I asked Singer what should happen to the alleged killer. He paused. “It is not our role to ask for vengeance,” he said finally. “Only God can direct that. We hope only for justice.”
Justice could be a long time coming. In the days after his arrest, Aron retained the counsel of two lawyers: Pierre Bazile, a former NYPD cop, and Jennifer McCann, a young attorney with a track record of taking on clients other lawyers balk at. (Indeed, one of Aron’s original lawyers quit his defense, saying, “You can’t look at your kids and then look at yourself in the mirror, knowing that a little boy, who’s close in age to my eldest son, was murdered so brutally.”) After a rocky start—at one point, the presiding judge convened a hearing to castigate the attorneys for assorted miscues that included talking too much to the press—the duo recruited Howard Greenberg, a wild-haired veteran litigator, to join their team in October. Not long afterward, Greenberg announced his intent to enter a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. “This is a very simple case,” he said. “Levi Aron is either evil or he’s crazy.” He went on to suggest that investigators had coerced Aron into writing the confession, which Greenberg contended was filled with “police Mandarin.” “My opinion,” he added, “is that you can get this guy to admit he shot Kennedy if you spend a little bit of time with him.”
The defense team, Greenberg told me last week, plans to demonstrate that Aron suffered a brain injury during his boyhood bike accident and that his injury, coupled with a familial history of mental illness, at some point led to what he described as “an acute schizophrenic break.” “You can quote me on this,” he said. “I will quit the practice of criminal law if Levi Aron is not found insane.”
Jonathan Silver, a clinical professor of psychiatry at NYU who wrote a textbook on traumatic brain injury, says that the scenario described by Greenberg is certainly plausible. He ticked off for me some of the early indications of schizophrenia, symptoms frequently attributed to Levi Aron: trouble concentrating, trouble relating to other people, social withdrawal. And schizophrenics are certainly capable of extreme acts of violence. Still, Silver stressed that the defense would have a lot of “details and data to round up” in order to validate their theory: Extensive family history would have to be produced, along with concrete evidence of the head injury and its aftereffects. “All the pieces have to fit together.”
Aron is being held at Rikers Island, where he has been issued a prison uniform constructed of strips of fabric velcroed together, none of them long enough to be used as a noose. His trial is not likely to start until the spring. In the meantime, the Kletzkys have filed a civil suit against Aron seeking $100 million in damages. The next step in the criminal proceedings is a pretrial motion on December 21. If past hearings are any indication, it will be a raucous event, attended by a battalion of reporters and a sprawling scrum of Hasidim, whose presence seems intended in part to keep a hand on the scales of the secular system in which they must now trust.
New York’s Orthodox neighborhoods, founded by émigrés who had weathered persecution and anti-Semitism in their home countries, were set up to be self-sufficient and largely self-governing: There are the Shomrim patrols, so that the enclaves can police themselves, the Hatzolah ambulance units to ferry Jewish residents to and from the hospital, and the beit din, or rabbinical court, to adjudicate disputes. In places like Crown Heights, where the Hasidic population is in more regular contact with outsiders and children are more likely to learn English from an early age, the walls built by such measures have begun to crumble. In Borough Park, they have remained imposing. Greenberg’s legalistic distinction—that Aron cannot be both crazy and evil, and that if he is crazy then he cannot be guilty—is not in line with how the neighborhood sees the world.
“This is our 9/11,” many residents of Borough Park told me in the weeks after Aron was apprehended. There is a new sense of vulnerability in the neighborhood, an unease that will not fade, assumptions that have been shattered. “We’ve learned that a monster is a monster. And monsters come in all shapes and sizes,” Zvi Gluck, another NYPD liaison, says. “It’s not, ‘Oh, he’s Jewish, he must be okay.’ I think we need to know that there are bad people out there, in every walk of life.”
At the tail end of July, after the seven days of shiva had concluded, Yaakov German was visited by Nachman Kletzky, Leiby’s father. Kletzky is large and broad-shouldered, with a tangled beard and a broad, stern face. German took Kletzky’s coat, and steered him in the direction of his basement office.
Kletzky had changed since German had spoken to him during the frenzied search for Leiby, when he promised to bring back his son alive. According to a rabbi close with the Kletzky family, Leiby’s death hit his father especially hard. Esther Nachman, Leiby’s mother, knows “that life has to go on,” the rabbi says. “There are more children in that house. There is a family to look after. It is different for [Nachman]. He is in a dark place.”
Once downstairs, Kletzky began to tearfully curse Aron. German walked to a nearby bookshelf and removed a copy of the Tanya, a foundational Hasidic tract. While Kletzky listened, he read aloud from one of his favorite passages. The text argues that all things under the sun, from the actions of the wisest and most righteous men to the sins of the most vicious criminals, are ordained by God.
“I told him that he shouldn’t hate,” German said, “because God is in everything.” At that, Kletzky “broke down,” German said. “And so I held him.”