Updated Dec. 3 at 1:35 p.m.
Brooklyn residents Rahmel Watkins and Zakiyyah Steward were sentenced on Dec. 3 for their roles in the 2018 April car crash that killed Elisheva Kaplan and Yisroel Levin on the Nassau Expressway in Lawrence.
Watkins, 36, received an 18-year to life prison sentence. He was convicted on four counts of second-degree assault, two counts of negligent homicide, reckless endangerment and reckless driving on Sept. 24.
Steward, 27, was given a sentence of 3 to 9 years. It was the expected sentence. 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.
Before she was sentenced, Steward read a statement and expressed remorse for her actions. “To the Kaplan and Levin families, I’m very sorry for your loss,” she said. “I pray for you more than I pray for myself. I’ll never forgive myself for what I’ve done, but hopefully one day, you will have it in your heart to forgive me.”
Nassau County District Attorneys Katie Zizza and Christopher Casa prosecuted both cases. The prosecutors requested that Judge Francis Ricigliano sentence Watkins to 25 years to life. “This case is every parents nightmare, which is not having their child return home,” Zizza said. “This defendant’s reckless driving caused two young people to die.”
Joel Kaplan, the father of Elisheva, noted how grateful he was to the DA’s office for their efforts throughout the trial. “This trial was never about revenge, it was about mercy,” said Kaplan, the cantor at Congregation Beth Sholom in Lawrence. “Mercy to ordinary citizens who were obeying the law.”
He noted his somber thoughts during both trials and sentencing hearings. “I obviously have a solemn feeling because Yisroel and Elisheva cannot be brought back to life,” he said. “I also have solemn feeling for the two people who caused their deaths because they have to go to jail. But we must never use sympathy to justify people who are a danger to others.”
Despite the possibility of life in prison for Watkins, Samuel Levin, the father of Yisroel, expressed disappointment with the sentencing. “We appealed to the judge to give Watkins 25 years to life,” Levin said. “He had the opportunity to do the right thing and give 25. Instead, he gave 18.” Levin added that he wanted Ricigliano to come out and explain his decision.
Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas commended the families for their strength throughout the trial process. “These were two young people who were taken from their families in a horrific way because of the actions of two other people,” Singas said. “I hope the families show the same strength as they continue their lives and know that the memories of their families are always with them.”