Prosecutors Agree to DNA Test in Murder Case That Was Closed 17 Years Ago

At issue are nine blood and saliva stains on the shoes and shirt that attorney Shmuel Levinson was wearing when he was killed in August 1994, after he surprised a burglar in his Jerusalem home.

The state prosecution told the High Court of Justice yesterday it will submit articles of clothing worn by a man murdered 17 years ago for advanced DNA testing, to help determine whether the case should be retried.

At issue are nine blood and saliva stains on the shoes and shirt that attorney Shmuel Levinson was wearing when he was killed in August 1994, after he surprised a burglar in his Jerusalem home. Levinson had been named chairman of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel shortly before his murder.

Ovadia Shalom at a police station in 1994 - Zoom 77
Zoom 77

Ovadia Shalom, a drug addict and known property thief, was arrested six months later on suspicion of various property crimes. At some point, police began to suspect that he had murdered Levinson. Shalom was convicted of the crime in 1997 and is serving a life sentence, though neither the police's criminal identification department nor the coroner could definitively link him to it.

Based on the technology available at the time, which did not include DNA testing, the coroner's office said the blood stains found at the scene were consistent with Shalom's blood. But a hair found in a sock at the scene was found not to be Shalom's. Shalom, meanwhile, despite making confusing and sometimes contradictory statements, never admitted to killing Levinson. He has requested the advanced testing.

It is not clear why the shoes and the shirt were not destroyed after the trial. But in 2004 there was an effort to extract DNA from them; that examination failed. The lawyer from the Public Defender's Office responsible for retrials, Efrat Fink, conducted months of correspondence with the prosecution in an attempt to retrieve the items of clothing to perform more advanced testing.

Prosecutors have now agreed, primarily because Levinson's widow, Nira, wrote to Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein six weeks ago giving her consent. She wrote that letter after reading an article in Haaretz about the Public Defender's Office request to secure the items for DNA testing, in which the prosecution was reported citing the family's feelings as a reason to refuse. Nira Levinson was incensed, noting that the family had never been asked.

"If professionals believe that with the DNA tests that exist today, it's possible to test things that were not possible in the past and to see things in a different light, I'm in favor of the test, despite the pain involved," Levinson told Haaretz in March.

In its response to the court, the state yesterday said that while it agreed to submit those items which were still stored, the nylon sock that was presented as evidence at Shalom's trial had not been located, though a search for it was continuing.

"At the same time, it should be clear that the state's readiness to enable these tests to be conducted does not imply the existence of doubt as to the validity of the conclusive conviction," the state representative said.

Fink said yesterday that the state's agreement was a dramatic achievement, because it was apparently the first time the state had agreed to submit crime scene evidence for DNA testing as a first step in evaluating the possibility of conducting a retrial.

"The flexibility shown by the prosecution in this case will pave the way to allow DNA testing in other cases in the future, and lead to exonerations in appropriate cases," she said.

The items will probably be sent to the United States for DNA testing, and the results will be cross-referenced not only with Shalom's data, but with data in the police's DNA database set up in 2005, which would shed light on the true identity of the killer if it is revealed that Shalom is innocent.

Fink noted that the Innocence Project, an American organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted criminals through DNA testing, has achieved the acquittals of nearly 300 people.