Miami-Dade County

Charges dropped in murder of Orthodox rabbi who was killed as he walked to temple

Deandre Charles, who was accused of murdering Rabbi Joseph Raksin in Northeast Miami-Dade in August 2014. Prosecutors dropped the case against Charles, who was 14 at the time of the shooting, on Jan. 17, 2017, citing insufficient evidence.
Deandre Charles, who was accused of murdering Rabbi Joseph Raksin in Northeast Miami-Dade in August 2014. Prosecutors dropped the case against Charles, who was 14 at the time of the shooting, on Jan. 17, 2017, citing insufficient evidence. Miami Herald file photo

Prosecutors, admitting the weakness of the mostly circumstantial evidence against a Norland High teenager accused of the 2014 murder of a visiting rabbi from New York, announced Tuesday they were dropping the charges.

“Unfortunately, at this time, the trial team does not believe it can prove [the defendant’s] guilt beyond a reasonable doubt,” prosecutors wrote in a closeout memo filed in circuit court declaring their intention to drop the murder charge against Deandre Charles, who was 14 at time of the killing.

Charles was accused of gunning down Rabbi Joseph Raksin during a botched robbery in August 2014. Raksin, an Orthodox rabbi who was visiting his family from Brooklyn, was shot as he walked to a northeast Miami-Dade synagogue for Saturday services.

A witness to the killing said he saw two men fleeing the scene of the murder, but Charles was the only one ever charged. The closeout memo says the investigation is still open.

The decision to drop the charges, triggered by weaknesses in DNA and cellphone evidence as well as other problems, according to prosecutors, seems certain to roil the tight-knit Orthodox Jewish community of Northeast Miami-Dade, which was stunned by the murder.

“I’m still in shock,’’ said Yona Lunger, an activist in the Orthodox community. “I am trying to find out the details as to why they dropped the case.’’

But Adam Goodman, one of Charles’ attorneys, said the decision — announced by surprise late Tuesday afternoon — was inevitable.

“These problems with the evidence have been there all along,’’ Goodman said. “They should never have arrested Deandre, ever. It’s sad for the next of kin, the Raksin family, and it’s sad for Deandre.”

Charles, who wasn’t arrested until nearly 16 months after the killing, has always maintained he was at home asleep when the shooting took place. But police said his DNA was found both on the murder weapon and in the getaway car, and cell phone records showed he was near the crime scene. And, they said, an eyewitness who saw two men running from the area where Raksin was killed identified Charles as one of them, picking his photo out of a lineup.

But the eyewitness saw the men fleeing from 100 feet away, and a crude sketch he made of the man he identified as Charles barely resembled him.

And, as assistant state attorneys Michael Von Zamft, Marie Mato and Joshua Hubner conceded in their closeout memo, the other evidence began to steadily erode:

▪  Because of changes in the reporting methods of the Miami-Dade crime lab, prosecution experts could no longer be sure Charles’ DNA was in the car. And they said the DNA samples found on the gun were only about 20 times more likely to be Charles’ rather than another person, “an extremely low number” in the DNA identification field.

▪ And even if the DNA could be positively linked to Charles, new evidence in an unrelated case showed that neighborhood gang members sometimes stored guns at Charles’ home — a “different and reasonable explanation” about how his DNA got onto the weapon.

▪  Phone records verified Charles’ claim that his brother was carrying his cell phone that day.

▪  The pistol that killed Raksin was used in a robbery seven miles from the murder scene the day before the killing, and police had no evidence connecting Charles to that robbery.

Added the prosecutors: “The fact that the firearm was used the day before the murder in a robbery is highly relevant and supports the defense theory that someone else committed the murder, possibly the same person who committed the armed robbery.” Police knew of the discrepancy all along, but didn’t tell prosecutors until last March, the closeout memo said.

“The trial team does not believe the state can prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt,” the prosecutors admitted in their memo. “The degradation of the evidence at hand has made this an inescapable determination.”

Relatively little of the information in the closeout memo was new, and the case against Charles had been dangling by a thread for many months. In March, Judge Jason Bloch harshly criticized the evidence and ordered Charles to be released on bail, as long as he wore an electronic ankle bracelet.

“That’s the first thing we’ve got to do, get that bracelet removed,” defense attorney Goodman said. “And from there, we’re going to consider what to do next. Deandre basically was in jail for a year of his life while he was a teenager. The school that he missed, the interactions with his family that were lost … that's all very serious.”

Raksin’s family could not be reached for comment Tuesday. But his death shook the tight-knit Orthodox community in Northeast Miami-Dade, which has more than 10 synagogues along a mile-stretch.

Raksin, who was visiting his grandchildren from Brooklyn, had just finished his muffin for breakfast and headed out for morning services about five minutes with his son-in-law.

After the shooting, the devout — who refrain from driving on the Sabbath and carrying anything of value — feared walking alone to temples and pooled their money to offer a $50,000 reward for information leading to the killer.

Hundreds gathered outside Bais Menachem Chabad, 1005 NE 172nd Ter., the day after Raksin was killed to pray. Hundreds more gathered in Brooklyn for a final goodbye.

Raksin’s son-in-law Izzy Lakowski began a mission to spread love, not hate with a Torah project in his father-in-law’s memory. He toured the country in an RV with what he called the “I will” scroll, giving people an opportunity to make peaceful promises.

When news spread 16 months later that an arrest had been made, the community felt a sense of relief.

At the time, Shulamis Labkowski-Raksin, Joseph Raksin's daughter said: “We want this vicious thug to be prosecuted to the fullest extent the law allows.”

At the time, Charles' family told reporters that the teen had been home and couldn't have done it.

“They are pinning this on a young teenager that has a lot of issues but this is ridiculous," his stepfather Willis Archibald told reporters at the time. "I am 100 percent sure that he is innocent."