The Supreme Court ruled on Thursday to shorten the sentence of an American-Israeli man convicted of hoaxing US Jewish community centers and other targets around the world with thousands of bomb threats.
While the top legal body rejected an appeal against the conviction of 21-year-old M., who is autistic and whose full name is withheld by a gag order in Israel, it did agree to cut his suspended prison sentence from 10 to seven years.
“On the one hand, the severity of the offenses committed by the appellant is obvious. He committed grave acts of unprecedented scope, using sophisticated technological means…. In his actions, the appellant compromised public safety and well-being,” Justice George Kara wrote.
“On the other hand, the appellant committed a substantial portion of the offenses when he was a minor, with no criminal record,” he added. “Substantial weight must be given to the fact that the appellant is on the autistic spectrum.”
While Kara recognized that the maximum-security prison where M. has been held since his March 2017 arrest is not necessarily an appropriate setting for someone with his condition, he concluded that the 21-year-old — who has attempted to escape custody — poses too great a security risk to place him in a “therapeutic setting.”
M. was convicted of making over 2,000 threatening calls to mostly American schools, hospitals, and Jewish community centers from 2015 to 2017, using an online calling service that disguised his voice and allowed him to hide his identity. He also targeted hundreds of airlines and airports, malls, and police stations, in the US, Canada, the UK, New Zealand, Australia, and Britain, and tried to extort Republican State Senator Ernesto Lopez from Delaware.
In addition to the bomb threats, M. offered his extortion services through an online black market. Court documents unsealed in August linked him to a post on the now-shuttered illicit marketplace AlphaBay, advertising a “School Email Bomb Threat Service.” The ad offered to send customized threats to schools for $30, plus a surcharge if the buyer seeks to have someone framed.
His threats caused fighter jets to scramble, planes to dump fuel and make emergency landings, schools to evacuate, and numerous other chaotic consequences. In some cases, he allegedly threatened to execute children he claimed to be holding hostage. Police also found hundreds of photos and videos of child pornography on his computer.
The hoax bomb threats, which came in the midst of the ongoing far-right surge in the United States, sent a chill through Jewish communities, stoking fears of anti-Semitic attacks.
M. was found guilty in June 2018 of hundreds of counts of extortion, publishing false information that caused panic, computer offenses, and money laundering, among other charges. That November, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison and fined NIS 60,000 ($16,068).
In addition to the prison sentence in Israel, M. has been indicted on hate crimes charges by the US Department of Justice that would carry a hefty prison term there.
In filing the appeal, M.’s attorney Yoram Sheftel asserted that there were substantial flaws in Israeli authorities’ interrogation and prosecution of his client.
The appeal began by pointing out that M. “is the only individual with autism currently serving in Israeli prison, let alone who has been in detention for nearly two years,” since his March 2017 arrest.
The appeal took issue with a line in a report filed by one of the Tel Aviv district psychiatrists who examined M. and claimed he had told her, “I understand that it’s forbidden (what I have done)… I’m sorry. I will not do it anymore.”
The line was cited by the Tel Aviv District Court in the conviction and sentencing of M. as a sign that he could tell right from wrong and should therefore be held responsible for his actions. Sheftel, who throughout the trial did not question the veracity of the allegations against his client, took issue with that claim, saying the quote reflected an emotion M. is incapable of demonstrating.
Sheftel also claimed that upon being made aware during the trial of M.’s alleged admission of guilt, he requested that the district psychiatrist present her notes from M.’s evaluation to the court, but she failed to produce them.
Still, that admission went on to be used as the basis for Thursday’s rejection of M.’s appeal.