by Hella Winston (Special To The Jewish Week)
December 17, 2008
The latest twist in the long-running extradition case of alleged Brooklyn pedophile Avrohom Mondrowitz has apparently thrown the case into limbo and for the first time in decades raised the specter that Mondrowitz might be tried in Israel.
In what is being seen by some close to the case as an unexpected move, the Israeli Supreme Court last week gave prosecutors representing the state until Dec. 23 to gather additional information on whether Mondrowitz — who was charged with sexual crimes against children in Brooklyn over two decades ago — can be tried in Israel.
Given that a lower court in Israel earlier this year had already deemed Mondrowitz extraditable, observers were optimistic that last week's final appeal would result in a decision to send him to Brooklyn to stand trial. Instead, questions raised by the justices have generated concern that this may not happen, though no decision has yet been made.
"[Some of the justices' questioning] really seemed to come out of left field," said Michael Lesher, an attorney who represents several Jewish adults who allege that they were molested by Mondrowitz as children. "I'm simply surprised, considering that there was a 40-page, detailed decision written by the lower court which really [went into] all the issues," Lesher said.
Some of those issues relate to the possible implications of recent changes to the U.S.-Israeli extradition treaty and an Israeli statue providing for the timely prosecution of crimes.
On Dec. 8 Israel's highest court heard an appeal from attorneys representing Mondrowitz, a former Brooklyn youth counselor who fled to Israel under charges of child sexual abuse and is now in the final stages of extradition proceedings that began with his arrest in Israel in November 2007. A Jerusalem court had deemed Mondrowitz extraditable earlier this year, but he is now challenging that determination in the Supreme Court.
The Mondrowitz saga began almost 25 years ago, when, in 1984, he fled to Israel and was indicted in absentia on four counts of sodomy and eight counts of sexual abuse in the first degree against four non-Jewish children in Brooklyn. (While Jewish children were among Mondrowitz's alleged victims, they were not part of the grand jury that indicted him and thus not part of this case).
Then-District Attorney Elizabeth Holtzman pursued Mondrowitz's extradition, but was thwarted in 1985 when Israeli officials informed the United States that extradition would be impossible because sodomy was not included in the Israeli definition of rape and thus, under the existing terms of the U.S.-Israeli extradition agreement, was not an extraditable offense (as was rape).
While federal documents reveal that the U.S. subsequently asked Israel to consider expelling Mondrowitz, no action was taken. Then in 1988, Israel amended its rape law to cover the act of homosexual rape. While a telegram from the American Embassy in Tel Aviv to the State Department in Washington, D.C., noted the change, it is unclear from the record whether Holtzman was ever made aware of it.
In 1993, three years after he was elected Brooklyn district attorney, Charles Hynes approved a decision to end extradition attempts for good. Hynes' office resubmitted an extradition request in 2007, however, after a change in the treaty between the U.S. and Israel was made that provides for the extradition of suspects who face at least a year in prison, regardless of the offense.
While Lesher and some experts have challenged the notion that extradition would have been impossible prior to the 2007 change in the treaty, this turn of events nonetheless created a sense of optimism about the possibility that Mondrowitz would be returned to Brooklyn to stand trial — until now.
According to a transcript of last week's Supreme Court hearing, one of the justices asked whether, in light of the fact that the scope of extraditable offenses is broader than under the previous treaty, it is consistent with Mondrowitz's fundamental rights to extradite him under a treaty that took effect after the crimes in question have been committed.
Further, because Israel has a statute that someone charged with these crimes would have to be brought to trial within 10 years of the alleged offense, questions of timeliness were also raised by the justices.
According to Lesher, "the unstated issue that is not clarified here is whether that 10-year limit would apply if the suspect is not returned for trial even after an extradition request is made."
Lesher believes that neither of these issues should bar Israel from extraditing Mondrowitz. Citing a prior case dealing with the issue of retroactivity and apparently referenced by the lower court, Lesher said, "I think this case law shows very clearly why the retroactive application of an extradition treaty does not raise ex-post facto concerns. ... I am surprised that the issue came up in the hearing."
The justices also raised the possibility of trying Mondrowitz in Israel and, despite objections by the state's attorneys citing the logistical difficulty and expense of such a prospect, asked the state to consult on it further.
The attorneys for the state did not return an e-mail seeking comment.
According to documents obtained by Lesher, the issue of trying Mondrowitz in Israel was raised once before, in 1986. An internal Justice Department memo from that year asks, "What sentence is reasonable to expect would be imposed on Mondrowitz were he tried and convicted on our case in Israel?"
The memo then cites Marvin Hankin, senior assistant to the state attorney in Israel, as estimating that Mondrowitz might serve a total of "2-3 years," noting that "there are very few sodomy cases in Israel."
An even more pessimistic estimate is found in an embassy cable to the State Department, dated Nov. 3, 1986. "The possibility of bringing the case to trial in Israel has been bandied about. In addition to the usual problems of transportation of witnesses and compatibility of evidentiary standards, however, there apparently is another factor that might weigh against any leap toward this option: under Israeli law, it seems that it would be possible that, even if convicted, Mondrowitz could face as little as 18 months imprisonment," and even less "with time off for good behavior."
According to Lesher, under New York law, Mondrowitz could spend "several decades in prison" if convicted of multiple counts of Class B felonies with which he is charged.
A spokesman for Hynes, whose office requested the extradition last year, says the district attorney is "watching the process very carefully and is prepared to deal with the result no matter which way it goes."
Survivors for Justice, an organization formed by people who were sexually abused as children in Orthodox communities and that counts several alleged Mondrowitz victims among its members, is working with a law firm in Israel to prepare an amicus brief asking the Israeli high court to uphold the lower court's determination to extradite Mondrowitz.
A spokesman for the group told The Jewish Week that "We believe that after 25 years of justice deferred, Mondrowitz's victims deserve to see him returned to Brooklyn and tried by the Brooklyn DA, who has on many occasions stated his commitment to see justice done in this case."