[author: Courtney Sherwood]
A high-level Morgan Stanley official pleaded not guilty earlier this month to theft assault and hate-crime charges, after being accused of stabbing his cab driver while using racial slurs.
Cabbie Mohamed Ammar told police that he picked up William Jennings, head of North American fixed-income capital markets at Morgan Stanley, outside a Manhattan charity auction that the banker had arranged. Jennings stands accused of refusing to pay his $204 taxi fare once arriving at his $3.4 million Connecticut home, and of stabbing Ammar through a partition when the driver pulled out of the driveway to allegedly turn Jennings over to police. Trial has been set for April 12.
For his part, Jennings – who’s been suspended by Morgan Stanley pending the outcome of the trial – says prosecutors, police and the taxi driver have it all wrong. He told police that the driver, whose injured hand required 60 stitches, was cut while reaching back to prevent Jennings from calling police on a cell phone. Jennings’ defense attorney Eugene Riccio said that the driver asked for close to $300 – more than the agreed-to fare – and tried to abduct his passenger, according to Bloomberg News.
Police apparently found Ammar’s story more credible, determining that it would have been virtually impossible for the cabbie to reach back through the partition while driving. Jennings’ decision to leave town on a two-week Florida vacation before reporting the incident to law enforcement can’t have helped.
The entire case is a bizarre muddle of hot-button legal issues, said Gabriel ”Jack” Chin, a professor at the UC Davis School of Law.
Hate crimes laws are controversial, wealthy bankers unpopular, and stories about unscrupulous taxi drivers are legion across New York. It’s rare that all three come together in a single criminal prosecution. And some of the facts presented so far are hard to accept on face value.
“My intuition is that bosses for Morgan Stanley probably expense everything even tangentially work related, so the idea that somebody would make a big fuss like this is hard to accept unless he actually was drunk,” Chin said.
The competing stories about how Ammar was cut are both hard to understand, given the barriers that exist between passengers and driver in nearly all New York cabs, and it may well take a medical expert’s testimony to explain what really happened. Even if Jennings did intentionally cut Ammar, he may be able to dodge assault charges by arguing self defense.
“You can use self defense to prevent yourself from being kidnapped,” Chin said. And if Ammar really did try to take Jennings to police against his will, rather than call police to the scene or file a complaint later, that may well have constituted kidnapping.
If prosecutors do successfully prove assault, the court will then have to weigh whether a hate crime was committed –which would make any potential sentence more severe.
The taxi driver told police that the banker threatened, “I’m going to kill you. You should go back to your country” and called him by a rude name. Ammar, an immigrant from Egypt, is now a U.S. citizen.
But a crime in which a rude comment is made is not always motivated by bias, and it can be difficult to tell the difference.
Though many actions that could legitimately be called hate crimes never result in criminal charges, “On the facts of this case, it didn’t strike me that use of a racial epithet – if indeed it happened – was necessarily associated with a bias crime,” Chin said, noting that he came to that conclusion based on media reports without reviewing court documents associated with the case.
“In some situations what happened is clear from objective evidence,” Chin said. “In a situation like this, it’s not even certain that somebody committed a crime. … It’s hard to know what really happened. I suspect that this is going to be a tough case to prove.”
Prosecutors may have filed charges in part to show that the wealthy are held to the same standards as everyone else, Chin speculated. And while the case against Jennings may be tough to mount, it’s a molehill compared to some of the legal mountains facing Morgan Stanley and other major U.S. banks.
“If prosecutors are worried about bankers, they should investigate crimes that took place regarding mortgages,” Chin said. “But those are even harder to prove.”
Read more about hate crime legislation, and what to do if you’ve been the victim of a hate crime.