Moshe Katsav, Alon Ron
Moshe Katsav Photo by Alon Ron
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Although the verdict in former President Moshe Katsav's rape trial isn't expected until next week, polling shows that three out of four Israelis who have formed an opinion on the trial believe Katsav should be convicted of rape.

The polls also show that only 19 percent of those who have formed an opinion about the trial say they will change it if the court contradicts it, and 57 percent of secular people believe Katsav is guilty as opposed to 26 percent of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox people.

The polls were taken in May and October among a sample of 1,800 adult Jewish Israelis as part of research by Haaretz analyst Ze'ev Segal, Prof. Camil Fuchs and Tiki Balas on the effect of the media on public opinion in criminal trials.

In March 2009, the Tel Aviv District Court indicted Katsav on charges of rape, an indecent act by force, sexual harassment and obstruction of justice.

The trial attracted extraordinary media attention, with much of the investigative material, including the testimony of the complainants, presented to the public. The defense's closing arguments quoted statements by Mishael Cheshin, who until 2006 was vice-president of the Supreme Court, that "the media has already convicted Katsav" and that this fact had "influenced witnesses and polluted the judicial process."

Among all respondents, 51 percent said he should be convicted of rape, 16 percent said he should not, and 33 percent said they did not know.

However, among only the 67 percent who stated their opinion, 76 percent of them said he should be convicted of rape and 24 percent said he should not.

While 80 percent of secular and traditional respondents who had a position said Katsav should be convicted of rape, only 53 percent of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox respondents who expressed a position said he should be convicted of rape.

Sixty-one percent of all respondents said Katsav should be convicted of the other charges.

According to Segal and Fuchs, the fact that such a large portion of the public had already formed an opinion is preliminary empirical proof of the impact of the media. The case attracted the attention it did, they said, because the suspect is a former president, and "did not allow the public to remain neutral."

Judges may find problematic the fact that most of the public said they will not change their opinion after the verdict and a quarter of respondents said they did not know if they would change their opinion.

"A bench of three expert judges, headed by the widely respected Judge George Karra, will check all the evidence very carefully. Therefore the fact that only 19 percent of the public will change their minds after the verdict should not make the judges happy," Segal said.

Fuchs said the finding itself is not surprising, since the man on the street does not make his decision the way the court does. She said studies elsewhere in the world show that few if any people change their opinion following a court verdict.

Respondents gave low scores to the media's ability to help them understand the affair. The researchers believe this result might have to do with the many conflicting reports that came out about the case.

The full study is to be published in Kesher, a journal devoted to the study of Jewish media, by Tel Aviv University.