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Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada
I am a lawyer in Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada who enjoys reading, especially mysteries. Since 2000 I have been writing personal book reviews. This blog includes my reviews, information on and interviews with authors and descriptions of mystery bookstores I have visited. I strive to review all Saskatchewan mysteries. Other Canadian mysteries are listed under the Rest of Canada. As a lawyer I am always interested in legal mysteries. I have a separate page for legal mysteries. Occasionally my reviews of legal mysteries comment on the legal reality of the mystery. You can follow the progression of my favourite authors with up to 15 reviews. Each year I select my favourites in "Bill's Best of ----". As well as current reviews I am posting reviews from 2000 to 2011. Below my most recent couple of posts are the posts of Saskatchewan mysteries I have reviewed alphabetically by author. If you only want a sentence or two description of the book and my recommendation when deciding whether to read the book look at the bold portion of the review. If you would like to email me the link to my email is on the profile page.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Eyewitness Evidence Six Decades After World War II

John Demjanjuk on Trial in Israel
My last post reviewed Once We Were Brothers by Ronald D. Balson. In the book Holocaust survivor, Ben Solomon, alleged that Chicago billionaire, Elliott Rosenzweig, was really his foster brother, Otto Piatek, who had served in the SS in Poland during WW II, participated in the Holocaust and stole from Solomon’s family.

Lawyer, Cat Lockhart, is pushed by Solomon to launch a lawsuit against Rosenzweig / Piatek (hereafter “Piatek”) for the theft of Solomon family property. Cat wants proof beyond Solomon’s visual identification of Piatek. She is justly concerned about eyewitness evidence 60 years after Solomon last met Piatek is unreliable.

Solomon insists that it is not just the appearance of Piatek he relies on for identification. He says Piatek’s way of speach, his manners and his gestures are the same as Piatek he lived with for 6 years in Poland.

Still the evidence is Solomon’s memory and perception. It is clear he hates Piatek. Can he be objective? Cat wants more.

While never discussed in the book I was reminded of the lengthy prosecution of John Demjanjuk, a retired steelworker, living quietly in Cleveland when a journalist investigating ethnic Ukrainians who had moved to North America, using information received from the U.S.S.R., alleged Demjanjuk had collaborated with the Nazis. Evidence was primarily an ID card and 5 camp survivors who identified him as a guard.

Demjanjuk is accused of being Ivan “the Terrible” a vicious guard.

Ultimately Demjanjuk, deported to Israel, was put on trial. In a dramatic trial he was convicted.

During the trial it was demonstrated that the card was almost certainly a forgery. (Later evidence was even more conclusive.)

The primary evidence against Demjanjuk was eyewitness evidence. One of the Jewish camp survivors insisted, after looking into Demjanjuk’s eyes, that he was certainly Ivan “the Terrible”. Then it was determined that witness four decades earlier had sworn in a deposition that Ivan “the Terrible” had died in a prisoner uprising.
I remember how public opinion was sure from the eyewitness evidence that Demjanjuk was evil and deserving of the death penalty.

On appeal the conviction was overturned because of extensive new evidence. As set out in Wikipedia:

On 29 July 1993, a five-judge panel of the Israeli Supreme Court overturned the guilty verdict on appeal. Their ruling was based on the written statements of 37 former guards at Treblinka that identified Ivan the Terrible as "Ivan Marchenko." Central to the new evidence was a photograph of Ivan the Terrible and a description that did not match the 1942 appearance of Demjanjuk. The accounts of 21 guards who were tried in the Soviet Union on war crimes gave details that differentiate Demjanjuk from Ivan the Terrible—that his surname was Marchenko.

In a subsequent convoluted process he was tried in Germany when he was 90 and convicted of being accessory to murder on the basis that though he was not Ivan “the Terrible” he had served as a guard in a concentration camp.

This post is not about the issues of prosecuting Demjanjuk but to illustrate the fraility of eyewitness evidence decades after an event.

It seemed to me that Balson had in mind the Demjanjuk case when he wrote the book. In Once We Were Brothers the real Otto Piatek, with the slightly different surname of Piacek, is supposedly residing in Cleveland. As well, after the court action is started there is evidence Piatek was known as the Butcher of Zamość.

Undoubtedly dramatic Cat filed the case with Solomon her sole witness. There is a little more evidence than Solomon's testimony but I am doubtful a real life lawyer would have filed a lawsuit against Piatek on what was available to Cat. Solomon essentially wanted to get the further evidence to identify Piatek from questioning Piatek. Every litigator has started court actions based on a single witness but not where the evidence is about events six decades in the past.
The mists of time have their greatest effects on eyewitness evidence.


  1. Bill - I think they do, too. Even a short time after a crime, eyewitness testimony isn't always to be relied upon. Lots of things can affect what someone thinks s/he's seen, regardless of how honest that person may be. I would suppose that lawyers would have to make a real effort to get more than just an eyewitness report, especially from so long ago, to prosecute a case like that. And as I think about it, I would guess that the police would need more than that to pursue a case.

    1. Margot: Thanks for the comment. If all there was 60 years later was an eyewitness account it would be hard to prosecute a war crime.

      In Canada where we do not have limitation periods for significant offences individuals are can be charged with offences going decades back on a single complainant's statement.

  2. Eyewitness evidence always seems a problem area - I am interested to hear your lawyer's take on that. The cases like that of Demjanjuk are always hard to process, because of the conflicting ideas going through your (my) head when you're reading it: you want those victims to have justice, but you need to be absolutely sure....

    1. Moira: Thanks for the comment. Litigators strive to hold judgment until all the evidence has been received. When you base opinions just on what clients say you can lose objectivity.

  3. Bill, thanks for writing about the prosecution of John Demjanjuk in context of Ronald D. Balson's book. My layman's view is that how can eyewitness evidence hold after so many years and decades when (and this is hearsay) defence counsels have been known to demolish, say, even month-old eyewitness testimonies. Besides, is there no time limit on lawsuits against someone who might have committed a crime, however heinous, decades ago? I assume, as long as the "accused" is alive he or she can be brought to justice at any time during his or her lifetime.

    1. Prashant: Thanks for the comment. Eyewitness evidence 60 years later will certainly invite close cross-examination. A lawyer would start by focusing on what details the witness could recall of the location and place where the event or events occurred.

      On limitation periods in Canada and much of the world there are limitation periods on most civil suits which is what Solomon was pursuing. Demjanjuk was the subject of criminal prosecution. It depends on the country whether there are time limits to bring a criminal charge against someone. It can be a very complex area of law.

    2. Thank you for the elucidation, Bill.