the victim of molesting them, said their father has already selected an attorney who will begin representing him prior to sentencing, though they declined to name the attorney.
Weingarten faces up to 10 years on each count, which can run consecutively at the court’s discretion, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Weingarten had appeared in court defending himself against the charges for the past two weeks. In his closing arguments Tuesday, Weingarten focused on the inconsistencies in the government’s case.
After Weingarten’s daughter testified in graphic detail of years of molestation and sodomy at her father’s hands, and his ex-wife told the jury about the beatings that kept both her and her daughter from reporting the abuse, Weingarten declined to take the stand.
Instead, in Tuesday’s meandering and often indecipherable closings, he attempted to sow doubt by pointing out numerous minute contradictions in the testimony against him — the time of day a fight took place, the side of the bed the daughter slept in, whether she massaged his stomach before or after he allegedly forced her hand down his pants.
“Those such of things aren’t small and the slightest things,” Weingarten said in thickly accented English during his closing. “If two things contradict each other, we have no justice. It shows it’s a setup.
“Everything is contradicted, from top to bottom, from one place to another place.” Weingarten told the jury. “Nothing is true.”
Since the trial began, Eastern District of New York Judge John Gleeson’s courtroom has been filled to capacity with prosecutors, Chasidic Jews, reporters and off-duty courthouse personnel. U.S. Attorney Benton J. Campbell watched Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrea Goldbarg’s opening arguments. Judge Nicholas Garaufis watched her examine witnesses. Many of the court reporters and Yiddish translators assigned to the case, when not on duty, joined the audience. When asked if she was still on duty, one translator said she was merely “kibbitzing.”
JUDICIAL BALANCING ACT
Weingarten’s case landed in federal court because of the victim’s claims that her father transported her back and forth between New York, Israel and Belgium to facilitate the sexual abuse.
From the beginning, the case had tested Gleeson’s ability to balance the defendant’s right to a fair trial with a judge’s duty to follow the basic rules of evidence and trial practice.
With a pro se defendant, “Your choice is either to enforce [the rules], and make it really hard for this person to function without objection, or not enforce them and give them a kind of benefit,” said Daniel C. Richman, a Columbia Law School professor of criminal procedure.
That difficult balancing act has contributed to a “prevailing theme in the Supreme Court in recent decades of, yes, there is this right, and yes, it will be protected, but we’re not real happy with it,” Richman added. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled, for example, that judges may impose counsel at trial or deny pro se representation on appeal.
In defending his case, Weingarten — who has been identified in the press as a rabbi, though members of the Chasidic community confirmed that he is a “rebbe,” the Yiddish word for teacher — demonstrated why courts may resist pro se defendants.
At the outset, Gleeson repeatedly encouraged Weingarten to accept representation, advising him that an attorney would stand a much better chance of gaining an acquittal. Following Weingarten’s steadfast refusal, Gleeson spent the next two weeks trying to curtail the defendant’s digressions, his departures from the rules of evidence, his occasional chastising of witnesses and his frequent interruptions of the judge himself.
Gleeson, who is known for keeping attorneys on a short leash, employed a strategy of strong language imparted in soft tones.
“Stop interrupting me” and “move on, move on” delivered in a measured voice were the judge’s mantras throughout the case.
Gleeson might have seemed a tough draw for Weingarten. The judge worked as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in New York’s Eastern District, the same office prosecuting this case, for nearly a decade, ultimately as the chief of the criminal division, before joining the bench in 1994. He also has two daughters of his own.
As one veteran defense attorney predicted early in the trial, “Gleeson’s biggest challenge will be to not lose his temper.”
The judge, however, demonstrated deep reserves of patience, at least in front of the jury.
He generally allowed Weingarten wide breadth regarding the most common pitfalls for pro se defendants, such as hearsay issues and confusing questioning with testifying.
And his chastisements, though frequent, were generally gentle. When Weingarten became frustrated by a series of sustained objections while cross-examining his daughter, Gleeson calmly told him, “There are problems that go along with deciding to represent yourself. It’s hard.”
Indeed, the difficult balance between a fair trial and rewarding the defendant for refusing counsel was never more evident than during Weingarten’s cross-examination of his daughter.
Before a packed courtroom, Weingarten attempted to elicit seemingly minor inconsistencies in his daughter’s horrific story. Gleeson sat at the edge of his podium, just a few feet above the daughter’s right shoulder, giving her a visible sense of protection, while also requiring her to answer her father’s questions. She frequently turned and addressed the judge directly, asking if she had to answer a question, telling him she could not understand what her father meant.
At one point, when Weingarten angrily raised his voice, his daughter seemed to quizzically ask the judge, “Objection?” though no such objection was recorded in the transcript. In any case, Gleeson paused, then answered, “Sustained.”
MOMENTS OF FRUSTRATION
By the end of her two days on the stand, the daughter, now 27, seemed to have gained strength. When Weingarten, who tended to speak in the third person, asked her about “your father,” she said, “No, it was you, it was you who did that.”
During sidebars and when the jury was adjourned, the judge expressed his frustrations more freely.
On one such occasion, Weingarten asked for a sidebar after the prosecution’s direct examination of his ex-wife.
The ex-wife had testified about, among other things, the day her daughter revealed the years of abuse.
Weingarten complained that the Yiddish translator had been inaccurate.
Gleeson asked for an example, and Weingarten said that when his ex-wife testified that he had returned to the United Stated to visit his dying father, the translator had translated dying as merely “sick.”
“And you think that was the important part” of the testimony? Gleeson asked, in evident exasperation. “You can ask her about that on cross-examination,” he said, then brusquely walked out of the courtroom.
With his refusal to heed advice and orders, the defendant frustrated most everyone involved in the case, perhaps his legal advisors, Barry Rhodes and Alan Stutman, most of all.
In a heated discussion just before the jury entered the courtroom to hear Weingarten’s closings Tuesday, an angry Rhodes could be heard telling Weingarten, “That’s a little different than what you said before. But you know something? That’s not true either.”
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