An Israeli court on Thursday acquitted a man convicted of murdering a schoolgirl in 2006, and her mother vowed to find the real killer in the case that gripped the country.
The verdict added to the mystery surrounding the case that has inspired conspiracy theories, books and movies, including a documentary that aired on Netflix.
“Today the Nazareth district court… acquitted the defendant Roman Zdorov of the murder of Tair Rada,” the court said in a statement.
Rada was found with a slit throat and a pool of blood in a bathroom stall of her school in Katzrin, a town in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, in December 2006. She was 13 years old.
Zdorov, a Ukrainian resident of Israel who was working in the construction of the school, was arrested days later and charged in the same court in Nazareth based on evidence and a confession he later retracted.
He was convicted in 2010 and sentenced to life.
With an expert opinion on the knife used the order of the supreme court was re-examined, and in 2014 the district court of Nazareth found him guilty again, a decision which was upheld by the supreme court the following year on appeal.
In 2021 a supreme court judge granted Zdorov the right to another retrial at the Nazareth district court, releasing him to house arrest for the duration of the process that ended Thursday with two of three judges ruling him not guilty of Rada’s murder.
The judges cited “firm and reasonable doubt” regarding Zdorov’s guilt, and that “the prosecution failed to prove the defendant’s guilt”, according to the verdict.
Sitting with his wife and son in the courtroom, Zdorov broke down in tears as the head of the panel was acquitted and freed more than 16 years after he was first jailed.
– No ‘other case’ –
In a brief statement to the media after the events ended, Zdorov thanked his supporters.
“The victory has come,” said the man now in his mid-40s.
Rada’s mother, Ilana, who suspected Zdorov’s guilt for years, pointed a finger at the state prosecution, which she claimed had built a case around the wrong man.
“For the first time justice was done,” she said of Thursday’s ruling.
“The next step is to start looking for the murderers, and we know where to go,” she said, without elaborating.
Zdorov’s judgment sparked huge interest in Israel, appearing on the front pages of all the major newspapers and in television broadcasts, and the court made available rare live footage of the session.
The justice ministry said his behavior was professional. He cited the minority judge who rejected Zdorov’s innocence as saying that the evidence justifying the retrial “did not present even an isolated case other than murder.”
“We have done everything we can to conduct a professional, honest and fair trial,” the ministry said in a statement, adding that the state attorney’s office could appeal the verdict.
– ‘Loyalty to the truth’ –
The murder and its endless legal proceedings have gripped Israel for years, with books and films debating Zdorov’s innocence or guilt, as many questions surrounding the case remain unsolved.
The case was featured in a popular Netflix four-part documentary called “Shadow of Truth”, which won an Israeli award in 2017.
The latest ruling, days after Israel’s coalition government announced it was suspending work on controversial judicial reform, has been cited as evidence by both supporters and opponents of the separatist proposals.
Simcha Rothman, head of parliament’s legal committee and one of the main forces behind the reform package, made a statement from a conservative think tank that claimed Zdorov’s acquittal was the result of “no independent review system” overseeing the work of the – prosecutors.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — who is on trial for corruption charges he denies — and his allies in the government argue that the legal system has become politicized and is reducing some of its powers.
Opposition MP Merav Michaeli hit back in a tweet saying the verdict was proof of “the system’s loyalty to the truth”.
“This is the great merit of an independent and apolitical court system,” said the centre-left leader of the Labor party.