Possibly ending a 10-year saga that has rocked the country and the Justice Ministry, with calls to suspend State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan because of his handling of the case, the Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld the conviction of Roman Zadorov for the 2006 murder of eighth-grader Tair Rada.
The majority’s 2-1 vote upholding the conviction came despite a dissenting vote from Justice Yoram Danziger and the skepticism expressed by the justices about the state prosecution’s case in October 2014 at a hearing on the appeal of the lower court conviction.
In December 2006, Rada was found stabbed to death in a bathroom stall at the Nofei Golan school in Katzrin on the Golan Heights.
Zadorov, the school custodian, was arrested less than a week later and in September 2010 was found guilty of 13-year-old Rada’s murder.
The case captivated the media and public. It was a tragic, small-town murder that, from the beginning, was dogged by rumors, including that local teenagers had killed Rada and the town or teachers had covered it up, finding an easy fall guy in Zadorov, an immigrant from the former Soviet Union.
He was sentenced by the Nazareth District Court to life in prison plus two years for obstruction of justice.
But it turned out that this was just the beginning of the story.
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In March 2013, the Supreme Court ordered the lower court to reexamine certain evidence, including a forensic expert’s opinion (a former top FBI official) about bloody shoe prints found at the scene, and another expert’s analysis of the murder weapon and the injuries to Rada’s head.
The new evidence had indicated that the bloody shoe prints, which the lower court had connected with Zadorov, were not shoe prints at all.
Further, the new evidence had indicated that the murder weapon was a serrated knife, or a knife with multiple cutting edges, and not the single cutting edge knife that the lower court had connected with Zadorov.
Despite the Supreme Court’s directive to reexamine the evidence, the lower court rejected both of these new arguments, standing by its original findings.
In February 2014, the Nazareth District Court upheld its earlier conviction of Zadorov for Rada’s murder and convicted him a second time.
The current appeal – Zadorov’s second to the Supreme Court – is his last chance to appeal, following the second conviction.
The lower court said in its second conviction of Zadorov that it preferred the expert opinion offered by the prosecution at the trial; for, unlike the defense’s expert, it had examined Rada’s body.
The lower court chided the defense on the shoe prints issue, preferring the prosecution’s expert’s take, and expressing disapproval of the defense expert’s evasive answers under cross-examination.
Zadorov’s lawyers, including renowned lawyer Avigdor Feldman and Elkana List, slammed the state and the lower court for ignoring that another high-ranking government expert came out against the state’s forensic conclusions.
The 300-page majority opinion upholding the conviction on Wednesday, which included justices Isaac Amit and Zvi Zylbertal, found three major grounds for its decision, despite the disputes over the shoe prints and the knife.
Aspects of Zadorov’s confession while under arrest to a confidential informant, of his confession to interrogators and his participation in reenacting aspects of the crime were decisive, wrote the court.
Amit noted that Zadorov told the informant about how he slipped his headphones under his shirt before committing the murder in order to keep them clean and described the way that Rada’s throat was slit, both highly detailed facts that indicated his confession was authentic.
In his confession to police, Zadorov added more details that likely would have been known only by Rada’s murderer, including the inability to lock the bathroom stall where the murder took place and the manner in which Rada stood while she was murdered, Amit wrote.
Aspects of Zadorov’s reenactment related to how he got out of the bathroom stall over the locked door also demonstrated his guilt, Amit stated.
Amit and Zylbertal agreed with Danziger that there were problems with the forensic evidence, specifically the footprints and the knife. But they found reasonable explanations for the confusion surrounding that evidence that resolved their doubts, which, together with the other evidence, compelled them to uphold the conviction.
Although the court found other issues more decisive, the dispute between government experts about forensic evidence spilled out into the open in an unusually public way, with allegations surfacing that Nitzan blocked Dr. Maya Forman-Resnick, a government expert opposing the state’s conclusions, from promotion to a higher government job.
That dispute led to a lawsuit by Forman-Resnick against the state prosecution. Justice Ministry oversight czar Hila Gristol criticized Nitzan’s role in the case as well as the conduct of the state prosecutors, who she said cherry- picked portions of the government experts’ reports that helped their case, while trying to suppress other portions.
On Tuesday, the NGO Citizens for Good Governance and Social and Legal Justice even requested that Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked suspend Nitzan, based on Gristol’s criticism.
Nitzan has denied any improper conduct and slammed Gristol for going beyond her mandate, just as the union of state prosecutors has demanded that her office be dismantled until it is reconfigured by new Knesset legislation.
At a hastily arranged press conference before the Justice Ministry’s main office on Wednesday, Nitzan responded to the decision and criticism, stating, “After the Nazareth District Court twice convicted Roman Zadorov...
the Supreme Court today upheld the conviction.... The majority upheld it in a clear voice, indicating that this was not a borderline [decision] at all, and that this was an emphatic conviction.”
Nitzan said that even Danziger, in dissenting, wrote that he had almost decided to vote to convict, and that during the case “all of the evidence was checked, including new evidence....
This decision should end the saga.... We live in a democracy; everyone must respect the decision.”
Another issue raised by the defense was that the lower court had unjustifiably ignored the possibility that Zadorov made a false confession, a phenomenon that the courts recognize.
When the Supreme Court originally sent the case back to the lower court, it had already said Zadorov’s first conviction was based on confessions he had made to interrogators, a police translator, a jailhouse informant and during a reenactment of the crime, which justices said “were found to contain lies, manipulations and fabrications.”
Rada’s parents, Ilana and Shmuel, became famous in Israel after the murder, with Ilana being outspoken about her doubts of Zadorov’s guilt, while Shmuel said he believed police had caught the right man.
Both on Wednesday after the Supreme Court’s ruling and at Zadorov’s second conviction, Ilana said she was still convinced that the state had incorrectly pinned the blame on Zadorov and was ignoring the search for the real killer.
Feldman, Zadorov’s lead lawyer, said they would request a broader panel of the Supreme Court to rule on the issue, possibly creating one more round in the saga.
While such an appeal by Feldman and Zadorov would have some support because Danziger dissented, it is unusual for criminal cases to get such rehearings, which are usually reserved for constitutional issues.
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