Rabbi Ephraim Schwartz, director of the Torah Learning Center, was found guilty of assault on Jan. 18 at the Seattle Municipal Court. Schwartz was on trial for hitting Matthew “Tatsuo” Nakata, a Seattle City Council aide, with his car in November of 2006. Nakata later died of his injuries.
Schwartz will return to court on Feb. 28 for sentencing. He faces up to one year in jail and a $5,000 fine.
Schwartz’s trial, which began Jan. 15, was the result of a two-year-old Seattle city ordinance that allows for criminal assault charges to be filed against anyone who hits a pedestrian, injuring or killing them. Since the ordinance was enacted in December of 2005, 38 cases have been filed. Schwartz’s is only the second to go to trial, however, and he is the first to be found guilty.
“What I hope is that this case will set a precedent for safer behavior in Seattle by drivers, as well as pedestrians and cyclists,” said Kevin Kilpatrick, the prosecuting attorney for the city.
Schwartz struck Nakata, who was crossing a West Seattle street at a crosswalk, while he was driving his daughter to school. Schwartz was talking on his cell phone at the time of the accident and claims he didn’t see Nakata until he hit him. In the investigation following the accident, it was determined Schwartz was going about 30 miles per hour, which was the posted speed limit.
During the course of the trial, the defense argued that because Nakata was wearing black and because of a curve in the road, he may have been difficult for any driver to see. Also, because be was wearing headphones connected to an Ipod, Nakata might not have heard Schwartz’s car approaching.
However, after just one hour of deliberation, the jury decided on a “guilty” verdict for Schwartz, citing “inattentiveness” as the driving infraction Schwartz had committed.
Diego Vargas, Schwartz’s lawyer, said that he was not surprised by the verdict, but that he does plan to appeal it on the basis that the ordinance that allowed for Schwartz to be tried isn’t valid.
“We’re not appealing the jury’s conclusion that he was inattentive. The real question is the legality of the statute,” Vargas said.
For Nakata’s family, however, the guilty verdict came as a relief.
“Nothing is going to bring him back,” said Bernadette Warner, Nakata’s sister, who had flown in from Kentucky for the trial. “But, hopefully, this case will bring awareness to pedestrian safety.”
The accident that led to Nakata’s death was not the first time Schwartz’s driving had gotten him into trouble, nor was it the first time he had struck a person with his car. As originally reported by the Seattle Weekly in May of 2007, Schwartz had several moving violations on his record at the time of the accident, including a collision with a cyclist on Interlaken Drive in Capitol Hill in 2005.
Despite his record and Friday’s verdict, Schwartz remains licensed to drive a car.
Rabbi Richard Toban, executive director of the Seattle Kollel, of which Schwartz’s West Seattle Torah Learning Center is a part, said that between the constitutional questions of the city ordinance and what he said “was clearly an accident at a horrible intersection,” he expects Schwartz to receive little if any jail time.
If he were to go to jail, Toban said, “we’d do everything in our ability to help the family. That’s a given.”
Schwartz’s position as a member of the Kollel’s staff is also safe, Toban said, while he stressed that his organization’s leadership does not discount anyone’s driving skills.
“He just brings so much to the table, he does so many good things,” he said. “There’s nothing on the table or discussion of him not [remaining].”
As the director of the West Seattle Torah Leaning Center, Schwartz teaches courses on Jewish history, ethics and philosophy and holds Shabbat services in his home. He said that the accident has had a clear impact on his teaching.
“I try to teach through inspiring people with my relationship with God and this has brought up some emotions I never knew I had,” Schwartz said.
After hearing the jury’s verdict, Schwartz expressed more concern over whether or not Nakata’s family would be able to forgive him than the prospect of serving time in jail. He said that he thinks of Nakata daily and that he carries Nakata’s obituary with him in his wallet, next to photos of his own children.
“I have to face this every day and think that I took another person’s life…because I just didn’t see him,” Schwartz said. “I don’t know why I didn’t see him. I wish I would have.”