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Supreme Court upholds conviction for vodka-soaked driver who killed teen

Justices say 12-year sentence plus damages imposed on Eli Bar Zakai were appropriate for death of 13-year-old Eylon Shalev-Amsalem

Eli Bar Zakai, the driver accused of causing the death of Ayalon Shalev-Amsalem, at Tel Aviv District Court on July 21, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Eli Bar Zakai, the driver accused of causing the death of Ayalon Shalev-Amsalem, at Tel Aviv District Court on July 21, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The Supreme Court on Thursday rejected an appeal from a driver against his 12-year prison sentence for fatally running over a teenager in Tel Aviv after having downed a bottle of vodka.

Eli Bar Zakai was convicted last year by the Tel Aviv District Court for the death of 13-year-old Eylon Shalev-Amsalem in 2018.

A panel of three judges upheld the sentence, as well as the compensation Bar Zakai was ordered to pay. While they acknowledged the severity of the sentence, the justices ruled that “the choice to raise the penalty threshold in his case is justified.”

They noted that Bar Zakai’s friends had tried to persuade him to not get behind the wheel and that Shalev-Amsalem was acting safely as he waited with a friend to cross an intersection in Tel Aviv and was hit by Bar Zakai’s car.

“The gaping chasm between the appellant’s devious and contemptuous behavior, and the normative and cautious behavior of his friends on the one hand, and his victims on the other, cannot be ignored,” the judges said.

“Unfortunately, Eylon’s maturity and good upbringing did not protect him and his friend from the appellant’s drunkenness and savagery — and we have no power to reward Eylon for his actions and virtues, but only to punish the appellant for his deeds and shortcomings,” they determined.

During the sentencing, last July, the Tel Aviv court also revoked Bar Zakai’s license for 20 years and ordered him to pay NIS 100,000 ($29,172) in compensation to the family of Shalev-Amsalem.

Bar Zakai, who the court determined drank a bottle of vodka before getting behind the wheel, was also given an 18-month suspended sentence and ordered to pay NIS 75,000 ($21,000) to the family of another teenager who was injured in the crash.

Eylon Shalev-Amsalem, who was killed in a car accident on July 28, 2018. (Courtesy)

Bar Zakai, 23, was convicted in June 2020 of reckless manslaughter. He was also convicted of driving under the influence, causing grievous bodily harm, speeding, obstructing an investigation, obstructing justice, and tampering with evidence.

During the trial, prosecutors said that the night of the accident Bar Zakai and his friend Hillel Davis traveled from the capital to a friend’s home in Petah Tikva. On the way, they stopped to pick up alcohol and cigarettes.

Upon reaching the friend’s home, the group began to smoke and drink. Bar Zakai then phoned a friend and arranged to meet him at the Shalvata club at the Tel Aviv port. During the conversation, the suspect disclosed that he’d “already downed a bottle of Beluga (vodka).”

The group then made its way to a birthday party in the Tel Aviv suburb of Givatayim, with one of Bar Zakai’s friends serving as the designated driver in the suspect’s car. Dissatisfied by the party, the suspect urged Davis and the designated driver friend to continue with him to Tel Aviv.

After the two told Bar Zakai they wanted to stay, the suspect became enraged and stormed off toward the car on his own. Realizing that his friend was drunk, Davis called out to Bar Zakai and tried to convince him not to leave.

Just after 1 a.m., Bar Zakai was driving down Shai Agnon Street in northern Tel Aviv when he reached a curved intersection at Ibn Gabirol street. Bar Zakai failed to slow down before making the turn and plowed into Shalev-Amsalem and his friend, who were waiting at a crosswalk.

The car that plowed into Eylon Shalev-Amsalem, killing him and injuring his friend in Tel Aviv on July 28, 2018. (MDA)

Shalev-Amsalem was thrown 26 meters (85 feet) through the air and his friend was flung 15 meters (49 feet) from the point of contact. The victims were rushed to the hospital, where Shalev-Amsalem was pronounced dead shortly thereafter. The second teen sustained moderate injuries to his upper body.

Upon getting out of his wrecked car and seeing the victims’ bodies, Bar Zakai called Davis, panicking.

“Listen, Hillel, I’m wasted. Bring me water,” he said, in an effort to blunt the effects of the alcohol before being tested by police.

When he realized that Davis was not coming, Bar Zakai asked a municipal employee at the scene for water. He quickly drank the entire 1.5-liter bottle.

The suspect then asked for another bottle, arousing the suspicions of the employee, who refused.

At that point, Bar Zakai phoned Davis again and told him not to tell anyone that they had drunk together earlier that night.

He later tried to throw up in an attempt to further diminish signs of alcohol in his system. The suspect then phoned Davis once more, and his friend recommended that he eat mints.

Bar Zakai then realized that all of his calls had been recorded by an app on his phone, which he deleted on the spot.

Police at the scene of the accident had Bar Zakai take a breathalyzer test, which found that he was under the influence of alcohol. The test marked his blood alcohol level at 600 micrograms per liter, more than twice the amount allowed for a driver under the age of 24.

Since the test that was performed is often not enough to hold up in court, police requested an additional, more accurate blood test, but Bar Zakai refused. According to Israeli law, such refusal means that the suspect is legally considered to have been drunk.

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