On a balmy Monday afternoon in 1969, the first day of Chol Hamoed Sukkos, life in Baltimore changed forever. After being dropped off by her carpool, a cute, vivacious 10-year-old Bais Yaakov girl, Esther Lebowitz, was brutally raped and murdered. I speak as a member of Esther’s family, a family that has lived in Baltimore for four generations before me.
Much has been written about Esther and those tragic days, and a plethora of additional information is readily available. What is not so understood is how this incident altered the landscape in our town, and how Esther’s memory continues to affect our community.
Before the tragedy, life in Baltimore was more trusting. Little kids walked down the streets without parents fearing for their safety. Although increases in crime had already begun to take a toll on the Baltimore scene, after the brutal murder of Esther, the basic human trust for one another was gone.
Esther was a lively, blond-haired little girl whose curiosity could not be contained. She loved to watch the fish in the tropical fish store near her home on Narcissus. On that fateful September 29, 1969, Esther’s carpool dropped her off near Park Heights and Rogers Avenue, and Esther followed her curiosity into the store.
Not having heard from Esther, her mother called around. My mother asked me whether I saw or heard from Esther, and of course I did not. She was missing, and we all rallied around the Lebowitz family for support. During the two days that she was missing, neighborhood searches were conducted by different communities throughout various parts of the City. Moreover, Esther and the searches for her dominated the television and print news. It was almost as though Baltimore had come together for Esther.
Esther was missing for two days before her body was found off Rogers Avenue near Sinai Hospital. The store owner’s son, Wayne Stephen Young, had lured Esther to the basement of the store, where he bound her and ultimately killed her.
The evidence against Young was overwhelming. In addition, Young confessed, over and over again, to having killed Esther but pled not guilty due to temporary insanity. It took the jury 20 minutes to review the case and come up with a unanimous guilty verdict. After the trial, the prosecutor consulted with the family and suggested that, since capital punishment had been halted in the State, it would be safer to seek a sentence of life without parole. The family acceded.
Young has applied for parole many times throughout the course of his sentence, but thanks to the vigilant eye and tireless efforts by Nachi Schachter, director of the Northwest Citizens Patrol, the efforts were contested and no parole was granted. Then came the Unger case. In Unger v. State, the Court of Appeals of Maryland (the highest court in the State) held that the instruction given to juries in the early 1970s – to the effect that, under the Maryland constitution, the jury is the judge of the law as well as the facts – was not correct. Therefore, all of the cases tried during that time in which this defective jury instruction was given needed to be retried, or the case must be dismissed.
When the Young case first came up for a hearing, in March 2014, the community rallied strongly. Over 250 people crowded the courtroom, so that there was no longer any standing room. Hundreds of others lined the halls of the court, and yet others gathered outside the courthouse. Judge Edward R.K. Hargadon took note of the outpouring of support by the community, although he added that his decision must be based upon the law. State’s Attorney Antonio Gioia did a marvelous job in presenting the case against Young and in distinguishing the Young case from other Unger cases.
After hearing the testimony and the arguments, Judge Hargadon decided that the evidence was so overwhelming against Young that the instruction would not have made any difference, since there was no issue as to the law. Young’s lawyer appealed the case; the appeals court reversed and held that Young is entitled to a new trial.
In many cases where the defendant is entitled to a new trial many years after the initial trial, prosecutors often decide not to retry the case, and instead allow the defendant to go free, primarily since facts have been forgotten, witnesses are long gone, or the evidence has disappeared. In this case, however, as Mr. Gioia pointed out on behalf of the State, the facts were so clear cut, the evidence was so overwhelming, the law was so straightforward, that the State should not give up, and a new trial should be held.
I was asked by a reporter at the time of the last court hearing whether it wasn’t time now, after 45 years, to allow Young the chance to walk free. I responded that my cousin Esther will never have that chance.
So once again, the community is coming together with strong sentiment about Esther Lebowitz’s case; once again, the community is united in pursuing justice for Esther and for our community. It cannot be allowed to occur – that someone commits such a heinous crime and is allowed, regardless of the passage of time, to walk the streets free. The community must show its strong and unyielding determination to have justice prevail.
Abba David Poliakoff is a business attorney with Gordon Feinblatt LLC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 410-576-4000.