Hartford — A bespectacled, ponytailed man reading the true-crime thriller In Cold Blood in the front row of a federal courtroom here was selected as the eighth and final juror who will decide if prominent New Haven Rabbi Daniel Greer repeatedly sexually abused yeshiva students and if the school shirked its duty to intervene.
The jury selection took place Wednesday in U.S. District Court, a day before the scheduled beginning of Greer’s trial.
Eliyahu Mirlis filed a lawsuit making those charges against Greer in May 2016. (The case landed in federal court, rather than state, because the jurisdiction is split, with Mirlis in New Jersey and Greer in Connecticut.) Mirlis’s complaint alleged that Greer repeatedly raped him for three years, starting in 2002, while he attended the Yeshiva of New Haven, one of two Orthodox Jewish schools that Greer ran within the former Roger Sherman School at 765 Elm St. in New Haven’s Edgewood neighborhood. The civil suit contends that Mirlis has suffered from emotional distress and seeks damages for the injury. In a 218-page pretrial deposition, a second former student, who became the school’s assistant principal, spelled out further, separate allegations of being sexually abused by the rabbi, who denies all the accusations.
In Hartford on Wednesday, both legal teams agreed on an eight-member panel following a daylong vetting by Judge Michael P. Shea, a President Obama appointee.
The judge’s questioning touched on what are expected to be the major sticking points in the civil trial: Were jurors familiar with Orthodox traditions and beliefs? Could past experience with the horrors of sexual assault and its lasting trauma cloud jurors’ impartiality? How willing were jurors to entertain arguments that the institutions could be blamed for failing to stop the alleged sexual abuse? And finally, what would jurors insinuate if Greer refused to answer questions on the witness stand, invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination?
That final question occupied a significant portion of the court’s time, as Shea explained the complexities of the constitutional right and grilled prospective jurors to verify they understood its function.
“The Fifth Amendment provides, among other things, that no person can be compelled to be a witness against himself or herself,” Shea explained. “Would anyone be unable to follow my instructions under the law about what inferences you may or may not draw from the fact that a person invoked the Fifth Amendment in response?”
Seven hands shot up throughout the courtroom. One was from a man asking to repeat the question. After Shea reiterated it, five more jurors indicated they’d have trouble.
Greer’s lawyers, Bill Ward and David Grudberg, had attempted to keep Greer off the witness stand. They stated in a motion that Greer plans to invoke his Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination, in part because he has “discussed his allegations with the police authorities” and therefore “may be the subject of an ongoing police investigation.”
Shea denied the defense attorneys’ request, writing that Ward and Grudberg could object to lines of questioning, in order to preclude Greer from repeatedly refusing to answer.
Around 2:45 p.m., counsel filed peremptory challenges to exclude certain jurors. Shea took a swig of coffee and asked his staff announce who had been selected from the pool.
Eight jurors — evenly split by gender, with four men and four women; largely white, with only one black juror — took their seats in the box. Taking an oath, they stood in unison and swore to “render a true and just verdict,” before being dismissed for the day.
The trial is expected to kick off Thursday with brief opening statements.
Beginning in the 1980s, Rabbi Greer oversaw the revival of the neighborhood around his yeshiva at the corner of Norton and Elm streets, renovating neglected historic homes.
Over the years, Greer has also crusaded against gay rights in Connecticut, at times played an active role in politics and government, and advocated for keeping nuisance businesses out of the Whalley Avenue commercial corridor. He and his family earned national attention for exposing johns who patronized street prostitutes in the neighborhood, for filing suit against Yale University over a requirement that students live in coed dorms, and then in 2007 for launching an armed neighborhood “defense” patrol and then calling in the Guardian Angels for assistance to combat crime. In the 1970s, Greer also led a successful campaign to force the United States to pressure the Soviet Union into allowing Jewish “refuseniks” to emigrate here and start new, freer lives.
Previous coverage of this case: