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(photo credit: AP)
The world watched dumfounded late last week as the Los Angeles sheriff handed celeb heiress Paris Hilton a get-out-of-jail-free card after she had served only 73 hours of her 23-day sentence (already reduced from 45) for violating her reckless-driving probation.
Although the judge subsequently summoned her back to court, Hilton's bizarre release sufficed to ignite a fiery uproar about the obvious perks of money and fame and the equally patent lack of equality under the law. It's doubtful Jane Doe would enjoy similar consideration for an undisclosed "medical condition." But before we snicker at California's legal burlesques, it would hardly be amiss to critically scrutinize ostensible preferential treatment within our own system. Here too, it appears, wealth, renown and connections help reduce sentences - and for incomparably graver offenses than Hilton's.
Most glaring is the case of top lawyer Avigdor Klagsbald. Not only is Klagsbald affluent, he is also as well connected as possible in Israeli society. Some of this country's most powerful politicos are to be found among his illustrious clients, including Ehud Barak (in the Or Commission hearings) Ariel Sharon (during the Greek Island and Cyril Kern imbroglios) and Shaul Mofaz (about running for the Knesset shortly following his military discharge).
This month Klagsbald will be released from prison after serving merely nine months for the April 2006 road accident killing of a young mother, Yevgenia Wechsler, and her five-year-old son, Arthur. Initially Klagsbald was sentenced to 15 months, primarily because he was tried on the lesser charge of negligence rather than criminal negligence or manslaughter (which could theoretically carry a 20-year sentence). The 15 months were further cut to 13. Thereafter Klagsbald was additionally favored with a reduction for "good behavior."
He had already been treated with kid gloves, or worse, by police investigators who, astoundingly, mishandled his blood alcohol test and never assessed the speed with which Klagsbald's vehicle rammed, without braking, into the back of Wechsler's stationary Fiat, which was waiting for the traffic light to change at Tel Aviv's Derech Namir and Einstein intersection. Besides killing the mother and child, Klagsbald also wounded three other people.
Klagsbald is a recidivist who had amassed 23 citations before the fatal collision. The nature of these past citations demonstrated an incontrovertible contempt for the rules of the road. His rap-sheet lists several convictions for speeding, reversing recklessly to the point of endangering pedestrians, driving left of a solid white line, illegal U-turns, failure to yield the right-of-way, stopping inside an intersection, disregarding stop signs, driving the wrong way on a one-way street and cell phone use while driving. Any of the above could have cost more lives.
Klagsbald, moreover, isn't the only well-connected Israeli to have been treated lightly. Ofer Glazer, husband of Bank Hapoalim tycoon Shari Arison, also won early release recently for "good behavior" after serving just four months for sexual harassment and indecent assault.
Also out early is former minister Gonen Segev, after less than three years in prison for smuggling 32,000 Ecstasy pills into Israel and forging a diplomatic passport. As a former Knesset member and minister, his elaborate attempts to obstruct justice add particular severity to his felonies. As a physician, nobody was better placed to understand the potential damage to consumers of the contraband he disguised as candy.
If anything, all of the above - precisely because of their elevated social stature - should have been treated at least as harshly as any ordinary criminal and certainly not allowed to benefit from "third-time-off-for-good-behavior" leniency. They, of all people, should have known better.
The fact that they did less time than served by common people caught perpetrating identical crimes tarnishes our legal system with suspicions of favoritism no less than the LA sheriff's baffling compassion has embarrassed America.
The judge rejected Klagsbald's contention that he had suffered a temporary "loss of orientation," noting that the attorney "drove at unreasonable speed and failed to slow down on approaching the junction." Despite his priors and despite the tragic consequences of his serial recklessness, Klagsbald was incarcerated for what may be considered a derisory term bearing in mind that he carelessly extinguished two entirely blameless lives.