There have been significant developments in the fraud trial of Oded Golan. One of the key artifacts challenged by the prosecution is the James Ossuary (or, more specifically, the inscription which refers to Jesus' brother, James). The case has dragged on for years, as American concepts like the “Speedy Trial Act” seem to be unknown in Israel.
The San Francisco Gate has an article about the collapse of the prosecution’s case. The judge in the case has told the prosecution that its prospects of a guilty verdict are bleak:
"After all the evidence we have heard, including the testimony of the prime defendant, is the picture still the same as the one you had when he was charged?" District Court Judge Aharon Farkash pointedly asked public prosecutor, Adi Damti. "Not every case ends in the way you think it will when it starts. Maybe we can save ourselves the rest."
"Have you really proved beyond a reasonable doubt that these artifacts are fakes as charged in the indictment? The experts disagreed among themselves. Where is the definitive proof needed to show that the accused faked the ossuary?" Judge Farkash asked prosecutor Damti. "You need to ask yourselves those questions very seriously, and if necessary consult with your superiors in the public prosecutor's office."
Keep in mind that the judge making these comments is the same person who will decide whether the prosecution has proved its case. Israel does not have jury trials. Instead, Judge Farkash himself decides whether the defendant is guilty. Additionally, Mr. Golan was arrested along with four others on multiple artifact fraud related charges. (For previous updates about the trial, see here). Since filing the charges, the prosecution has dropped them against two defendants. Another reached a plea deal, admitting to a minor charge unrelated to the James Ossuary.
The trial has gone on for three years, with most of that time (other than some lengthy breaks) devoted to the prosecution’s case. To date, more than 80 witnesses have testified, resulting in around 10,000 pages of testimony. By all accounts, the prosecution’s case has suffered from effective cross-examination of its witnesses, with some government witness recanting or altering testimony in favor of authenticity.
The case reconvenes in January (another break!). It sounds to me like there is almost no hope of a prosecution win in this trial. Courts do not encourage prosecutors to rethink continuing their case unless they believe very strongly that the prosecution's case has failed.
Predictably, Hershel Shanks has responded to this news with an article entitled, “Supporters of James Ossuary’s Inscription’s Authenticity Vindicated.” Shanks and his magazine, BAR, have a stake in the Ossuary’s authenticity because they were early promoters of the find. Notwithstanding his exuberance, even if the judge sticks with his present opinion and finds for the defense in this case, it is not a determination that the Ossuary is authentic, but that the prosecution has failed to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the defendant’s faked the Ossuary inscription. It is entirely possible that the inscription was faked but that the government failed to meet its burden of proof. (A useful example is OJ Simpson, who was found “not guilty” in the criminal system but “liable” in the civil system, which has a lower burden of proof).
Still, when we look at the reasons that the government’s case has collapsed it is telling. The court has not just reached a verdict after hearing the case, he has heard the government’s case and does not think they should even bother continuing. In other words, the government’s case is very week. Prosecution experts recanted important parts of earlier statements, with a few high profile defections on the ultimate issue of authenticity. According to BAR, the lead prosecution expert, Professor Goren, “was forced to admit that after the police had removed this covering, he could see original ancient patina in the critical word ‘Jesus.’” Further, “At the trial, not a single expert in the Semitic script of the period testified that the inscription was a forgery. Nor did a single scientist back up Professor Goren’s scientific testimony—and several scientists testified otherwise.”
At the very least, the issue of authenticity remains open and, barring unforeseen events or evidence, should be pursued rigorously by more academic means.
Update: According to the Jerusalem Post, the judge gave the prosecution six month to decide whether to proceed with the case.