Official: Judges Who Rule Against Public Opinion Risk Becoming 'Defendants'

Deputy State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan says judges may be wary of acquitting a defendant that 'has been convicted in the court of media.'

Deputy State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan, as part of a panel on the media coverage of sex crimes, acknowledged yesterday the difficult position judges are put in when they rule on high-profile cases whose verdict contradicts the court of public opinion.

"An Israeli judge knows today, particularly with sexual offenses, that if he acquits a defendant who has been convicted in the court of media, then he himself becomes a defendant," Nitzan said at the Israel Bar Association annual conference in Eilat.

Shai Nitzan
Alex Levac

"Look what happened to Justice [Yoram] Danziger," he said. Danziger did not acquit former president Moshe Katsav, "but merely dared to postpone his prison sentence," Nitzan said, lamenting, "What a feeding frenzy." Danziger "explicitly referred to the argument that the president should not be treated differently, writing, 'It's not connected to the identity of the actor. I'm doing it for other reasons,'" Nitzan said. Nitzan said organizations that protested the stay of sentence "totally ignored the decision."

"Imagine what happens to the judge who dares" to issue a verdict that contradicts that of the court of public opinion, Nitzan said. While he insisted he trusts Israel's judges, Nitzan nonetheless added,"It's very worrisome, because I know that judges are great men, and still, even judges are human. No one wants to be a public enemy. No one wants to be cursed and abused. ... No one wants to have each of his words examined for the slightest hint."

Responding to a question by panel moderator Tali Lieblich about whether the same dilemma holds true for "every officeholder," Nitzan said, "If there are skeletons in someone's closet, it's best that they come out. I'm not talking about that."

"I'm sure that on the subjective level, judges ignore that and all," Nitzan said, adding, "Today it certainly isn't happening, but if the trend continues there's a certain fear that it could happen, and that is worrisome."

"Doesn't the prosecution accept some of the blame?" Lieblich challenged. "The interviews you all give - that [former Attorney General Menachem] Mazuz gave, that you gave - aren't they part of the game too?"

Yoram Danziger
Eyal Toueg

"First of all," Nitzan responded, "it's very difficult to remain outside the arena, because the defendants and their attorney in many cases use no restraint, because they are fighting - the former over their innocence, the latter over publicity. I think it's difficult to expect the police and the prosecution to stand idle in the face of the whole circus without saying a word, because public trust is built from the media, but I think the response should be through channels, spokesmen. I'm against leaks, and think there should be investigation. ... If you're asking whether the hands of the police and the prosecution are completely clean? Not always. I think people talk when they shouldn't, and talk too much."

Tel Aviv District Chief Public Defendant Yona Hayer said there is an obvious reciprocal relationship between the media and law enforcement authorities.

"The Israel Police is that primary and most important provider of information to the media," Hayer said. "It's accessible, instant, and not only about arrests."

Hayer agreed with the claim that all parties use public relations professionals, but argued, "When the rules of the game are violated, it's impossible not to respond. But you have to look at where it all began, because if the police didn't do all those actions, there'd be no need to respond."

"You can see she's a good defense lawyer," Nitzan quipped. "It's standard for them to pass responsibility."