June 16, 2024
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Vered Adoni Stands for Justice in Bergen County

Vered Adoni has been an assistant prosecutor in the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office since 2008. She served in various capacities until finally finding a home as chief of the Bias Crimes Unit in 2010.

“I prosecute all kinds of cases, not only bias cases,” she said. “Even though we hear about it on the news, there really aren’t that many of these types of cases that make it to trial.

“What makes these cases so interesting is the freedom of speech component,” she added. “People are saying things just because of who someone is, what group they are a part of: African American, Jewish, Muslim, Asian, LGBTQ.

“Sometimes there is violence, but more often than not, the cases are brought after a harassing event. It’s up to us to decide whether it’s harassment or freedom of speech, and that very much depends on what’s said and how it is said.”

In a telephone conversation with The Jewish Link, Adoni discussed these First Amendment concerns, as well as other aspects of her work, but was happy to first reminisce about how she got to where she is today.

“I came here at 16 with my parents, from Israel,” she shared. “I was a sophomore at Paramus High School, and when I graduated I wanted to go back to Israel to serve in the army. I already knew that I wanted to be a prosecutor, and my parents thought I should get started with my life, but the army was my obligation and I wanted to serve. I went back as a lone soldier.”

She returned to the U.S. after her army service, first attending college, where she minored in prelaw, and then Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, where she focused her efforts on preparing for her intended career.

“I interned at the Manhattan DA’s office and joined the Moot Court Honor Society, all to prepare for a career as a prosecutor,” she said. “My first job after law school was with the Queens County DA’s office. Later I worked at the Rockland DA’s office and then came home to New Jersey in the Bergen County Prosecutor’s office.”

That’s how Adoni looks at her job now: She came home. “I had worked in New York and was living in New Jersey. Now my work affects me and the people around me.”

Adoni has never had any regrets about the profession she chose at the age of 15. “I always knew I wanted to be a lawyer, but that wasn’t enough; I wanted to be a prosecutor. I always had a strong sense of justice and doing the right thing. I wanted to make sure justice was served; I wanted to advocate for justice and let people know what’s right and wrong. Seeking justice was just somehow part of my daily life,” she said.

“I always wanted to argue in front of a judge and a jury, to make them understand why my position is correct and just,” she added. “I was hired [at an early job] because of my passion. If I believe in my position I will argue passionately—and that, coupled with my sense of justice about what’s right and wrong in society, is what makes me good at what I do.”

And what she does is fight for minorities, those in “protected classes.” “We look at violence, harassment, criminal mischief against protected classes,” she said, “and we need to determine whether the expression of views rises to the level of a criminal act. We work hard to bring all offenders to justice.

“This work is interesting and disturbing because it is more than just the act, it is someone doing something solely because the other is a member of a protected class.”

Determining whether a bias incident rises to the level of a criminal act is the difficult part, Adoni shared. “To determine if there is a bias motive we need to get into the mind of the offender. Did the event happen just because the victim is a member of a protected class? We look at actions and words used to help us make that determination. We question witnesses and victims and do a thorough investigation before we bring charges.”

Adoni was clear on one point: “The utterance of hateful words does not by itself constitute a bias crime. … People are allowed to hate; they are allowed to express hateful ideas,” she emphasized. “We cannot prosecute hateful speech alone, only criminal acts.”

She elaborated: “If someone is walking to synagogue and someone else shouts something derogatory out of their car window, we cannot prosecute that. If it is done repeatedly and becomes harassing, then it is a criminal act. People should be free of harassment.”

Adoni went on to discuss one case that has concluded. “Since it is part of the public record I can talk about it.” The 2012 case of the firebombing of a residence attached to Congregation Beth El in Rutherford, and four other synagogues, by Anthony Graziano and Aakash Dalal was the first time the state’s anti-terrorism statute was used. According to Adoni, “This was a case of domestic terrorism and bias intimidation. Dalal harbored hate against Jews for some time. He started early, but he was not necessarily paid attention to, and his hatred grew. Then he enlisted Graziano and they committed hateful acts.

“This was the impetus for Gurbir Grewal, our attorney general, to revise the state guidelines to be more specific in terms of investigating and prosecuting bias crimes,” she said. “Law enforcement was directed to pay more attention to people who commit minor bias acts. These tend to escalate and become a bigger problem with time.

“Now,” she continued, “we must investigate every case with a potential bias motive, and report it to the state and county portal so there is a record, even if it isn’t criminal. That way if it becomes a bigger problem, we are aware of it.”

Prosecuting bias crimes is a complex task, with many moving parts. Adoni believes that her being Jewish can be helpful, as it “makes me understand what it’s like being a member of a minority,” but she also recognizes that “unlike other minorities I don’t have the visible trappings; I can blend in. I don’t wear a head covering or a Jewish star or anything like that.

“Being a Jewish woman, part of one of the most targeted minority groups, allows me to understand, to sympathize, even though I wouldn’t have the same experience if someone is targeted because of the way they look,” she said.

But, she stressed, “my being Jewish has no relevance when I prosecute my cases. Regardless of who or what I am, I have to do my job fairly. It doesn’t impact my work, but inside me it matters.”

By Jill Kirsch

 

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