Analysis: The tide turns again in Holyland trial

If state witness's recent hospitalization prevents him from showing up in court, judges may cancel further cross-examination.

The Holyland Tower in Jerusalem 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
The Holyland Tower in Jerusalem 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Former prime minister Ehud Olmert and his 15 co-defendants seemed to be on a roll.
They had decisively killed off the state prosecutor’s momentum in only the first of 16 expected rounds of cross-examination of the state’s main witness.
“S.D.,” as he is known under a gag order, seemed to get new holes exposed in his story on a daily basis.
Time after time, he could not remember key pieces of information.
Time after time he made claims about what was contained in various documents, only to have to later admit that he could not find the material in the documents in question.
Maybe it was all in your head, Hillel Cherny’s attorney Giora Aderet seemed to imply repeatedly, showcasing S.D. as disorganized, unreliable and not credible.
Olmert and his co-defendants started to relax as S.D. went on what seemed like a rant charging bribery against famous persons, including several highly respected former mayors of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv dating back decades before any of the events regarding the Holyland real-estate project took place.
Who would believe S.D. when he seemed to accuse the entire country of bribery and fraud, and seemed maybe only to want attention and payback against his former bosses for dispensing with his services.
Best of all, Judge David Rozen seemed to have lost patience with S.D.’s laundry list of accusations, many of which seemed to be unnecessary and make little sense.
In several cases, Rozen said quite bluntly that he was sick of S.D. making allegations without backing them up.
Then everything turned upside down.
S.D. was hospitalized one week ago, bringing the trial, but more crucially the cross-examination and vilifying of S.D., to a screeching halt.
Originally, the court hoped S.D. would be out of the hospital by Thursday and it would merely reduce the number of hours S.D. needed to testify each day to around three hours from around five.
Even this change would have radically altered the trial.
Already, Rozen had ordered that the state start calling its other witnesses in the afternoon hours, between the lunch break and 8 p.m.
Such an arrangement is very unusual, as standard procedure is to hear one witness from beginning to end, including cross-examination, before you move on to another witness.
There are several reasons that defense attorneys would have already been concerned by the trial running on parallel but separate morning and afternoon tracks.
First, introducing new state witnesses changes the topic.
Court cases are the sum of all of the tiny details that come out throughout a case, but they are also narratives.
The tearing S.D. apart under cross-examination narrative was one that the defense attorneys hoped to keep going for an extended period, both as a statement in the public’s mind and in Rozen’s mind.
Second, interrupting testimony.
This often allows S.D. to confer more often with his own notes, and with the state prosecutors (although technically this is not allowed, almost every good defense attorney finds a way to do it that does not violate the letter of the law) and to generally be better prepared and less surprised by new angles of attack.
Third is unique to S.D. The state’s main witness is a deeply troubled man, both physically and mentally. To use a sports metaphor, the last thing you want the other side to get to do when it’s down and you have it on the ropes is to call a “time out.” Some have speculated throughout the case that S.D. might have a mental breakdown in court and make statements which would cause the entire case to fall apart.
If the defense attorneys were pushing for this, and their continued aggressive posture toward S.D. and on-and-off verbal abuse imply that it was something they hoped for, even if not something they could guarantee, it now is much less likely.
In contrast, a physical breakdown does not damage any of his prior testimony supporting the state’s case. It only delays their ability to continue cross-examining him, and 15 of the defense attorneys have not even started.
So any pause and moving on with other witnesses would have been bad for Olmert and the other defendants.
However, S.D.’s inability to return at all on Thursday raises a new and more worrying scenario for the defense.
What if he can’t physically return to the case? He’s made his case for the state already and there have been several weeks of cross-examination.
Could the defense be stuck with a situation where it does not get another shot at him in cross-examination? This would create deep, possibly constitutional, problems for the trial from the perspective of due process and defendants having their full day in court.
But one could imagine a court saying that the weeks of direct and cross-examination testimony were enough to decide an eventual verdict.
Returning to sports metaphors, the image of a rainout after the fifth inning of a baseball game comes to mind.
Just slightly more than half of the game was played before the rain stopped the game, but whoever is winning at that point walks off with a victory.
This scenario is quite unlikely, and more likely S.D. will return soon under Rozen’s parallel tracks of morning and afternoon testimony.
But either way, the tide has turned once again. This time not in Olmert’s and the other defendants’ favor.