Top Court Shows Pity for Abused Israeli Guilty of Manslaughter

Back in 2010, Yonatan Heilo was a ridiculed, marginal person, a victim of abuse including sexual violence. That understanding got his murder conviction changed.

Ido Baum
Ido Baum
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Yonatan Heilo at the Supreme Court.
Yonatan Heilo at the Supreme Court.Credit: Noam Moskowitz
Ido Baum
Ido Baum

Only a little of the terrible circumstances of the lives of Yonatan Heilo, who is still alive, and Yaron Eilin, who is dead, were reflected in the Supreme Court’s decision Tuesday morning.

Heilo, who is now 29, underwent years of abuse in the underprivileged neighborhood where he grew up. He choked and hit Eilin on the head with bricks. The encounter between the two young men of Ethiopian origin took place in May 2010 in an empty lot in Netanya.

The killing was preceded by a long history of abuse by Eilin. Heilo was the target of abuse and insults by others in the neighborhood, but Eilin, who it seems was a dominant and threatening figure in the local Ethiopian community, terrorized Heilo. He abused Heilo both physically and emotionally, and extorted money from him. Heilo told police investigators that Eilin had forcibly sodomized him twice.

Despite the large public support for Heilo, the Supreme Court rejected his claims that his difficult life and fear of further sexual and other abuse granted him the right to self-defense.

According to the law, self-defense that justifies manslaughter requires a long list of conditions including a concrete danger and proportionality between the defense and the threat.

Heilo killed Eilin after he demanded that Heilo pay him 1,000 shekels ($260) “by tomorrow or the day after,” or he would “get a beating.” Eilin then turned around to urinate in the empty lot. He had not attacked Heilo, this time. Justices Hanan Melcer, Uri Shoham and Daphne Barak-Erez all agreed that Heilo was not in immediate danger.

The Supreme Court refused to accept the claim that sexual assault and continued abuse can be the basis for self-defense when no immediate, concrete threat exists.

Melcer’s decision lays bare every moment in Heilo’s life, as is common in criminal proceedings. Every act is examined. Heilo could have run away, he could have stopped choking Eilin after he began suffocating. But back in 2010, Heilo was a ridiculed, marginal person, a victim of abuse, without hope and a captive of his shame.

The Supreme Court convicted Heilo of manslaughter because he continued to beat Eilin on the head after he choked him.

Cases of women who killed their abusive husbands exist in Israel and around the world. The key to a self-defense claim is the immediate threat. Heilo was unable to convince the judges that he felt such a threat after Eilin fell suffocating at his feet.

The decision mentions many cases in which women killed their abusive husbands, but the cases the public remembers best aren’t mentioned. These are the ones where the courts did not accept the self-defense claims and convicted the women of manslaughter.

But the court showed understanding by reducing Heilo’s sentence. By changing his murder conviction to manslaughter, it showed a willingness to consider nuances.

Not all acts of manslaughter are identical. The common defense is that humiliation, extortion, threats and rape could be viewed as a prolonged provocation that justifies reducing a charge from murder to manslaughter.

Melcer also rejected the approach of the district court, which ruled that Heilo did not lose control. But Melcer wrote that Heilo may have “lost control due to the accumulation of physical, sexual, verbal and emotional abuse, as well as the deceased’s behavior prior to the killing, and failed to consider the moral repercussions of his acts.”

Only at the end of the decision did Barak-Erez discuss the harsh circumstances of Heilo’s life, which kept him on the bottom rung of Israeli society. These circumstances are what led the court to reduce his prison sentence to 12 from 20 years.

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