Supreme Court overturns Ramle man’s murder conviction

In a split decision, judges rule there was insufficient evidence to prove guilt in 2005 murder of man's 30-year-old cousin Faten Issawi.

high court panel citizenship law 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
high court panel citizenship law 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The Supreme Court acquitted 40-year-old Ramle resident Maher Alaisawi of murder on Monday, overturning a lower court’s conviction and freeing him from a life sentence.
In a split decision, the judges ruled that there was insufficient evidence to find him guilty of the 2005 murder of his 30-year-old cousin Faten Issawi, beyond a reasonable doubt.
RELATED:Man found shot to death in Ramle; J'lem woman stabbedRamle man arrested in connection with taxi murder
In March 2008, the Tel Aviv District Court convicted Alaisawi of murdering Issawi, based on three key pieces of evidence. Issawi, who was found strangled but alive near Kibbutz Palmahim in the South on April 15, 2005, died six months later in the hospital.
The evidence on which the district court based its conviction included DNA samples lifted from cigarette butts that were found close to where Issawi was discovered, records of phone conversations between Alaisawi and the victim that showed that the two had spoken on the phone several times on the night of the murder, and the hearsay testimony of Alaisawi’s nephew, who said his uncle had confessed to killing Issawi.
In their verdict, the district court judges indicated that only in combining the three pieces of evidence, which on their own were circumstantial, could a clear picture of guilt emerge.
Alaisawi’s defense lawyers, in the first trial, presented an alternative scenario to the strangulation, according to which a second suspect, a man with whom Issawi had romantic ties, was the one who had killed her. The judges, however, refused to accept the thesis, citing lack of evidence to support it.
In the appeal, Alaisawi’s lawyer attacked the hearsay testimony given by the suspect’s nephew, accusing the police of tricking and pressuring the nephew into reporting the confession to protect himself from being arrested – a report he later contradicted in court. The lawyers also pointed to lack of motive and opportunity to commit the crime.
In his written ruling on the appeal, Supreme Court Justice Neal Hendel wrote that the cigarette butt with Alaisawi’s DNA did not constitute conclusive evidence to convict him of the crime, since the cigarette could have been moved and since Alaisawi had admitted that he had been in the area on several occasions in the past.
Hendel said that the phone records, too, though suspicious, could not implicate him beyond a reasonable doubt. In fact, he said, they provided a possible alibi for Alaisawi, who claimed he had spent part of the evening with his girlfriend in Ashdod – a claim backed up by the phone records.
On the matter of the nephew’s report, Hendel wrote that it was suspicious and that there was reason to believe that the police had pressured the nephew, who supposedly knew about the murder, to make the report to prevent his own arrest, tricking him into believing that his uncle had already confessed to the murder.
“In my opinion, the decision that the appellant’s guilt of committing murder was proven beyond reasonable doubt is troubling. It is troubling because it lacks the required certainty. The reasonable doubt in this case is based on shortage of objective facts in the evidence,” said Hendel.
“I don’t deny that there is suspicion, even substantial suspicion, against the appellant. But there is a gap between the suspicion and the quantity and quality of evidence necessary to convict him,” he added.
Justice Elyakim Rubinstein agreed with Hendel that the evidence was insufficiently conclusive.
In her minority ruling, Justice Ayala Procaccia said that in her opinion, the evidence, and especially the DNA traces found on the cigarette butt, were sufficient to issue a guilty verdict. She recommended that the appeal be rejected.