'The truth triumphed. I am happy'

After 16 years, man convicted of brutal murder of teen girl acquitted in retrial

After more than a decade behind bars for 2006 killing of 13-year-old Tair Rada that shocked the nation, judges rule 2-1 that there is reasonable doubt Roman Zadorov is the culprit

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

Roman Zadorov arrives at his home in Katzrin, with his wife, after being acquitted in a retrial of the murder of Tair Rada at the Nazareth District Court, on March 30, 2023. (David Cohen/Flash90)
Roman Zadorov arrives at his home in Katzrin, with his wife, after being acquitted in a retrial of the murder of Tair Rada at the Nazareth District Court, on March 30, 2023. (David Cohen/Flash90)

In a dramatic ruling in perhaps the most famous murder case in Israeli history, Roman Zadorov was acquitted Thursday of the 2006 murder of a 13-year-old schoolgirl that horrified the nation, in a retrial that overturned previous convictions that saw him serve more than a decade behind bars after being sentenced to life.

The gruesome murder of Tair Rada in a school bathroom in the northern town of Katzrin has long been the subject of intense debate online and in the media, with many believing the now 45-year-old Zadorov was not the killer and had been convicted based on insufficient circumstantial evidence, while ignoring evidence that indicates the presence of another person at the scene. Others are convinced the evidence, while incomplete, leaves little room for doubt he was the culprit.

Rada’s family — which has long charged that the wrong person was convicted — has waged a years-long public campaign that resulted in new evidence being unearthed and in the announcement of a retrial in 2021, after which Zadorov was released to house arrest. Thursday’s verdict was broadcast live and drew numerous heated reactions.

The panel of three judges at the Nazareth District Court announced a 2-1 decision to exonerate Zadorov, who burst into tears and later said: “The truth triumphed. I am happy. I was confined to my home; now I will take my children for a stroll.”

Judges Asher Kula and Danny Sarfati acquitted Zadorov while the third judge, Tammar Nissim Shai, ruled that he was guilty. The verdict is some 700 pages long.

A representative of the state prosecutors in the case said her team would study the verdict and then decide whether to appeal the acquittal to the Supreme Court.

Tair Rada. (YouTube screenshot)

Rada was found dead in a bathroom stall in her Katzrin school in the Golan Heights in December 2006, with slashes to her neck, stab wounds across her body, and severe blows to her head.

Shortly after the murder, Zadorov, a Ukrainian national temporarily employed by the school as a floorer, was arrested and accused of the killing.

Two weeks after his arrest, police announced Zadorov had confessed to Rada’s murder and reenacted the attack for investigators. But a day later, Zadorov’s defense attorney announced that his client had recanted, claiming his confession and reenactment were coerced and included incorrect information.

In 2010, nearly four years after he was arrested, the Nazareth District Court sentenced him to life in prison. The conviction was twice upheld by the Supreme Court following separate appeals.

His lawyers, along with thousands of vocal members of the public, insist that Zadorov was framed for an act he did not commit and that the real murderer was a woman named Ola Kravchenko, whose boyfriend at the time, Adir Habani, said years later that she’d confessed the murder to him.

Following a DNA analysis by investigators, the Abu Kabir Forensic Institute announced in 2018 that a hair found on Rada’s body did not belong to Zadorov, but instead could match Habani (among thousands of possible matches), reigniting speculation over the killing.

Convicted murderer Roman Zadorov in the courtroom of the Supreme Court, Jerusalem, December 23, 2015. (Gili Yohanan/POOL)

In 2019, Zadorov’s attorney Yarom Halevi filed a request with the Supreme Court for a trial, claiming the existence of “a lot of new evidence that proves unequivocally that Zadorov did not murder the deceased and could not have murdered the deceased.”

Reading out his ruling Thursday, Judge Kula said there was a “substantial fear that Zadorov’s confession was a false confession.” He criticized the state prosecutors, saying they had “failed to prove beyond reasonable doubt that his confession matches the findings at the scene. He is not a sadist or a pedophile and isn’t someone prone to uncontrolled violent outbursts.”

Judge Sarfati ruled that Zadorov had been under “heavy pressure that he was facing life in prison” that “convinced him that he had to give a confession.”

“Why would the defendant murder a girl at his workplace and leave a bag full of evidence? How did he leave the scene while dripping [with blood] and there is no witness who saw him? How weren’t his shoe soles drenched in blood? How can one reach a conclusion based on all those question marks? The accuser failed, and he must be acquitted,” he concluded.

In her minority opinion, Judge Nissim Shai made starkly conflicting remarks, underlining the complexity of the case even among experienced jurists who have studied the same evidence and heard the same testimonies.

“Zadorov is guilty beyond any reasonable doubt,” she said. “His confession is detailed and rich, and wasn’t given out of fear.” In his newer testimonies, Nissim Shai ruled, Zadorov “ignored his previous versions. His [new] versions are lies. He confirmed that he lied to the previous panel of judges.” She said he had known a series of facts that only the killer could have known.

While acknowledging that the body of evidence and the investigative work were “not perfect,” she concluded that “not every question mark is a reason for acquittal.”

Roman Zadorov, left, and his lawyer Yarom Halevi after Zadorov was acquitted of the murder of Tair Rada, outside the Nazareth District Court, March 30, 2023. (David Cohen/Flash90)

None of the judges indicated there was a serious case against Kravchenko, either, and at the end of the verdict reading, Judge Kula turned to Ilana Rada, the victim’s mother.

“We tried to solve the mystery, [but] it is possible that Tair took her secret to the grave,” he said.

Ilana Rada, mother of murdered girl Tair Rada, arrives for the verdict of Roman Zadorov in his murder retrial at the Nazareth District Court, March 30, 2023. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Speaking to reporters minutes later, Ilana Rada rejected that comment.

“This isn’t over. Tair didn’t take her secret [with her],” she said in tears. “She was abandoned, viciously murdered. I won’t let it go. A door that was closed before me for many years has been opened. I will calm down a bit. I will find the murderers.

“At last, after 16 years of lies, justice was served,” she, said, hailing the ruling. “The war is just beginning. This is a cover-up by the prosecution. The prosecutors of the State of Israel murdered my daughter,” she added, reiterating her past accusations that the poor investigative work and alleged framing of Zadorov had been tantamount to murdering her daughter all over again.

Political link

Politicians reacted to the ruling, with many highlighting the failures of state prosecutors during the 16-year saga and linking it to the current government’s highly divisive bid to radically overhaul the judiciary.

“The link between the Zadorov trial and the fixing of the justice system is immense,” said the overhaul’s architect, Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman.

He argued that the extensive attempts to determine which of Zadorov’s versions was correct and whether his initial confession was given under duress highlighted the excessive weight given to judges’ determination of “reasonableness” — a clause used this year by the High Court of Justice to nullify Shas party leader Aryeh Deri’s appointment as a minister. The coalition is seeking to limit its use.

Likud MK Ariel Kallner tweeted: “Zadorov’s acquittal joins many injustices by a system that lacks checks and balances and features selective enforcement, blackmailing of witnesses and more.” Fellow Likud MK Tally Gotliv called for an end to centering indictments around suspects’ confessions.

Yisrael Beytenu MK Yulia Malinovsky of the opposition said the exoneration shows “how much we need a real reform in the justice system and law enforcement in Israel, not the regime coup the government is trying to pass for its own benefit.”

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