Court: Prison authorities blameless in Topaz suicide

The Ramle Magistrate's Court rules that the Prison Service bears no blame for last year’s jail-cell suicide of TV star Dudu Topaz.

dudu topaz young 248.88 (photo credit: Jerusalem Post Archives)
dudu topaz young 248.88
(photo credit: Jerusalem Post Archives)
The Prisons Service bears no blame for last year’s jail-cell suicide of TV star Dudu Topaz, the Ramle Magistrate’s Court ruled on Sunday.
Judge Hagai Tarsi, who presided over a judicial investigation into the death of Topaz in Nitzan Prison in August 2009, determined that Topaz took his own his life despite the best efforts of the Prisons Service personnel to prevent such an act and despite being held in accordance with the regulations regarding prisoners with suicidal tendencies.
Topaz, 62, a comedian, actor, screenwriter, playwright, author and radio and television host who once was the nation’s No. 1 TV star, was in prison for ordering assaults on three TV executives he blamed for his failure to return to television.
On August 20, 2009, he was found dead in the bathroom stall of his cell in Nitzan Prison.
One of his prison mates found him lying on the bathroom floor with an electrical cable noosed around his neck, attached to the one-meter high bathroom faucet.
On the same day, the police requested that an investigation into his death be opened, as required by law in any prison death. The investigation took place over four months and in January 2010, its results were brought before the judge.
The judge later passed on the investigation material to Topaz’s brother Micky Goldenberg, so that the family could address any shortcomings or grievances.
According to Tarsi’s ruling, the police investigation focused on two main tracks, first the cause of death, and second any possible negligence on the part of the Prisons Service that might have led to the death.
The autopsy revealed that Topaz died as a result of self-administered strangulation, hanging himself from the sink faucets with an electrical cable from an electric kettle found in the room.
“Testimonies given shortly after the event corroborate each other and create a clear picture according to which the deceased conducted the suicide by himself, with no need of external assistance and without the involvement of anybody else,” read the ruling. The judge also ruled out the possibility of anybody else being involved in preparation, planning or encouragement of the suicide.
Indications of Topaz’s desire to kill himself were strengthened by a note that he had left for his brother, written in code, apologizing for his deeds, expressing love to his children and instructing him on actions to take on his behalf after his death.
The investigators also reported that despite the fact that not all the instructions regarding the overseeing of Topaz’s imprisonment were followed precisely as required by regulations, the conditions under which he were held were as close to complete as possible and Topaz’s successful suicide could not be attributed to action or lack thereof of the prison authorities.
“Perusal of the files reveals that there was a high level of awareness among Nitzan Prison staff as to the importance of supervising the condition of the deceased and every development was reported on and received answers,” read the ruling.
On one occasion, after Topaz expressed his intention to harm himself, the warden ordered him bound and kept under continuous observation.
“The required conclusion is that the deceased’s condition was awarded unique, perhaps even unprecedented attention on the part of the authorities,” the ruling read.
The judge determined that despite a failed suicide attempt and despite repeated expressions of his suicidal thoughts to his cellmates, there was no indication that he would commit the act in the days and hours prior to the deed.
“I believe, and this is only an estimate, that the deceased fluctuated between extreme conditions of hope and despair and that when he woke up that morning, despair got the better of him. In any case, no blame should be placed on the prison authorities who did their best to aid and protect him,” the judge said.
The judge also rejected suggestions that what drove Topaz to kill himself were disciplinary actions taken against him by the prison cell.
The judge did point out two regulation infractions by the Prisons Service, but determined that they did not prove negligence.
One infraction was the requirement that Topaz be under constant monitoring in all sections of the cell. That requirement was not met, since there was no camera in the bathroom. The second infraction was the presence of the electric cable he killed himself with in the room.
The judge said that though the regulations weren’t followed in full, Topaz received the best supervision available in the prison, in the cell next to the guard’s table, and that it was yet to be determined in court whether it is even legal to place cameras in the bathroom.
The judge said that nobody in the prison services had considered the possibility that an electrical cable could be used for such a purpose.
He noted that the Prisons Service had recently conducted a comprehensive study on suicide prevention and was in the midst of a system-wide reform in the treatment of at-risk prisoners.