Sholom Rubashkin, former operator of Agriprocessors kosher slaughterhouse in Iowa, stands to be sentenced for life for financial infractions. Jury selection is in progress in a second trial against Rubashkin, where he is accused of employing minors and exposing them to dangerous chemicals and machinery on the plant.
While initially seen as an internal, American criminal issue, the Rubashkin case has now attracted international Jewish attention and concern, due to the severity of the potential sentence, which is due to be announced in the coming weeks. Award-winning investigative journalist Edwin Black was interviewed this week by Israel National Radio's Eli Stutz, and revealed his findings on the prosecution and his opinions about its severity. Black is highly critical of the prosecution, and desired to give "a real second look at what is being done."
Agriprocessors, which Black claims was "a target of substantial immigration enforcement standards," was raided by immigration authorities in May 2008, after being investigated by both the government and PETA (People for Ethical Treatment of Animals). The slaughterhouse was then shut down. "They were then set to prosecute the man for immigration violations, and never did," explains Black. "Instead, they prosecuted him for financial crimes which were either engineered, manipulated, or caused by the government action itself."
Black speaks of the means by which the government assessed the apparent damage Rubashkin had done to society, and how they influenced the outcome of a proposed life sentence for the 50-year old man. "An obsolete if not archaic law from the 1920s called the Packers Act, in which you have to pay your cattle bill within 24 hours," Black said, was used by the government in order to reveal the extent of interest lost by suppliers of Agriprocessors.
"The mere fact that in this day and age the U.S. attorney would call the cattle suppliers and ask them to calculate how much money they lost in interest on the fact that their bill was paid three to five days late must give you an insight into the mindset of this prosecution," Black said.
"More importantly," he added, "due to government action, Agriprocessors was forced into bankruptcy, and as a result, the line of credit he had with the bank defaulted. This bank had previously earned some 21 million dollars in profit, but once the company was forced into bankruptcy, they lost 24 million dollars. That 24-million default punched up the formulaic numbers on how many years he should spend in prison."
What originally caught Black's attention and prompted him to write the report was not only the fact that the original crimes which Rubashkin was accused of committing - carrying lesser penalties - were never tried, but that a lifetime sentence has been recommended. "This sentence [is] completely disproportionate to virtually all other criminals in his class," says Black. "It reflects the community standards of Iowa, and perhaps, the specific bent of the prosecutors in Iowa."
The core issue in this case, however, according to Black, is a phenomenon which he terms "the 'in' group versus the 'out' group." "This Chabadnik sitting there in the middle of Iowa is clearly an 'out' group," he explains, "so he's not like them – therefore, there's an impulse to react in a more intense fashion."
According to Black, there has been a media campaign against Rubashkin, particularly in the Jewish media. "The piling on against this individual was very in vogue in the Jewish media who found it very comfortable to cast aspersions on this individual," he says, "so I basically had to stand alone and take a point of view which the Jewish media had not taken, which was whether or not this was a proportionate sentence."
Since Black's findings have been published, there has been a massive public campaign of letters to Linda Reade, the judge of the Rubashkin case, disseminated through Facebook, Twitter, and the mass media. A number of U.S. attorneys, including Kenneth Starr, Janet Reno, and Alan Dershowitz, have also filed an open letter to the judge stating that the life-sentence recommendation is "disproportionate and shocking."
Judge Reade has decided to take a three-to-five-week adjournment and contemplate what the sentence should be in the midst of all the controversy. "In my opinion," relates Black, "based on the historical precedent of this judge, who is known to have given extremely long sentences for all types of infractions, I believe she will take three to five weeks to let the heat go down, to give the appearance that she has given a well considered sentencing. I don't think she will buckle – that is going to invalidate her sentencing philosophy on dozens of other violations. Therefore, I believe she will go ahead and give, not a 45-year sentence, but a 20-25-year sentence."
Black calls the Rubashkin case a "miscarriage of justice" and compares it to the infamous Jonathan Pollard case in which Pollard was sentenced to lifetime imprisonment for a crime in which similar felons have received 2-4 years. "The issue is not whether Rubashkin is the most angelic or villainous of felons," Black concludes. "The issue is fairness and equality – I'm looking into the law, and that's what my investigation was about."