Exonerated prisoner: 'It's very easy to take away someone’s life, but to give it back is very hard'

Why are innocent Israeli citizens going to jail?

As many as 5% of convictions in Israel may be wrongful, but public defenders say the justice system refuses to admit it has a problem

Simona Weinglass is an investigative reporter at The Times of Israel.

Hamed Zinati, a Druze land broker, spent four years in jail for a crime he didn't do. (Simona Weinglass/Times of Israel)
Hamed Zinati, a Druze land broker, spent four years in jail for a crime he didn't do. (Simona Weinglass/Times of Israel)

Hamed Zinati, a father of five from Israel’s north, remembers the day his life was destroyed.

“It was October 26, 2007. The police came to my house,” he told The Times of Israel. “They said, ‘You’re under arrest.’ I said, ‘For what?’”

It was anyone’s worst nightmare. Zinati, a Druze land broker, had suddenly become a suspect in the murder of Youssef Ali, the husband of a woman who had been having an affair with Zinati’s business associate.

Zinati was convicted on the basis of a third suspect’s confession, and spent four years in jail before Israel’s Supreme Court acquitted him of all charges. The court ruled that the district court’s reliance on the confession, extracted under questionable circumstances, was the blackest of moral stains on Israel’s justice system.

‘It’s very easy to take away someone’s life, but to give it back is very hard’

But Zinati’s ordeal is not over. Despite winning over $100,000 in damages from the state, the 49-year-old suffers from PTSD, hearing loss and chronic back pain that he acquired in prison. His wife and five children are whispered about and shunned by their neighbors, while, as an ex-convict, he has been unable to find a job.

“It’s very easy to take away someone’s life,” he says of his treatment by the court, “but to give it back is very hard.”

‘It couldn’t happen in Israel’

Last month, in honor of International Wrongful Conviction Day, Israel’s Public Defender’s Office sponsored a film and panel discussion to bring attention to the problem of wrongful convictions in Israel. Even though public defenders get their paycheck from the Justice Ministry, part of their job is advocacy and drawing attention to what they consider to be a glaring failure in Israel’s justice system.

“There’s a problem in Israel,” deputy public defender Anat Horovitz told The Times of Israel. “We’re still arguing over whether there could be wrongful convictions at all. We’re burying our heads in the sand.”

The debate Horovitz describes was evident at the event, which included a panel discussion preceded by a screening of the wrenching 1999 movie “The Hurricane,” based on the life of Rubin Carter, an African-American boxer who was framed for murder and spent almost 20 years in prison before proving his innocence.

In the film, Carter is wrongfully convicted due to a racist jury, corrupt New Jersey police and a detective chief with a personal vendetta against Carter.

Knesset member Revital Swid (Zionist Union), a longtime criminal defense attorney, said that as she watched the film, her initial reaction was to think “this kind of thing could never happen in Israel. There are mistakes here but not to that extent. I don’t think the police would frame someone.”

But Yoav Sapir, Israel’s chief public defender, begged to differ.

He said that with the DNA revolution of the late 1980s, hundreds of wrongful convictions were overturned, thanks in large part to The Innocence Project, started at Yeshiva University’s Cardozo Law School.

Portrait of Israeli parliament member Revital Swid of the Zionist Union party. March 31, 2015. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Israeli parliament member Revital Swid of the Zionist Union party. March 31, 2015. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Sapir pointed out that 1,700 wrongfully convicted people have been exonerated in the United States since 1989. The most prevalent cause is perjury or false accusation (55%). In 47% of cases, there was misconduct by police and prosecutors. In 33% there was eyewitness misidentification while 22% involved forensic science of dubious validity. Finally, in 13% of cases, someone confessed falsely to a crime. In the US there were 1700 exonerations.

“There is no reason to believe these things don’t happen in Israel as well,” Sapir told the audience. “We’re human too.”

In fact, a recent book by law professor Boaz Sangero estimates that 5% of convictions in Israel are wrongful. A confession by a third party that falsely blamed Hamed Zinati for the actual murder is what did him in, said Sapir, his advocate before Israel’s Supreme Court.

There were two other defendants in Zinati’s murder trial. One of them was approached by a police informant, who urged him to testify against Zinati so that he could get off. The defendant asked the informant, “How can I do that? What if they give me a polygraph test?”

The informant was recorded saying, “Don’t worry, they won’t. Just testify against him to save your own skin.”

While Zinati was acquitted, the Supreme Court upheld another defendant’s guilt and the third defendant, the one who confessed, remains in prison as well.

Presumed guilty

Zinati, who attended the film screening, said that it brought back painful memories.

“For four or five days afterwards, I was in a blur.”

There is a scene in the film where Rubin Carter’s wife is visiting and, having given up on ever gaining freedom, he tells her to divorce him. “No!” she sobs.

“I told Yoav, that is the exact conversation my wife and I had for four or five months,” Zinati recollects. His marriage did ultimately survive, but during his incarceration his children were sent to live with their grandparents. His relationship with them never fully recovered, he says. Nor does he have the money to pay for their education, as he lives on disability payments and is currently seeking charitable contributions to make ends meet.

Zinati reunited with his wife and children (YouTube)
Zinati reunited with his wife and children (YouTube)

“It was scary in prison. I was afraid to leave my cell. You’re sitting there with rapists and murderers and drug dealers and you see blood in their eyes. There was violence. I saw a guy hang himself.”

There were times he felt “it’s a pity I’m alive,” but he nevertheless refused repeated offers of plea bargains.

“If I had been weak, I would have broken. But I believed in justice,” he said, citing a Druze proverb — “Just as you can pull a strand of hair from a pile of dough, justice will emerge.”

When public defender Yoav Sapir first visited him in prison, the wardens said mockingly, “You mean Hamed Zinati, the prisoner who thinks he’s innocent?”

When asked why he thinks the Haifa district court convicted him on such shaky evidence, Zinati says it has nothing to do with racism, nor was it personal. Instead, police, judges and prosecutors are so overloaded they have an incentive to wrap up each case as quickly as possible.

Indeed, a recent study at Haifa University revealed that less than 1% of criminal cases that go to trial in Israel result in acquittals.

“I know someone I think is innocent just like me,” says Zinati, “lots of people, actually. But they break people in interrogations. I think Israel needs to abrogate its plea bargain law. It’s the court’s job to discover the truth.

“I am not the only one who was wrongfully convicted and I am not the last.”

An Israeli Innocence Project

According to Anat Horovitz, Israel’s public defender’s office gets 30-40 queries per year from prisoners who insist they are innocent and want a retrial. But the office only submits one or two of these requests, mainly because they don’t have any evidence to submit to the court.

“In Israel,” she says, “there is no culture of preserving evidence. It gets lost, or the police put it in a storage facility that floods. This actually happened, with tens of thousands of exhibits destroyed in a flood. In other cases, the state prosecutor brought us a piece of evidence and it had been half-eaten by mice.”

The phenomenal success of the Innocence Project, says Horovitz, was due to the fact that could go back and do DNA testing on old evidence.

“But if you don’t have the rape victim’s underwear, or the murderer’s ski mask, it gets really hard.”

Since 1948, only 28 requests for retrials have been accepted in Israel. Of these, about 21 have resulted in acquittals.

“The numbers are tiny,” she concedes.

There’s also the issue of manpower. Israel’s Public Defender’s Office has a total of 100 full-time lawyers, with another 900 they outsource to. Most of their work consists of defending clients in ongoing trials. The retrial department consists of one-and-a-half employees.

To remedy this state of affairs, Horovitz launched a law clinic at Hebrew University to look into wrongful convictions. She has also recruited Israel’s top law firms to give their time pro bono. But it’s not easy to recruit people, especially when the work can be so painstaking.

“The private war for a single person involves adding detail after detail. These cases can take years. Lots of people will give five minutes of their time but it’s hard to find people to help fight over the long haul.”

Horovitz is worried that life in Israel is so difficult that the public is not troubled enough over wrongful convictions. But they should be, she says, because how it administers justice is the test of an enlightened nation.

“We often quote the [Jewish] sources. Like [medieval philosopher] Maimonides, who said that it is better to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent to death.”

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