Saturday, July 13, 2019
Wrongful Conviction Journalism: Lights and Shadows
I've just finished watching the second season of an Israeli documentary series titled Shadow of Truth, which takes on a series of chilling rape-murders that occurred along one of Israel's main highways in the 1970s and 1980s. Hitchhiking was very common at the time, especially among young students and soldiers, and more than ten women met violent deaths along the highway.
The most famous of these cases was the murder of the soldier Rachel Heller, which the police pinned on a young man called Amos Baranes. Baranes was subjected to the third degree (three consecutive sleepless nights, untold violence, a fabricated reconstruction of the murder) and gave a false confession, and fought for his innocence ever since. He was released after eight years amidst grave doubts about his guilt, and later acquitted in a special hearing because of the immense police misconduct.
But Heller's murder was only one among many cases that shared forensic findings about the method of committing the crime. Importantly, at the time, each of these murder cases was investigated separately; the concept of a serial killer arrived fairly late to American criminology as well (famously popularized by FBI agent Robert Ressler, whose story is fictionalized and stylized in Mindhunter) and even later to Israel, where most people would doubt the possibility of such monstrosities happening in a small country with a small population. It was only in the late 1980s that a retired police officer, Ezra Goldberg, theorized that all the murders could be attributed to one perpetrator.
The series points the finger at convicted rapist Shlomo Haliwa, serving a life sentence for one of the murders in the series, the murder of soldier Orly Dubi. It's an attractive theory. Haliwa was convicted of murdering Dubi while on vacation from prison, where he was serving a long sentence for five rapes (American readers may be incredulous that anyone, let alone a dangerous, violent rapist was let out on vacation; Israeli prison sentences allow for vacations, and those were different times. I doubt someone like that would receive a vacation today.) There is some circumstantial, inconclusive-but-disturbing evidence tying him to at least two other murders (including a full confession, albeit one extracted by force by the same team that tortured the false confession out of Baranes.) His prisoner file is missing, so it is impossible to establish whether he was on leave from prison on the nights of some of the murders. He is heard on the series, speaking by phone, threatening the show's producers, which in itself is not evidence of guilt (it is, however, evidence of being a terrifyingly violent, unpleasant, and psychopathic man, and good reason to be concerned about his impending release in 2024; he will be 75 years old, still healthy, tall, and broad, and still a potential danger to women, I suspect.)
I'm torn on whether I find the effort to pin the murders on Haliwa convincing, and arguably journalists should not be tasked with the same care that the criminal justice system should exercise when pointing fingers. But the series made me think about the broader context of these shows. The 1980s and 1990s were characterized by cop-and-prosecutor shows that tended to be on the side of law enforcement. In a "the making of" featurette about Law and Order, the producers plainly admit that the concept of the show was born of the notion that their audience was getting more conservative and more punitive and would be receptive to this messaging. It was only later, in the late 2000s, that we started experiencing the success of wrongful conviction shows like Serial and Making a Murderer. My unsubstantiated suspicion is that these shows emerged at a time in which the public was perceived as losing its appetite for mass incarceration, and gaining more distaste with police violence, prosecutorial corruption, and the system's chronic inability to admit its mistakes (the broader context of recession-era politics probably also plays a part.)
The emergence of shows like this in Israel is understandable. It's not a coincidence that Shadow of Truth focused on the two most famous cases of miscarriage of justice in Israel--the wrongful convictions of Baranes and of Roman Zadorov (who is still in prison doing time for a murder that most people who know what they're talking about are certain he did not commit.) In Israel, too, there's a sense of disgust with police use of force (especially against minorities) and police corruption; as I write this, members of the Ethiopian Israeli community are protesting the police shooting of young Solomon Tekka, expressing frustration and anger for decades of mistreatment by police. Cases of police officers receiving bribes and exacting sexual favors are unfortunately not rare (these developments really echo what's been happening in the American discourse lately.) On a less outrageous basis, Israeli citizens are exposed to rudeness, indifference, and lack of professionalism from police officers on a daily basis, starting with traffic stops (what goes on here echoes the findings of Chuck Epp, Steve Maynard-Moody and Don Haider-Markel in Pulled Over.)
At the end of Shadow of Truth, we are told that the police investigation into the highway murders of the 1970s has been reopened. Similar legal developments happened after Serial and Making a Murderer. That, in itself, is great news from my perspective. I'll take justice over finality any day. The problem is that journalists do not select their topics at random. Documentary series are artworks that seek public viewership, headlines, and ratings. Journalists pick cases that they think will evoke outrage and sympathy: young and attractive victims, heinous violence, and a sympathetic possibly-wrongfully-convicted mark. When a case like this is picked for journalistic attention and sparks a renewed police investigation, how many similar injustices are left in the dark? The history of Israeli law enforcement flaws and corruption raises at least two possibilities for broader examination. For decades, the national Pathological Institute (the equivalent of the coroner's office) was run by Yehuda Hiss, whose corruption and unprofessionalism was mired in scandals ranging from lying to trading organs. Why have we not reopened every single case he meddled with? Also, since we now know that at least two confessions--by Baranes and Haliwa--were extracted using horrifically coercive means by Shaul Marcus, who was at the time a high-ranking police investigator, why are we not reopening every single case that his violent hand might have touched? I worry about the vast number of miscarriages of justice that we miss when journalists shine a light on cases that they choose for celebrity reasons, rather than through systematic investigation. It is not the journalists' job, of course, to conduct such investigations. Which is precisely why we shouldn't be waiting for them to shine the light on injustice for us; the criminal justice system has to do better on its own initiative.