Sunday, October 20, 2013

Former Orthodox Jewish Counselor Forced to Plead Guilty

            On Thursday, October 17th, Yosef Kolko, a former Orthodox Jewish counselor at a camp in Lakewood was given a 15-year prison sentence for child molestation. Before this decision was handed down, the 16-year old victim and his family were ostracized by Lakewood’s Orthodox community for violating the religious tradition of having rabbis handle these types of situations, when instead they decided to bring the child’s claims to secular authorities.

            Kolko initially pleaded guilty on May 13th during his trial to “aggravated sexual assault, attempted aggravated sexual assault, sexual assault, and endangering the welfare of a child.” But at this most recent hearing Alan Zegas, Kolko’s attorney, argued that multiple members of the Orthodox community coerced Kolko into pleading guilty because they didn’t want the bad publicity. Because of this “constant pressure,” Zegas claimed that Kolko should be allowed to withdraw his plea.

            Judge Hodgson ruled on this case and rejected Zegas’ argument claiming that he didn’t find any coercion. He did acknowledge that there may have been some “gentle persuasion by friends.” But ultimately, he claimed that Kolko was out to “game the system” when he pleaded guilty. This was after six witnesses testified that there was an effort by many members of the community to convince him to plead guilty. One coworker at the school Kolko also teaches at testified that a member of the community offered Kolko $100,000 and a job once he got out of jail if he pleaded guilty. Another witness also testified that five men came to Kolko’s home around 1:30 AM on the morning he ultimately did plead guilty in an effort to make him do so. Additionally, a therapist from Lakewood spoke with Kolko and explained to him what prison would be like – how much bigger, tougher men would most likely attack him – and advised him to “play ball.” It seems like Kolko did maintain his innocence for a period of time after hearing this.

            But on the other hand, a therapist from Lakewood spoke with Kolko and explained to him what prison would be like – how much bigger men would most likely attack him – and advised him to “play ball” and plead innocent. This same therapist also testified that he saw Kolko’s defense mechanism wearing down and explained that Kolko was “more receptive to the cost-benefit analysis we were presenting.” Additionally, there were other factors playing against Kolko’s apparent coercion by the Orthodox community. Kolko’s previous attorney was also a witness at the trial and testified that there was no coercion and that Kolko never indicated to him that he was being/feeling pressured by the community. A final factor to consider is that Kolko’s decision to plead guilty also coincided with two more victims coming forward. Up until that point, he fervently maintained his innocence.

            This case presents the issue of religious concerns conflicting with the process of carrying out and maintaining justice. The pressure from Lakewood, this very religious Orthodox Jewish community, supposedly forced this man to plead guilty and spend 15 years of his life in jail. Whether or not Yosef Kolko committed this crime, I think it’s important to address the fact that the religious beliefs of this community conflicted with both the actions of members in that community and with the court’s ability to rule impartially on the case. There is the issue of the ostracized family, but given all of the recent rape cases in which victim’s houses are burned down and those families are forced to move away, it is difficult to tell or claim that this community’s motivation for ostracizing that family was purely religious.

            As far as determining whether or not Kolko truly was guilty of molesting this boy, it is clear that the interests of the religious community conflict with Kolko’s supposed innocence. It’s significant to note that the people who live in these types of religious communities may be afraid of being honest – and are often bullied into lying about their culpability – due to their own and to their community’s desire to maintain the reputation and sanctity of their religion. Additionally, people like Kolko may also be afraid of offending a higher power (which perhaps is more severe than going to jail in that particular religion). This interferes with the justice system from properly carrying out its role in placing people who are actually guilty of committing a crime in prison versus placing people who are prioritizing their devotion to religion over their innocence and the course of their own lives.

In this particular case, I don’t think Kolko was viciously coerced into pleading guilty when he was innocent. Given the testimonies from his previous attorney and the therapist, and the timing of his admission of guilt, it is difficult for me to believe that this man was innocent of molesting that boy. But what concerns me is how often this may happen: are people who are actually innocent of committing a crime forced into a false guilty admission because of the pressures from their religious community? Is there anything we as a society can do about this?

I think this is very difficult issue to address because to interfere with various religions on individual cases is definitely an unnecessary entanglement of the government with religious practices, and would violate the Lemon Test (even though this isn’t technically a part of the Constitution, I believe this is a good test to go by). But if I were a deeply religious person and lived in a very religious community, I think I would probably do the same as Kolko: the priorities of the majority of that community could definitely intimidate and possibly force me into an admission of guilt, even if I was innocent. But should the government do anything about this? I do not think it’s the government’s place to deal with the workings of any communities, but especially religious ones. The entanglement of the government in their interests would lead to accusations of prioritizing one religion of all other religion/no religion at all and would probably result in much more controversy. But what do you think – should the government interfere in these types of situations?


Liz L. said...

I disagree. At no time did Kolko cite any religious doctrines, customs, or traditions that were in conflict with the American legal system. Pressure from his social community lacked any specific religious basis, but was actually concerned with community reputation. The absence of any strong religious basis undermines the argument for the necessity of a religious court. If threatening and coercive influence by his community members conflicted with the American justice system, then they would be liable for prosecution as well.

Nicole D said...

This case is particularly interesting for me, as I live right on the border of Lakewood. I worked in a courtroom over the summer that took a lot of minor cases involving the hasidic members of this community. I personally am very surprised that the court was willing to hear this case if it had not already been tried in the Jewish Court. The practice in Lakewood is that if there is a legal issue in which both parties are members of the hasidic community, the case must be tried in front of a rabbi first and foremost, and if it cannot be resolved that way, then it may be tried in a regular courtroom. Perhaps the court made an exeption because of the nature of the case, in which case I would say that they probably had a strong enough state interest to do so. However, if you have ever interacted with members of this community it is very apparent how important community acceptance is. Everything in the town is communal, and everyone looks out for each other. If they are ostracized it would be virtually impossible to survive. Many members do not have a car and it is commonplace to hitchhike or ask any member of the society to help with any favor. Knowing this I would not be surprised if Kolko was innocent and coerced into pleading guilty. I therefore think that allowing the case to be tried in the Jewish court may have been a better idea, but because the case was brought to regular court first, the court was stuck between wanting to respect the religious freedoms of the parties and also wanting to protect minors from a possible sexual assault. Because of the nature of this case, I think the right course of action was taken, however in any other case I think the Jewish court should have priority in determining the case simply because of the weight that the religion has in all community affairs in this town.