Ofra Bickel - March 2012
Ofra Bickel.
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An award-winning Israeli-American film director will be coming to Sapir College next year to help law and film students expose miscarriages of justice the way she does in the United States.

For 25 years, Ofra Bickel's films have told the story of defendants who were wrongly convicted of serious crimes in the United States and sentenced to long prison terms. The convictions resulted from racism and other prejudices, public pressure, reliance on questionable testimony and the disregard of evidence. Through her documentaries, Bickel has convinced the authorities to acquit 13 innocent defendants.

Bickel has won dozens of prestigious awards and has seven Emmys from the American Academy of Television Arts and Sciences to her credit.

Her films show how even small distortions of the criminal justice system can lead to major injustices involving people accused of crimes they didn't commit. "Innocence Lost," her first film and part of a trilogy, documented how children were coached to give testimony accusing employees of a North Carolina day care center of child abuse.

Bickel will run her program at Sapir College near Sderot jointly with Dalia Halak, the public defender for the southern region, who is directing a criminal-law clinic at the college this year.

In the spirit of Bickel's approach, the Sapir law school plans to document distortions in the Israeli legal system through film. The effort will tackle both general concerns and specific miscarriages of justice.

Students at the Sapir law school will explore the practice under which many cases are scheduled at the same court session for indictment readings. The judge is given a stack of cases to handle one after another. These cases usually result in a quick plea agreement between the prosecution and the defendants.

In recent years, Halak has fought this practice. She said the hearings are sometimes conducted in violation of the law without legal counsel for the defendants. Some defendants have even been convicted of a crime without fully realizing it.

She said much of the process is carried out by prosecutors, defendants and their lawyers crowding together in the courthouse hallways to reach a plea agreement. Halak raised concerns about police violence against criminal suspects in Israel, including juveniles. She said injustices also occur during interrogations.

Bickel said her work at Sapir College will be more complicated than her work in the United States because Americans are more likely to believe that a defendant could be falsely convicted of a crime. She attributed the different attitudes to the many cases in the United States where innocent people have been put behind bars.

By the time Bickel's third film was shown on television, all the accused from the North Carolina day care case had been released from jail due to the public pressure the series generated. Despite their acquittals, the defendants paid a heavy price, Bickel told Haaretz by phone from New York this week, saying their lives had been ruined by the accusations.

Bickel said the resistance by Israeli prosecutors and police investigators to reconsider cases where defendants have been convicted will pose a difficulty in her work here. Still, she said she hoped the camera will prove her best tool in opening doors, as in the United States.

Similar name, must be guilty

Bickel said documentaries are the best way to expose miscarriages of justice during investigations and trials. One protagonist in her films was an African-American youth named Terence Garner, who was convicted of a violent robbery only because his name resembled that of the person who actually committed the crime. This fact was brought to Bickel's attention by the robber's accomplice while she was shooting her film.

"This mistake was even reported previously in the local press, but it didn't spark any public reaction," Bickel said, adding that the accomplice recounting on camera what really happened had a much greater impact.

Most cases featured in her films have been brought to her attention by prisoners, their families and their lawyers. She said she approaches each case without any preconceptions. Her experience with so many cases over the years lets her decide within a week whether an innocent person has been convicted, she said.