Kenneth Ryesky
Kenneth Ryesky

Two American Criminal Prosecutions For Us To Watch

As Willard Ritter stood in an Oyer and Terminer session of the Philadelphia Common Pleas Court in 1930, Judge Horace Stern had the unenviable task of deciding whether to imprison Ritter for the remainder of his life (as urged by the man’s defense attorneys) or send him to the electric chair (as urged by the Assistant District Attorney).  In order to preclude any doubt that the court’s decision to spare Ritter’s life was “guided by intellectual processes” and not by emotional sentiments, Judge Stern penned a rather lengthy opinion which sets forth society’s rationale for imposing penalties upon convicted criminals.  Judge Stern’s opinion distills into four categories the aims of criminal punishment:  (1) Reformation; (2) Restraint; (3) Retribution; and (4) Deterrence.

In Ritter’s case, Judge Stern declined to apply retribution; found reformation inapplicable because Ritter would have no future contact with society at large regardless of which sentence was imposed; saw that imposing the death penalty upon Ritter would not deter others in the heat of passion from committing similar crimes; and had good solid reason to expect that life imprisonment would adequately restrain Ritter from further endangering the public.

{Judge Stern would later go on to a multifaceted accomplished career on and off the bench, including but not limited to highly visible activity in Philadelphia Jewish communal organizations, and elevation to the Chief Justice’s chair of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.}.

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In the United States today are two ongoing prosecutions for crimes of comparable if not greater gravity than the one which inspired Judge Stern’s treatise on society’s rationale for punishing crime.  One of these is in the federal courthouse in Brooklyn, New York and the other in a Texas state courthouse.

Colinford Mattis and Urooj Rahman have pleaded guilty to resolve the charges against them in connection with throwing incendiary devices during a Brooklyn riot in which a New York City police car was incinerated.  Mr. Mattis and Ms. Rahman were each admitted to the practice of law at the time, but under New York Judiciary Law § 90(4), their guilty pleas resulted in their automatic disbarment as attorneys.  Their sentencing hearing is scheduled for this coming February.  Under the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines Manual § 3A1.4, the severity of their offense can be increased twelve levels under the so-called “terrorism enhancement,” which can, in their case, potentially lock them up for ten years.

Prosecutors’ careers are in effect charted by how many convictions they score.  Even those who intend to leave the prosecutor’s office and stake out careers on their own as defense attorneys will frequently build up a conviction record, and then, when starting their practices, send out announcements to all the people they got convicted that their services as criminal defense attorneys are available to the public; the jailhouse convicts’ execrations of the assistant prosecutors who put them away can be very effective advertising.

It is well to note that people accused of criminal offenses usually in fact did what they are accused of doing, and the job of a criminal defense attorney is to make sure that the prosecution dots all of the I’s, crosses all of the T’s, jumps through all of the hoops, skates around all of the barrels, does not cross the line of scrimmage before the ball is hiked, and honors all of the accused’s Constitutional rights. The defendant is technically the client, but the criminal defense attorney is actually defending the United States Constitution from the government’s demonstrated tendencies toward excesses.

I am pleased that the attorneys for Mattis and Rahman are ensuring criminal justice system’s integrity by mounting a vigorous defense.  That said, some of the defense arguments asserted are more than a little bit disturbing.  In fulfilling his duty to zealously advocate for his client, Rahman’s lawyer Paul Shechtman has effectively asserted that Rahman and Mattis should not receive any jail time at all because they got caught up “in the heat of the moment on one of the most heated nights in modern American history” (referring to the George Floyd rioting).  Shechtman has also asserted that arsonous acts admittedly done by Rahman are not crimes of violence (the two firefighters injured while responding to a 2002 Brooklyn insurance fraud fire would no doubt beg to differ).

How the terrorist enhancement plays into Judge Brian Cogan’s sentencing determination remains to be seen, and, to his credit, the judge is being very vague in his public utterances on the matter pending imposition of sentence.  Whatever call Judge Cogan makes can potentially serve as precedent in prosecutions of future social ferment participants.  This can have significant ramifications for social order in the United States.

Applying the penology theories expounded upon by Judge Stern, incarcerating Mattis and Rahman would restrain them.  If the regret they expressed is genuine, then they might be reformed, but perhaps a lengthy incarceration is necessary for the rehabilitation to kick in.  And while Judge Stern had serious reservations about the morality of retribution, perhaps a small taste of official vengeance may well be the language Mattis and Rahman best understand.

As for a deterrent effect, the fact that Mattis and Rahman were duly admitted attorneys at the time of their transgressions is significant because poor behavior amongst the New York’s cadre of lawyers is one of our profession’s dirtier little secrets.  Hardly a fortnight and nary a month passes without some New York attorney being disbarred, and Mattis and Rahman cannot be passed up as exemplars to deter bar members from violent criminal behavior, especially in view of Mattis’s former position where he drew a 6-figure salary from a Manhattan law firm.

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Meanwhile, in Texas, Randy Halprin has been granted a new trial.  Randy was one of the infamous “Texas Seven” who violently escaped from prison on 13 December 2000 and then went on a crime rampage, in which Police Officer Aubrey Hawkins was shot dead and run over by the vehicle the escapees had stolen.  Six of the seven escapees were apprehended, the seventh having suicided before being be captured.  The remaining six were all convicted of Officer Hawkins’s murder, and sentenced to death; four of them have now been executed.  Under Texas’s accomplice liability statute, the so-called “Law of Parties,” accomplices to criminal activities are subject to the same penalties as the primary perpetuator.

Randy Halprin did not receive a fair trial.  Unlike Judge Cogan in the case of Mattis and Rahman, who is credibly taking pains to at least appear impartial, Judge Vickers Cunningham unabashedly flouted his personal biases against Halprin, including his brash and unrestrained anti-semitic leanings.

And Randy Halprin’s defense attorneys, duty-bound to zealously advocate his cause and defend the United States Constitution, are appropriately advancing all the arguments they can muster in order to save his life; they no doubt are attempting to get mileage out of the fact that Randy himself was not the triggerman who shot Officer Hawkins.

Though not particularly likely, the possibility does remain that the Texas accomplice liability statute might be weakened or invalidated in the wake of Halprin’s retrial proceedings.  This would have a crippling effect upon fighting terrorism, because terroristic operations more often than not have collaborators, cooperators, and financial bankrollers whose accountability can often be exacted through the accomplice liability statutes.

Viewing the Randy Halpern case through the lens of Judge Stern’s treatise, even rejecting the legitimacy of retribution as the Judge seems to do, and even assuming the validity of the studies advanced by those who claim that capital punishment has little deterrent value, the efforts to reform Randy Halprin failed!  It was a severe and brutal battering of a 16-month-old child that landed Halprin in prison in the first place.  Nor did incarceration alone restrain Halprin, for the prison break entailed beating corrections officers and other inmates senseless; those inmates were sentenced to serve jail time, and not to be knocked unconscious!  Unlike Willard Ritter, Halprin remained a danger to society even while incarcerated.  It is not difficult to justify executing Randy Halprin.

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America’s social and political landscape has significantly changed since the Texas Seven broke out of jail in 2000.  There is much polarization and extremism, and the law enforcement community has understandably mobilized and circled its own wagons in the wake of the “defund the police” rhetoric with its accompanying increase in violence against police officers and police property.  Any lenity accorded to Halprin, Mattis, or Rahman may well cause an equal but opposite reaction amongst the law enforcement officers and their supporters, and any severity may well be used as a pretext for further lawlessness by the leftist elements.

History has shown time and again that domestic social upheavals in a country invariably injure the Jewish community.  The cases of Halprin, and of Mattis/Rahman therefore should concern American Jewry, the Mattis/Rahman one because it is in the home of America’s largest Jewish community, where, thirty years ago, one of its members was killed in an infamous riot fomented by Al Sharpton.

The Halprin case is especially consterning to the Jewish community because the defendant is one of our own, notwithstanding his highly nefarious crime.  We have a dilemma here because to us, all Jewish lives matter, even those of miscreants such as Randy Halprin.  We even seat “The Wicked Son” at our Passover seders; we do not disown him.  At the same time, there are potential outcomes to the Halprin case which would imperil our community’s security.  The fact is that Jewish law does provide for the sparing and judicious application of capital punishment in extreme cases.  Now that four of the Texas Seven have been executed, the political winds would likely dictate that Halprin be given commensurate treatment if in fact he is convicted following a fair trial.

{There are those who fear repercussions against the Jewish community at large if Halprin is accorded more favorable treatment than his cohorts.  Without in any way invalidating those fears, it is long past time for us to cease giving primary regard to what the nations of the world think of us.}.

Our approach to the Halprin prosecution, then should be to determine how we would handle a situation where a Jewish law enforcement officer is killed in the line of duty by a gentile, and apply the same standard to the Halprin case. Such is not a hypothetical because there are fallen Jewish LEOs on the Officer Down Memorial Page website, whose listed Jewish LEOs include (but are not limited to) Astel, Bloomfield, Borkin, Cantor, Fox (Barney and Leon), Gadell, Galapo, Gelles, Handloff, Katz, Kramer (Donald and Paul), Lewin, Marshalik, Mirell, Rakow, Reinheimer, Rosenfeld, Schiffries, Seiden, Seidenberg, and Weiner.  More killed Jewish cops than Jewish cop killers.

We need to steer a course of demanding a fair trial for Randy Halprin without in any way making a martyr of him in the highly possible event that he goes to the gurney.

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About the Author
Born in Philadelphia, Kenneth lived on Long Island and made Aliyah to Israel. Professionally, he worked as a lawyer in the USA (including as an attorney for the Internal Revenue Service), a college professor and an analyst for the U.S. Department of Defense. He's also a writer and a traveler.
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