By Rabbi Mordechai Friedman
This past Monday a Black Hawk County jury rendered a unanimous verdict of acquittal in State of Iowa v. Sholom Rubashkin involving 67 counts of child labor violations. This was a dramatic and welcomed victory for Sholom, his family, his friends and his supporters – me included. I only wish I could have been in the court room to experience and share in the joy first hand that auspicious and exciting moment.
I closely followed the 5 week long trial and heard first hand reports from people present in the courtroom of specific details of the daily goings-on. I cannot say that I was surprised that the jury came back with the verdict of acquittal. The prosecution simply had no credible evidence that Sholom Rubashkin had any personal knowledge of, or criminal liability for, the employment of minors at Agriprocessors.
This lack of concrete evidence shows the over-zealous prosecution Sholom received by the Iowa State Attorney General’s office. In an obvious “rush to judgment” the State of Iowa originally filed 9,311 counts against Sholom and his father Aaron – well in advance of the completion of the investigation by the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation. They later dismissed these charges against Aaron due to the obvious fact that they simply had no evidence.
The day before the trial against Sholom began the state amended their complaint, reducing the counts to 83. But the damage was already done. The 2 year-long public presumption of guilt had already caused its blow to the well established good name of the Rubashkin family and business that in my opinion even this acquittal cannot remedy. During the trial, Judge Nathan Callahan further reduced the charges to 67 counts, because 16 of the counts were without any witness testimony related to those accusations. As one of Sholom’s attorney F. Montgomery Brown stated during opening statements: “The state has no case. But they know how to build one. Shoot an arrow into this man’s chest, then paint around it and proclaim, “Bull’s eye!”
During their opening statements, the prosecution confidently stated to the jury that they would hear testimony during the trial from Elizabeth Billmeyer, head of the HR department at Agriprocessors, in order to clearly show that Sholom knew about minors at the plant. Yet they never called her to testify. She clearly had nothing to add to their case. I heard that the prosecution was worried that there may have been a tape-recorded conversation where Ms. Billmeyer states that indeed Sholom did not want minors working at the plant, and he never did. I presume they were concerned that it may have affected her credibility, and they already had enough non-credible witnesses testifying! As a side point it was recently reported by Deputy Attorney General Thomas Miller, lead prosecutor on this case, that Billmeyer will plead guilty to child labor charges under an agreement with the state.
From the get-go, Judge Callahan made it very clear that he was not going to allow testimony about any rumors or innuendo that did not have direct relevance to the charges of child labor law violations. I was impressed with the judge’s fair handling of the case. These were labor law charges and that’s what would need to be proven with relevant evidence. That is how it’s supposed to work in the justice system and it was refreshing to see it put into practice in this case! Judge Callahan reminded the prosecution time and time again, sometimes very sternly, that they needed to stick to the charges that were being alleged and not bring in things that weren’t relevant.
However, some testimony regarding worker abuse was presented at trial, such as safety issues at the plant, but the State of Iowa did not and has never charged Sholom with such crimes. Judge Callahan himself, outside the presence of the jury, stated several times during the trial statements like, Sounds like a typical meat plant to me… nothing out of the ordinary. What plant doesn’t have bleach to disinfect and dry ice to preserve the meat?
I heard details of the testimony from several prosecution witnesses – who were the alleged minors working at Agriprocessors, and I made some observations that resonated from their testimony: They wanted a better life than they had; they wanted to work; and Agriprocessors had a good reputation for being a place that people could find good work! It appears that the jury agreed.
These witnesses chose to go through a lot to get to work in Postville, IA. They admittedly lied about their age, falsified documents to support that lie and travelled a long and arduous way all to get to Agriprocessors! There is a lot of space between Iowa and the rest of the USA with ample opportunities for them to have found work elsewhere. Yet I believe it is a credit to the good reputation that Agriprocessors had that these witnesses and their families chose to go there to work, albeit lying to accomplish that goal.
As reported to me by a colleague present in court On Wednesday June 2, 2010: while finalizing the details of jury instructions with the attorneys even Judge Callahan seemed to cast doubt of a prosecution victory saying something to the affect of, I just can’t get out of my head that last guy we heard from where he says he couldn’t remember what age he was supposed to tell people he was… that’s gonna be a challenge for the state’s case for sure! This is no slam dunk.
On June 7, 2010, after a day and a half of closing arguments and a five week trial, the jury reached a unanimous verdict of acquittal in less than 2 days of deliberation. This outcome is not only a personal celebration for Sholom Rubashkin and his family – it is a celebration for the American justice system. Sholom Rubashkin received as fair a trial as could be, given the terrible publicity that preceded the trial in northeast Iowa; and the jury made the correct decision based upon the law and the facts.
The message is clear: when criminal defendants receive a fair trial confined to relevant evidence of the charges against them, the system works, even in Iowa! Baruch Hashem, Kein Yirbu!
Rabbi Mordechai Friedman is Dean of Yeshiva High School of the Twin Cities, Cottage Grove, MN.