Menu JTA Search

Death of Judge in Demjanjuk Case Delays New Verdict on Deportation

The sudden death of the Cleveland judge in the John Demjanjuk case has delayed indefinitely a new round of denaturalization hearings against the notorious Nazi war criminal.

U.S. District Judge Frank Battisti, 72, died Wednesday from what doctors said were complications from a tick bite suffered during a fishing trip last month.

Sources close to the case expressed both grief and frustration that any new judge appointed to the case will not have as much knowledge of the issues as Battisti had.

Battisti was the original judge who had ordered Demjanjuk’s extradition to Israel in 1986.

“What had been a clear path to deportation is no longer clear. This will certainly delay things,” said a source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The case now is expected to be heard by another district judge in Cleveland, Ohio, or to be directed to a deportation court.

After Demjanjuk was extradited to Israel, he was convicted and sentenced to death for being the brutal Treblinka concentration camp guard known as “Ivan the Terrible.” After spending seven years in an Israeli prison, however, the Israeli Supreme Court last year overturned his conviction.

However, the American and Israeli courts have not questioned that Demjanjuk did commit other Nazi war crimes while serving as a guard at the Sobibor death camp and at the Flossenburg and Regensburg concentration camps.

The Israeli Supreme Court’s decision cleared the way for his return to the United States in September 1993.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court elected not to hear an appeal of a lower court ruling that found Justice Department officials mishandled Demjanjuk’s case when its Nazi-hunting unit, the Office of Special Investigations, pursued his original denaturalization.

‘A TRAGIC DEVELOPMENT’

The court’s move cleared the way for Battisti to re-open a new round of denaturalization hearings. The hearings would be based in part on charges that he lied about his Nazi past when he applied to immigrate to the United States in 1951.

Successful prosecution of the 74-year-old retired Ohio auto worker in denaturalization hearings could clear the way for his deportation.

Throughout his protracted legal battle, Demjanjuk has said he is not guilty and is, instead, a victim of mistaken identity.

But Jewish officials vehemently disagree. “Every day this Nazi war criminal draws breath in the United States is atrocious,” said Michael Lieberman, associate director and counsel of the Anti-Defamation League’s Washington office.

“Demjanjuk lied on his immigrations papers, and that is statutory grounds for denaturalization,” Lieberman said.

Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, called Battisti’s death “a tragic development.”

“Judge Battisti was poised, clearly given his record, to make clear Demjanjuk’s culpability and participation in the Holocaust,” Steinberg said.

Steinberg said that while he is confident that Demjanjuk eventually will deported, the process has now been “delayed indefinitely.”

NEXT STORY