Innocence Project Emerging in Israel

Innocence Project Emerging in Israel

Wrongful convictions are a well-known phenomenon in the United States; the administration of one of the world’s largest criminal justice systems virtually guarantees mistakes and failures. Famous cases such as that of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who was framed for murder and spent 20 years in prison, and whose case was made into a movie, have given rise to a robust network of attorneys and innocence projects dedicated to advocating for the wrongfully convicted in the U.S.

But America is not the only country that struggles with convicting the innocent. Public defenders and scholars in Israel are becoming more vocal about the rising number of wrongful convictions in the Jewish state. In a recent book, law professor Boaz Sangero estimated that up to 5 percent of convictions in Israel are wrongful.

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

To bring attention to the problem, Israel’s Public Defender’s Office sponsored a film and panel discussion on International Wrongful Conviction Day. “The Hurricane,” the movie based on Rubin Carter’s wrongful conviction, was shown. However, it’s not clear that the message got through.

“[T]his kind of thing could never happen in Israel,” said Knesset member Revital Swid. “There are mistakes here but not to that extent. I don’t think the police would frame someone.”

Pointing to the thousands of overturned wrongful convictions in the United States, Chief Public Defender Yoav Sapir disagreed.

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

Until recently there were no innocence projects in Israel. Given the fact that the Innocence Project in the U.S. got its start at Yeshiva University’s Cardozo Law School, this is somewhat ironic. But the policies of the Israeli police and court systems may be partly to blame.

“In Israel, there is no culture of preserving evidence,” said deputy public defender Horovitz. “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.”

Regardless, public defenders and advocates have moved forward to establish an Israeli version of the Innocence Project; Horovitz recently launched a law clinic at Hebrew University tasked with looking into wrongful conviction claims. She noted that how justice is administered is a test of an enlightened nation.

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

According to the website for the new project, which is supported by the Kathleen Solovy Foundation, “The Israeli Innocence Clinic is based on an adaptation of the American model which led to the release of more than 300 people in the United States thus far, including 20 who served time on death row. With one of the highest conviction and settlement rates, Israel offers a set of obstacles and issues in need of addressing. The work of the Clinic involves representing clients at retrial, as well as researching and promoting policy intended to develop and enhance Israeli law in this field.”