After 20 Years in Prison, Israeli Gets Murder Retrial Based on DNA Testing

Ovadia Shalom was convicted in 1995 in what the police suspected was a robbery gone wrong, even though no forensic evidence against him was found.

Ovadia Shalom, convicted of murder in 1995, seen here in prison in 2015.
Keshet TV

For more than two decades, Ovadia Shalom has sat in prison protesting his innocence in the murder for which he was convicted. Sure enough, on Sunday the Public Defender’s Office asked a court to order a retrial based on new evidence – a DNA test that wasn’t available in the ‘90s.

Shalom, a Jerusalem resident with a history of property and drug offenses, turned himself into a murder suspect when he made an unexpected offer during his trial for breaking and entering in February 1995. He told prosecutors that if they signed a state’s evidence agreement with him, he could solve the murder of Shmuel Levinson six months earlier.

This promptly made him the police’s chief suspect, and he was convicted of killing the Jerusalem attorney during a robbery gone wrong. His appeal to the Supreme Court failed.

Shalom was convicted based on circumstantial evidence, his confession that he was present at the crime scene, and the fact that he repeatedly changed his story and lied. At one point, for instance, he claimed he was in Tel Aviv at the time of the murder, but phone records proved he was in Jerusalem.

Still, no forensic evidence against him was found, and the forensic evidence that was found pointed away from him. For instance, hairs stuck to a cap found at the crime scene and thought to belong to the person who broke into Levinson’s house didn’t match Shalom’s hair.

When public defenders took up Shalom’s case, police gave them several items found at the crime scene, including a bloodstained comforter, buttons torn from the murderer’s shirt and a bloodstained newspaper. It then sent these items to a DNA lab in California.

The lab produced a DNA profile of the murderer in 2014, but the profile did not match Shalom’s. This is the key fact on which the request for a retrial is based, though the request was postponed until now to allow various other tests to be made.

The police, for example, have checked the profile against their own DNA database and every member of Levinson’s family, but they have not found a match.

Shalom wasn’t the first suspect arrested in the case. Two days after the murder, police questioned Diaa Salameh, a known thief from East Jerusalem, who implicated another East Jerusalem thief, Kamel Siyam. Siyam was arrested, but denied the allegation.

Then, in November 1994, Salameh told police that he, Siyam and a third man, Samir Salameh, had committed the robbery, and Siyam shot Levinson because he started fighting with Samir Salameh. Two months later, however, he retracted his story, saying he had falsely accused the others because he was angry at them.

All three were eventually released for a lack of evidence. Siyam’s alleged gun was never found, and while police did find stolen jewelry that Siyam had sold after the murder, Levinson’s widow said she did not recognize it.

Police have since checked DNA samples from Salameh and Siyam, and they don’t match those found at the crime scene. But no DNA sample was ever taken from Samir Salameh, the one whom Diaa Salameh said had actually fought with Levinson.