Israeli ministry's oversight ‘czar’ slams handling of forensic testimony

Prosecutors have been battling the last few years against allegations of tampering with the written and oral testimony of its forensic experts, to get them to tailor their conclusions.

May 28, 2017 02:58
2 minute read.
Israel Turkey

Police forensic experts examine in front of the Israeli Embassy in Ankara, Turkey, September 21, 2016. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Justice Ministry oversight “czar” David Rozen issued a report for publication on Sunday, slamming the state prosecution for tampering with the state’s Abu Kabir Institute of Forensic Medicine and called for a revolution in how the institute operates in its dealing with the prosecution and with defense lawyers.

Rozen proposed 14 changes to completely alter how things work. He recommended requiring the prosecution to record all of its communications with the institute, providing copies of all communications and all of the institute’s documents and background materials to defense lawyers, and providing defense lawyers nearly equal access to the institute on understanding medical issues in their cases.

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Recent High Court of Justice rulings had already put the State Attorney’s Office on the defense, demanding it explain how its interventions with the state’s medical forensic experts’ testimony are not illegal.

Prosecutors have been battling the last few years against allegations of tampering with the written and oral testimony of its forensic experts, to get them to tailor their conclusions closer to the prosecutors’ narratives in any given case.

Until the Knesset passed a law revamping the oversight czar’s structure and powers in August 2016, Rozen was clearly under the control of the attorney-general.

Since the law was approved, the Movement for the Quality of Government in Israel and others have insisted that the oversight czar have power over the prosecution without the attorney-general being able to overrule his decisions. To date, Rozen’s recommendations are still subject to a combination of the attorney-general’s legal approval and the Justice Minister’s political backing.

Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit on Sunday issued a mixed statement. On one hand, he said Rozen’s report can increase public faith in the prosecution.

On the other hand, he did not endorse any of its 14 recommendations, only saying he would review them.

Mandelblit also defended the prosecution, saying that nothing in Rozen’s report, regardless of what Rozen called deficiencies, showed a case where a prosecutor’s communications to a forensic expert led that expert to change his opinion.

In December 2016, the High Court decided the report finally published on Sunday, much of which was written by ex-justice ministry czar Hila Gerstl, but had been under gag order due to the prosecution’s move to block its publication, would eventually be publicly released.

That ruling marked one high point in the years-long battle between Gerstl and the state prosecution over whether medical forensic experts were state witnesses in the sense of being able to be guided toward prosecutorial conclusions, or neutral witnesses whom prosecutors should avoid talking to.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and Forensics Institute Director Chen Kugel both endorsed the report, and Shaked pledged to work to see it implemented.

The prosecution tried to highlight some minor wins that it had in Rozen’s report, which dropped certain criticisms that Gerstl had put forward, and suggested that most of the deficiencies had occurred a few years ago or more and that changes had already been made to avoid relapses of those deficiencies.

Notably, the report does not name individual prosecutors, but the descriptions of some cases are detailed enough to identify high profile cases and Rozen’s condemnation of individual prosecutors’ conduct as violating judicial orders could affect prosecutors’ careers.

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