The only man tried in the 2013 beating of a fashion student by a mob of Hasidic Jewish vigilantes is appealing his conviction, arguing that prosecutors relied on junk science to tie his DNA to the scene. The prosecution, his lawyer argues, was meant to "scapegoat" the man, Mayer Herskovic, 23, while protecting politically connected members of Williamsburg's Hasidic neighborhood patrol.
Herskovic, an HVAC worker and father of two, was convicted in March 2016 of assault, unlawful imprisonment, and menacing, for what prosecutors said was his role in the December 2013 attack on Taj Patterson. Patterson, who is gay and African American, was walking home drunk on Flushing Avenue early one morning when 15-20 men chased him down near Bedford Avenue, falsely accusing him of breaking car mirrors. The attack that followed left Patterson blind in one eye.
Police with Williamsburg's 90th Precinct reportedly tried to close the case the following day without investigating, but reopened it when Patterson's mother contacted the media. The following spring, after overcoming what one detective said was unprecedented stonewalling by neighbors, officers arrested five men in connection with the beatdown. However, witnesses subsequently recanted, and prosecutors dropped charges against two of the suspects, Aharon Hollender and Joseph Fried. Another man fingered by witnesses, Joel Itzkowitz, was never charged. Herskovic's lawyer, Donna Aldea, argues that this is because Itzkowitz's brother is Jacob Itzkowitz, coordinator for the local Shomrim volunteer police group, the Williamsburg Safety Patrol.
"I think that it was a case that demanded that somebody be held accountable for what happened to Taj Patterson, and I think Mayer was a sort of easy target to go after," she said. "What I think is striking is that not only is the evidence so weak, in fact, nonexistent against him—the evidence was so much stronger against the people who had their charges dropped or were not charged in the first place."
The other two remaining defendants pleaded guilty to unlawful imprisonment as part of deals with prosecutors, and were sentenced to community service. Herskovic was offered no such deal, according to Aldea. Following the trial, Judge Danny Chun sentenced him to four years in prison. That sentence is on hold pending Herskovic's appeal, filed Friday.
In the appeal Aldea argues that the DNA analysis performed on Patterson's shoe, thrown on a roof by one of his attackers, was fatally flawed and the only evidence connecting Herskovic to the crime. The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner obtained less DNA from the shoe than is standard, the appeal says, and to overcome this, performed a series of analyses on the sample that are not widely accepted by law enforcement agencies. In 2015, a Brooklyn judge deemed the techniques inadmissible as evidence because of questions about their reliability. Other judges have not followed his lead, but the Medical Examiner's Office has since stopped using the analysis techniques.
"This is not DNA evidence," Aldea said. "When we talk about DNA evidence we talk about a DNA match. When we have a DNA match, that excludes every other person on the planet. That is real scientific evidence. Here, we have no DNA match. The people’s own experts admit that there is no DNA match."
For example, the appeal argues, the DNA analysis did not show that the sample was any more likely to contain Herskovic's DNA than any other member of the insular Hasidic Jewish community in Williamsburg, nor could prosecutors definitively say how the DNA traces ended up on the shoe. Herskovic's defense attorney was first shown the DNA evidence less than a week before trial, according to the appeal. An expert asked to testify for the defense was subsequently blocked for having insufficient credentials. Aldea emphasized that no witnesses placed Herskovic at the scene, and said he is not a member of the controversial and politically connected Shomrim.
"He was a scapegoat, offered up to take the fall for those too well connected to be charged," she wrote in an email.
Patterson has an ongoing federal lawsuit against the city, the investigating officers, the Williamsburg Safety Patrol, the five arrestees, and Itzkowitz. The suit cites the city's "long history of disparate treatment" of Hasidic Jews, focusing particularly on the ties between the police department and the unregulated Shomrim neighborhood patrol groups. The groups receive city funding, are allowed to use NYPD-esque logos and emergency red-and-blue lights on their vehicles, and are frequently feted at NYPD and political functions.
The suit notes that Herskovic's co-defendant Pinchas Braver was given a tour of the 19th Precinct station house in Manhattan after his arrest for the assault. At the time, that precinct was commanded by Deputy Inspector James Grant. Grant was subsequently arrested on charges that he took bribes in exchange for making officers available "on call" for prominent figures in the Borough Park Hasidic community.
The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner declined to comment on the appeal. Agency spokeswoman Julie Bolcer said that analysts stopped using the two techniques Aldea objects to at the beginning of this year in order "to comply with new FBI standards." She added that both methods "were reviewed and approved for use in casework by the New York State Commission on Forensic Science, and OCME stands by their reliability."
A Brooklyn District Attorney's Office spokesman wrote in an email, "We will review the motion and respond to it in court."
Joel Itzkowitz did not answer at numbers listed for him.