The 2nd District Court of Appeal Friday reversed the second-degree murder and mutilation conviction of reputed "Israeli Mafia" member Joseph Zakaria, 33, in connection with the 1979 dismemberment slayings of a North Hollywood couple in the downtown Bonaventure.
Jurors had convicted Zakaria of assisting in the murder of Esther Ruven, 22, and dismembering her body and that of her husband, Eli, 23, but could not reach a decision about whether Zakaria killed the husband.
The justices reversed the convictions because of jury instructions about aiding and abetting a crime that were later changed by the state Supreme Court and because prosecutors delayed in giving defense attorneys a copy of Zakaria's statement placing him in the hotel room during the murders.
Justices Joan Dempsey Klein and Elwood Lui and Los Angeles Municipal Judge Ronald R. Schoenberg, who wrote the 91-page opinion sitting by special appointment, upheld Zakaria's conviction for conspiracy to possess and sell cocaine.
The three justices also upheld the conviction of Zakaria's co-defendant and fellow reputed Israeli Mafia member, Yehuda Avital, 32, for first-degree murder in Esther Ruven's death, second-degree murder in her husband's slaying, mutilation of their bodies and conspiracy to possess and sell cocaine.
Zakaria is currently serving a 21-year prison sentence, and Avital is serving a life sentence without possibility of parole.
A third defendant, Eliahu Komerchero, 34, received a four-year sentence after pleading guilty to voluntary manslaughter and testifying against Zakaria and Avital.
Prosecutors claimed the grisly murders occurred Oct. 7, 1979, after the Ruvens had a falling out with the three defendants in their cocaine-selling operation.
Evidence indicated that the Ruvens were lured to the luxury hotel from their North Hollywood home, shot as they entered Room 2419, that Mrs. Ruven was raped, and each was hacked to pieces with a meat cleaver and knives. Wrapped in plastic, the body parts were placed in suitcases for removal from the hotel, and later dumped in several trash bins in the Sherman Oaks-Van Nuys area.
Arrested in L.A.
Zakaria was arrested in Los Angeles about two weeks after the murders; Avital was arrested in March, 1980, in Las Vegas, and Komerchero surrendered to authorities in Van Nuys April 9, 1981.
Deputy Atty. Gen. Paul C. Ament said he will "seriously consider" seeking a rehearing before the Court of Appeal or asking the Supreme Court to review the reversal of Zakaria's conviction. If the ruling stands, Zakaria could be retried.
The justices reversed the murder and mutilation convictions because of jury instructions about aiding and abetting a crime that were subsequently held erroneous by the Supreme Court and because prosecutors delayed in giving defense attorneys a copy of Zakaria's statement to Komerchero's brother, Uzy, placing Zakaria in the hotel room during the murders.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge David J. Aisenson had instructed jurors in 1981: "A person aids and abets the commission of a crime if, with knowledge of the unlawful purpose of the perpetrator of the crime, he aids, promotes, encourages or instigates by act or advice the commission of such crime."
High Court Decision
The high court in 1984 decided that to be an aider and abettor, one must "act with knowledge of the criminal purpose of the perpetrator and with an intent or purpose either of committing, or of encouraging or facilitating commission of the offense."
Ament had argued that, although the instruction had changed to include specific intent, the Supreme Court ruling did not require reversing the earlier conviction. The appellate court said it did.