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John Demjanjuk Denaturalization Trial: 1981

Sentenced To Death

John Demjanjuk finally faced his accusers in a Jerusalem courtroom on February 16, 1987. In a emotional trial, the same witnesses who had denounced him in Cleveland repeated their accusations. During testimony Demjanjuk seemed vague and evasive about his past. On April 18, 1988, after 14 months of testimony, Judge Dove Levin read the verdict of the three-member bench: "We determine unequivocally and without the slightest hesitation or doubt that the accused is Ivan [the Terrible]. We therefore find guilty as charged, a) of crimes against the Jewish people; b) of crimes against humanity; c) of war crimes." One week later Demjanjuk was condemned to be hanged.

In January 1992, Israel's Supreme Court announced that it would hear fresh evidence culled from Soviet archives, supporting defense claims of misidentification. The evidence is compelling: 21 former Soviet Treblinka inmates all identified Ivan the Terrible as not Demjanjuk but another Ukrainian, someone strikingly similarly, Ivan Merchanko (present whereabouts unknown). Other evidence strongly suggested that Demjanjuk was a lower-echelon guard at another Nazi camp, not Treblinka.

On July 28, 1993, the Israeli Supreme Court overturned Demjanjuk's conviction, ruling that the totality of the evidence indicated he was not Ivan the Terrible. On February 20, 1998, the Federal District Court of Cleveland reinstated Demjanjuk's U.S. citizenship. However, the court authorized the government to reinstitute denaturalization proceedings if evidence of other offenses by Demjanjuk are ever uncovered.

Eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable: memories fade and sometimes fail. If John Demjanjuk is Ivan the Terrible then he is one of the 20th century's worst criminals. If not, he might still be a man with much to hide.

Colin Evans

Suggestion for Further Reading

Loftus, Elizabeth and Katherine Ketcham. Witness For The Defense. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991.

Teicholz, Tom. The Trial Of Ivan The Terrible. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990.

Wagenaar, Willem A. Identifying Ivan. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1988.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1981 to 1988John Demjanjuk Denaturalization Trial: 1981 - Holocaust Survivors Testify, Sentenced To Death