Dozens of people arrived at the Supreme Court on Monday to show their support for a man sentenced to 20 years in prison for murdering the man he says was his rapist.
“There’s an injustice here. Twenty years in prison is too harsh a punishment,” said Rachel Dasto, a student at Sapir College who came to support Yonatan Heilo.
Heilo was convicted of choking Yaron Eilin in May 2010 and hitting him in the head with a rock and bricks in the parking lot of a Netanya shopping center, even after Eilin collapsed.
He says the man he killed had raped him twice and extorted money from him, threatening to beat him if he didn’t pay up. Heilo turned himself in to police the day after Eilin was killed.
Some supporters say the fact that Heilo’s family immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia should be seen as a significant element of the case.
Dasto, who is also of Ethiopian descent, said Monday she understands why Heilo didn’t go to the police to report rape and extortion.
“It’s hard for men to tell about being sexually assaulted,” she said. “To this you must add that he’s Ethiopian. In our community we don’t talk about sexual assaults on women, certainly not on men. It’s not something that comes naturally, that you share with your friends or family.”
But prosecutor Michael Poran said Heilo’s background cannot serve as grounds for mitigating his sentence.
Both Heilo and Eilin “came from distressed neighborhoods,” he said. “To say that a person in a distressed neighborhood isn’t prepared to get up the courage to go to the police over such a thing [as sexual assault], but instead will take someone’s life, is something that won’t be heard.”
“There are thousands of people who suffer distress and don’t commit crimes and obey the law,” said Poran.
Dasto carefully followed the justices’ remarks, but with every comment aimed at Heilo’s lawyer, Alon Eizenberg, her disappointment was evident. “This isn’t going well,” she said.
Half an hour into the hearing, she left the hall to make room for other Heilo supporters. It was a relatively small courtroom and many were waiting outside. Some had come in organized transports, while others had hitchhiked from all over the country.
The Heilo supporters, Israelis of Ethiopian descent as well as social activists of various backgrounds, took turns in the courtroom, so as many as possible could watch the proceedings.
Outside the courtroom, Heilo’s supporters argued over whether the court would reduce his sentence, and by how much.
Eilin’s supporter were fewer and quieter. “He didn’t deserve to be murdered, he was on the way to recovery,” Eilin’s brother, Gashaw, said after the hearing.
The Lod District Court, which convicted Heilo of murder, acknowledged that he had been a victim of sexual crimes.
The Supreme Court justices hearing the appeal — Hanan Melcer, Uri Shoham, and Daphne Barak-Erez — took a similar approach.
However, they repeatedly asked whether the claim of self-defense could explain the crushing of Eilin’s skull when he was already on the ground and near death.
Based on their remarks on Monday, it seems the justices will have difficulty accepting the defense’s argument that Heilo had simply gone crazy at the prospect that he might be sexually assaulted again.