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Trial for fatal 2018 Lawrence crash under way

Watkins faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted, Steward sentencing on Sept. 24

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The 14-person jury — 12 jurors, two alternates — heard opening statements on Tuesday in the Nassau County Courthouse for the trial involving a fatal car crash that killed two people in Lawrence in April 2018.

Brooklyn resident Rahmel Watkins, 36, is being charged with two counts of second-degree manslaughter, four counts of second-degree assault, second-degree reckless endangerment and reckless driving for the fatal car crash that took place around 1:40 a.m. on Apr. 4, on the Nassau Expressway near Rockaway Turnpike and Burnside Avenue.

The two people killed were Elisheva Kaplan and Yisroel Levin. Kaplan, 20, was a Far Rockaway resident and the daughter of Joel Kaplan, the cantor for Congregation Beth Sholom, in Lawrence. Levin, 21, was a Brooklyn resident. They were engaged and planned to be married in three months.

The couple was returning from visiting Levin’s brother in Rockland County for Passover. Watkins was driving a 2010 BMW 5501 GT, a car with a 400-horsepower engine, who was allegedly racing at least one other vehicle going roughly 100 mph before his car swerved into the opposite lane and crashed into the 2017 Nissan Altima with Kaplan and Levin, the driver, inside. The Altima burst into flames and the couple was trapped in the burning car and subsequently died.

Prosecutors noted that Watkins was allegedly speeding adjacent to Zakiyyah Steward, 26, in a 2016 Hyundai Genesis. On Feb. 27, Steward pleaded guilty to 17 charges ranging from manslaughter second degree, assault second-degree, reckless driving and endangerment, three vehicular traffic laws, vehicular manslaughter second-degree twice and one first-degree count, and aggravated vehicular homicide. Steward is expected to be sentenced on Sept. 24.

Nassau County Assistant District Attorney Christopher Casa is prosecuting the case and said in his opening statement that Watkins is responsible for the deaths of Kaplan and Levin. “The defendant showed no caution for the safety of other drivers that night,” Casa said. “He knew what he was doing was dangerous and he didn’t care. The defendant needs to be held accountable for his reckless driving.”

Congregation Beth Sholom sent an email encouraging friends and family of Levin and Kaplan to attend the court dates. More than a dozen family and friends attended Tuesday’s session, including Levin’s older brother, Yakov, the last family member to see the couple before their deaths. “I remember every single detail from that day,” Yakov, 33, said referring to the day of the crash.

“Yisroel and Elisheva came to visit my family and I for Passover and were just so happy to see them. I also remember sharing a meaningful goodbye embrace with my brother not knowing that was my last goodbye with him.” Yakov added that he named his fourth child, Yisroel, in honor of his younger brother.

Watkins is being represented by Garden City-based criminal defense attorney Joseph Lo Piccolo, who asked the jury to keep the law in mind when coming to a verdict. “You cannot take the end result of what happened and work backwards,” Lo Piccolo said. “The law doesn’t demand justice, it demands fairness.”

Judge Francis Ricigliano is presiding over the case. Watkins faces up to 15 years of jail time if convicted of all charges. Court officials noted the trial is expected to last roughly two to three weeks.