What was there for defense lawyer Ronald Kuby to say? His client, Thomas Malik, 19, had participated in a heinous crime: in November 1995, Malik and 18-year-old Vincent Ellerbe, attempting to rob the token booth at the Bedford-Stuyvesant subway station, had squirted gasoline into the small compartment and then ignited the fuel, burning clerk Harry Kaufman so badly that he died shortly thereafter. Kaufman, 50, left behind a wife and a high school-age son. Apprehended and convicted, Malik and Ellerbe stood before Justice Francis X. Egitto of Brooklyn Supreme Court this past December for sentencing.
Kuby, a protégé of the late radical lawyer William Kunstler, decided to try to lighten Maliks sentence by playing the race card. First, he attacked Justice Egitto, a 20-year veteran of the bench well known for his toughness, for having spent his career sending young black men to prison. I send defendants to prison, not black men," replied Justice Egitto sternly. Unfazed, Kuby then suggested that his client wasn't truly responsible for his actions. "Who killed Harry Kaufman?" said the shameless Kuby, as he began to describe Malik's difficult childhood. "Well, maybe the child welfare authority and the Family Court get some blame." With grossly misplaced indignation, Kuby closed by affronting the judge yet again: I expect ... that the cycle of suffering is going to continue. So go ahead, pile it on. "What pernicious nonsense. For three decades now, child advocates, defense lawyers, and judges have invoked "root causes" of one sort or another to deflect responsibility from wrongdoers. Looking to make the felon into a victim, apologists like Kuby are always ready to point the finger at an insufficiently generous government, economic injustice, or racial oppression. But "society" did not pour gasoline into the token booth at Bedford-Stuyvesant, and the social welfare community did not light the match. Thomas Malik and Vincent Ellerbe did these despicable things-and Justice Egitto properly sentenced them to 25 to life.