By Christopher Peak
Rabbi Daniel Greer, one of New Haven’s most prominent religious figures, was led out of a courtroom in handcuffs Wednesday afternoon, Sept. 25, after a jury found him guilty of four counts of risk of injury to a minor in a high-profile child-rape case.
Jurors reached that verdict just before noon after a weeklong criminal trial in Connecticut Superior Court on Church Street.
The state brought the case against Greer based on the testimony of Eliyahu Mirlis, who claimed that Greer repeatedly raped him when he was a student at Greer’s Yeshiva of New Haven on Elm Street, from 2002 to 2005. Mirlis previously won a $21 million civil suit against Greer.
The four risk of injury charges each carry a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.
Greer originally faced eight felony counts: four second-degree sexual assault charges and four risk of injury to a minor charges. In a dramatic move after all the witnesses testified, the judge dismissed all the sexual assault charges – because the state had selected a charge for which the statute of limitations had run out. Only the risk of injury charges remained.
A six-member jury heard the case. Judge Jon Alander presided. They deliberated for about seven hours.
Shortly after noon Wednesday, the jurors returned to the courtroom.
“Good luck,” defense attorney Willie Dow told Greer.
Greer stood up.
“What say you, is he guilty or not guilty?” the clerk asked the jurors.
The foreperson, a mom from East Haven, said that Greer was guilty.
As the clerk went through each count, she repeated, “Guilty,” bending down to speak into a microphone.
Greer’s wife remained standing. On the third count, a marshal told her to sit down, but she waved it off.
Judge Alander set a sentencing hearing for Nov. 20.
After the verdict, state prosecutors asked for an increase in bond, up from $100,000 he paid when he was first arrested.
Wilensky said that he is no longer cloaked in a “presumption of innocence.”
Dow said that Greer hadn’t fled in more than a decade since the crimes occurred.
“The situation is obviously dramatically different,” Judge Alander said. “He now stands convicted of four serious felonies, for which the state has indicated he could serve substantial jail time. In any time like this I think a risk of flight is great.”
Alander set bond at $750,000.
He said it needs to be paid before him in court, so he can take Greer’s passport and impose electronic monitoring.
Four marshals surrounded Greer.
“Would you turn around?” one asked.
They attached handcuffs, in front, and led the rabbi out into the hallway.
Greer posted bond and was released that afternoon. The judge said he could leave home only to visit his lawyers’ offices, a doctor’s office, or a verified synagogue pre-approved by a bail commissioner. He must wear an electronic monitor.
Dow said Greer intends to appeal.
“We were disappointed that the jury reached that conclusion. We felt we put on a compelling case. The credibility of the complainant is extremely questionable and a shaky foundation on which to return a guilty verdict,” Dow said. “We will review the trial record and file an appeal addressing all appropriate issues.”
The jurors hugged each other as they walked out of the building, heading to the Regal Beagle for a group lunch.
Capping a Controversial Career
In the 1970s, Greer 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.
Later in the decade, he returned to New Haven (where he had earlier attended Yale Law School) to build a religious community. He oversaw the revival of the Edgewood neighborhood around his yeshiva at the corner of Norton and Elm Streets, renovating neglected historic homes. He advocated for keeping nuisance businesses out of the Whalley Avenue commercial corridor, and he exposed johns who patronized street prostitutes in the neighborhood. In 2007, he launched an armed neighborhood “defense” patrol, then called in the Guardian Angels for assistance to combat crime.
Greer served on the Board of Police Commissioners, where he helped lead pointed questioning in an historic investigation of widespread illegal wiretapping of citizens.
Over the years, Greer also crusaded against gay rights in Connecticut, and he and his family earned national attention for filing suit against Yale University over a requirement that students live in coed dorms.
About an hour later, after some trouble getting the DVD player to work, they sent out two notes, within 10 minutes of each other.
Then, throughout the next two days, they sent out two more notes about Thomas DeRosa, a teacher at the yeshiva for a year and a half at most, who had testified only briefly.
DeRosa said he’d been “reluctant” to take the job in the first place. He said he remembered Mirlis being “uncooperative,” even “dangerous.” He said Mirlis missed a lot of class. When DeRosa tried to flunk him in math, Avi Hack, the school’s dean, intervened and changed his grade to a B, he remembered.
Mirlis, however, said that he got along “fine” with DeRosa. He said DeRosa bought students pizza from Edge of the Woods market on Thursdays. But DeRosa said he never left the school with Mirlis.
In two separate notes, at 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday afternoon and 10:30 a.m. on Wednesday morning, jurors asked what years DeRosa worked in the school – possibly trying to use his testimony to establish a timeline that would corroborate when Mirlis said the sexual abuse began.
Dow, Greer’s defense attorney, had said in his closing statement on Monday, that DeRosa was “a stiff.” “I don’t see him putting his arm around a kid to take him to the pizza parlor,” he said. “Ask yourself whether you’re being sold a bill of goods, whether or not you can believe him.”
But Wilensky, the senior assistant state’s attorney, said that Mirlis’s good grade, despite DeRosa’s dislike of him, was evidence of the “perks” that Greer used to keep the sexual abuse secret, making Mirlis feel “special.”
Aside from asking about DeRosa, jurors also wanted to review Mirlis’s description of his first sexual encounter with Greer and any testimony about ritual baths and swimming.
Those questions pointed to “reasonable doubts” about Mirlis’s credibility that Willie Dow, Greer’s defense attorney, had hammered in his closing statements, including that Mirlis had added new details to his descriptions and had other ways of knowing what the rabbi looked like naked.
In the first playback describing the rabbi’s first come-on, Mirlis said that Greer got him tipsy on a cup of wine, placed a hand on his upper thigh and kissed him on the lips.
That was essentially what Mirlis had said during a police interview, a deposition and a recounting in civil court, except that he hadn’t brought up the detail about Greer touching his crotch before.
Dow blew that up. He described it as a “grab” and “groping”; Mirlis clarified both times that he’d testified it was actually just a “touch.”
Dow called it “an intrusion” that felt “inappropriate”; he said wondered why Mirlis remembered only now, after being questioned about it so many times.
“Are you saying [your memory] was better today?” Dow asked. “You would agree that your testimony is different, when you were asked essentially the same question?”
“I don’t know if it was better memory. It just means I recall,” Mirlis said. “It’s more inclusive today.”
Dow, in his closing statement, suggested that Mirlis was lying. “If you don’t lie, you’ve got a lot less to remember,” he said. “It’s easier to tell the truth.”
Wilensky, meanwhile, in hers, said that trauma can “fracture” exactly how a person remembers, as an expert witness had testified. “Eli’s so freaked out that he forgets,” she said.
In the second playback describing when the rabbi undressed in front of students, Mirlis said there weren’t other times he remembered. That’s important because a police detective had argued that Mirlis’s description of a scar on Greer’s testicle was a “telling” detail that corroborated his account.
Asked if he remembered going swimming on a graduation trip to Nantucket, Mass., Mirlis said he didn’t recall that, just bike riding.
Asked too if he remembered bathing twice a year in the yeshiva, in a ritual known as a mikveh, Mirlis said he didn’t recall Greer there either, in a confusing back-and-forth that required the judge to jump in.
“Did he go with you?” Alander asked.
“Never,” Mirlis said.
“Are you certain of that?” Dow asked.
“I’m certain of that, yes,” Mirlis said.
This story is reprinted with permission from New Haven Independent, www.newhavenindependent.org.
Main Photo: Attorney Willie Dow with Greer on Tuesday. (Credit: Christopher Peak)