Friday, February 29, 2008

Rabbi who hit, killed pedestrian gets two years deferred

By Nancy Bartley
Seattle Times staff reporter

Last Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, Rabbi Ephraim Schwartz's anguished prayers went on for eight hours.

It illustrated the despair the West Seattle rabbi felt over the death of Tatsuo Nakata — the man he struck and killed the previous November, one of Schwartz's faithful said Thursday in Seattle Municipal Court, where his rabbinical colleagues, congregants and family packed the court to beg Municipal Court Judge George Holifield for mercy.

In the Nakata family's view, leniency was what Schwartz got.

"It's not enough," sobbed Bernadette Nakata, the victim's sister, after the sentencing.

The morning of Nov. 14, 2006, Schwartz struck Tatsuo Nakata, who was crossing Southwest Admiral Way in a crosswalk at 47th Avenue Southwest. Nakata, 29, who was an aide to then-City Councilman David Della, later died at Harborview Medical Center.

There were no skid marks to show Schwartz tried to brake, Senior Assistant City Attorney Kevin Kilpatrick said. "He wasn't paying attention."

Schwartz, the director of the West Seattle Torah Learning Center, was on his cellphone at the time, according to court testimony.

It was the second time Schwartz had struck someone with his car. The first time was in May 2005, when he struck Ilsa Govan, who was riding her bike along Interlaken Drive East. Schwartz's car crossed the lane and collided with her, she testified at the sentencing.

"I just wish there was something that could have been done after he hit me," Govan said through her tears.

Schwartz was cited for driving on the wrong side of the road, but the charge was later removed from his record. "I feel lucky to be here. I wish Mr. Schwartz would make the decision never to drive again."

The deferred sentence means that if Schwartz, 37, has no infractions of the law after two years the charge will be dropped from his record.

"I'm outraged," City Attorney Tom Carr said. "To be given a deferred sentence after a trial ... ."

In January, a jury found Schwartz guilty of assault-injury by vehicle and the prosecutor wanted him to spend time in jail. Schwartz could have been jailed up to a year.

But Holifield said no jail time would bring Nakata back.

Holifield on Thursday suspended Schwartz's license for two years and told him he would have to reapply through the Department of License, pay any funeral or medical costs from the accident, and do 500 hours of community service outside his Jewish community.

Some 100 letters supporting Schwartz were sent to the judge, and supporters spoke about his care and support. He told the court that as a result of publicity about the case, he's also received anti-Semitic mail.

One of Schwartz's congregants, Carmen Crincoli, said that on Yom Kippur last September it was agonizing to watch Schwartz's prayers go on and on, evidence, he believed, of the rabbi's inner turmoil. He begged the judge not to incarcerate Schwartz.

The judge said that protecting the public from Schwartz's driving was his main concern.

"Regardless or not if he's a good person," Holifield said, "he's a lousy driver."

The King County Prosecutor's Office declined to prosecute Schwartz because he wasn't intoxicated or driving recklessly. Instead, Schwartz was charged with assault-injury by vehicle, a gross misdemeanor, filed by the Seattle city attorney in Seattle Municipal Court.

When speaking to the court, Schwartz at times was tearful and said that a DVD of Nakata's life — sent to him by Nakata's family — rests beside his bed.

"It haunts my night," he said. "Those thoughts were with me on Yom Kippur."

Nancy Bartley: 206-464-8522 or

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