On Andrew Cuomo’s last day in office as governor, he got a request from Brooklyn’s top prosecutor: Take mercy on a prominent counselor in the Hasidic Jewish community who was originally sentenced to 103 years in prison for repeatedly abusing an adolescent girl.
Nechemya Weberman’s term should be commuted and he should be given an “opportunity to be released from prison after an amount of time that is commensurate with the goals of protecting society and extending a measure of justice to those who were victimized by him,” Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez wrote to Cuomo on Aug. 23, 2021.
Without a commutation, Weberman, who is 64 and has only served nine years so far, will likely die in prison, Gonzalez said in the letter obtained by THE CITY.
Cuomo — who granted clemency to 10 incarcerated people in his final two weeks — never responded to the Weberman request.
Gonzalez has a record of seeking leniency even for multiple people convicted of murder and in 2019 announced he would not oppose most parole applications.
He submitted the letter on behalf of Weberman after Cuomo “sought our position on clemency requests under consideration,” according to Brooklyn DA spokesperson Helen Peterson, who said the then-governor’s request was made via a phone call.
But advocates for sexual assault victims contend the Weberman letter has nothing to do with criminal justice reform. Weberman has always been supported by many members of the Satmar Hasidic community — a large and influential voting bloc.
During his trial in 2012, members of the Satmar community held a rally urging former Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes to drop the case.
“It’s 100% politics,” said Ben Hirsch, a co-founder of Survivors of Justice, a Brooklyn-based group that advocates for victims of sexual abuse in the Orthodox community.
A Disturbing Case
The Weberman plea appears to be the only time Gonzalez has ever gone to bat with the governor for someone convicted of a sex crime, suggest documents from his office made public upon request.
All told, he submitted nine letters to Cuomo since 2019 seeking mercy, with most involving people convicted of murder who’d served at least a decade behind bars.
Still, Hirsch, and other advocates have long struggled with the essentially life sentence for Weberman. Justice John Ingram said that the time that he was sending a message to other victims of sexual abuse that their “cries will be heard and justice will be done.”
“I have never felt that justice calls for sex offenders to be locked up for the rest of their lives,” Hirsch said.
The Weberman case came at a time when Hynes was sharply criticized for going soft on alleged offenders from orthodox Jewish communities for fear of losing votes from those loyal supporters.
Hynes, who passed away in January 2019, vehemently denied politics played a role in whom he chose to prosecute.
Weberman was the first high-profile child sex-abuse prosecution he brought against a member of the Satmar Hasidic community. The case was closely watched and garnered headlines for days.
The victim had been sent to Weberman for counseling — despite his lack of a professional license — and testified how she was repeatedly sexually assaulted between 2007 and 2010. The first attack happened when she was 12 years old, she told the jury, which convicted him of 59 counts of sexual abuse.
She said she was forced to perform oral sex and reenact scenes from pornographic movies with the married Weberman.
“It takes years and years to heal,” she said in court before his sentencing in 2013. “In some ways, it’s much worse than murder. The abused experience the past over and over again.”
She faced immense pressure from members of the Satmar community to withdraw her complaint, according to family members and advocates involved in the case. People threatened to yank ads from her father’s phone directory and to stop eating at her boyfriend’s pizzeria, according to reports at the time. The boyfriend, who later married the victim, also said he was offered $500,000 to convince her to recant.
In February 2013, state prison officials cut Weberman’s sentence in half, citing state penal law that requires a maximum of 50 years for the type of felonies he was convicted.
State judges are allowed to go over that maximum to make a point or to reduce a possible cut in time by the appellate court on appeal.
In his letter to Cuomo, Gonzalez argued that reduction didn’t go far enough.
“This Office believes that the original sentence was excessive, disproportionate and inconsistent with the sentences of similarly situated defendants in cases similar
to this one,” the district attorney wrote.
Weberman, who currently isn’t eligible for release until he turns 97, will likely never have a “chance to prove he has changed and is deserving a second chance,” the letter added.
Gonzalez also argued the lengthy sentence “might deter other victims from coming forward and witnesses from participating in a process that could result in such an excessively harsh outcome.”
Some rabbis have instructed members of the orthodox Jewish community to bring allegations of sexual abuse directly to them before going the police or other official investigators.
Advocates note that rabbis typically have no training in how to handle or probe abuse cases and that circumventing the secular courts protects molesters and puts the community at risk.
The Weberman victim also has a pending civil lawsuit against the former counselor and her Satmar school, the United Talmudic Academy.
She claims educators there forwarded her to Weberman after she got in trouble for failing to meet modesty standards like wearing thick stockings.
In legal filings, the school, and Weberman, have maintained that they did nothing wrong and have tried to get the suit tossed.
That case has been slowly snaking its way through the court system since 2014. A possible trial is scheduled for October.
Weberman initially invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self incrimination and refused to answer any questions during his deposition, according to Evan Torgan, the lawyer representing the victim in her civil suit.
“We had to go back to court to compel him,” Torgan added.
“It is indefensible and cruel that a self-styled Torah institution not only failed to keep vulnerable young women safe from a monster like Mr. Weberman, but now at long last still use any means whatsoever to keep them from being made whole, even if only financially,” said Shulim Leifer, Hasidic social justice activist.