Swastika case tried lawyer’s conscience

Defense attorney Barry Helfand in his Rockville office Photo by Suzanne Pollak

Through the office doors of attorney Barry Helfand have walked some of the worst citizens of Montgomery County — murderers and sex offenders.

But it took a quiet teenager to make Helfand initially question his responsibility as a lawyer.

When the Espinoza-Carranza family met Helfand in his Rockville office in the spring, Sebastian Espinoza-Carranza detailed how he, along with three juveniles, had spray-painted swastikas, “KKK” and other graffiti on Shaare Torah Congregation in Gaithersburg.

Helfand, who is Jewish, briefly fretted  that he was about to be asked to represent a neo-Nazi, someone who hated Jews enough to commit a crime against them.


In murder cases, Helfand learns about the victims. But in this case, Helfand thought, “I am the victim of the crime. When one Jew is attacked, it’s almost as if all are attacked.”

He added, “I don’t think there is anyone who is Jewish who hears about this [incident] who isn’t offended.”

But Helfand pulled himself together, realizing he didn’t know Espinoza-Carranza, nor did the young man know him. He wondered if the high school senior noticed the mezuzah on his office door — or even knew what a mezuzah was.

He assumed the family saw his kiddush cup with a Jewish star prominently displayed on a window ledge behind his desk, where anyone sitting in a chair facing the attorney would notice. But Helfand observed no reaction, positive or negative, over the Jewish symbol.

“I don’t know why they picked me. Nobody tells me why,” Helfand said of his clients.

After listening to the young man’s retelling of the April 14 incident, the attorney immediately concluded that “this was no anti-Semite. This was a kid.” Helfand added: “He is just a young man who made a terrible, horrible mistake and is not a horrible person.”

He decided to represent Espinoza-Carranza in his legal troubles that could send him to prison for nine years, believing he had a crucial role to play here as a Jewish person.

“He needed a Jewish education,” Helfand said. “If nothing else, he was going to learn Jews have compassion.”

Helfand said he arranged a trip to the U.S. Memorial Holocaust Museum in Washington so that his client could “learn why the Nazi symbol strikes such a chord in the Jewish heart.” He also reached out to Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal to schedule a private meeting in his office with Espinoza-Carranza.

Later that week, Helfand was sitting at his usual spot, playing cards at Woodmont Country Club in Rockville with a practicing pediatrician, a retired lawyer,  a retired radiologist and several dentists. He briefed them on the case he had just agreed to take.

“One [person] was so revolted by the idea, he said I shouldn’t do it,” Helfand said. “One said it would hurt my practice.”

A quick vote showed that his fellow card players were five to four against his taking the Espinoza-Carranza case. “That surprised me.”

After Helfand explained that he believed he had a positive role to play, one vote changed, tipping the scales toward accepting the case — but just barely.

It wasn’t only his friends. “My family expressed a lot of reservation,” he said.

Those who wanted me not to take the case, “it’s not that they are hard. It just shows how much a swastika can mean.”

He soon “became more and more convinced it was the right thing to do,” he said.

His goal is to keep this youth out of prison and possibly have his record erased in the future so that it wouldn’t plague him the rest of his life.

“I want to time this thing so if he wants to go to college, wants to get a job,” his arrest and guilty plea won’t impede that, Helfand said.

Espinoza-Carranza admitted in Montgomery County Circuit Court last month to damaging a religious institution, defacing religious property and malicious destruction of property valued at more than $1,000.

While each of the three charges carry a maximum three-year sentence, Espinoza-Carranza is expected to be sentenced to five months’ probation and no jail time when Judge Nelson Rupp Jr. sentences him on Oct. 20.

Under the plea agreement, Espinoza-Carranza must visit the Holocaust museum — which he’s already done — write an essay about his visit and speak with representatives of Shaare Torah.

Senior Assistant State’s Attorney Sherri Koch, the prosecutor in this case, also is Jewish.

When asked if Espinoza-Carranza’s anti-Semitic act affected how she approached the case, Koch said no.

“I wouldn’t treat any case differently,” whether it involved a synagogue, church or mosque. “The community was the victim,” and it is always the job of the prosecutor “to protect the community.”

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