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NY lawyer convicted in Dead Sea Scrolls case

By COLLEEN LONG
The Associated Press
Thursday, September 30, 2010; 7:27 PM

NEW YORK -- A scholar's son was convicted Thursday of using online aliases to harass and discredit his father's detractors in a heated academic debate over the origins of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

A Manhattan jury found Raphael Golb guilty of 30 counts against him, including identity theft, forgery and harassment. He was acquitted of one count of criminal impersonation.

Golb didn't react as he heard the verdict in the unusual criminal trial over claims of Internet impersonation - even more unusual because of its arcane subject. He said outside court he wasn't surprised by the verdict, because he felt the judge's instructions to the jury were biased. He planned to appeal. As he sat on a bench, he said: "I'm stoic."

"I'm looking forward to the appeal," he said. "But not with joy, just because that is what happens next."

Prosecutors said Golb, 50, used fake e-mail accounts and wrote blog posts under assumed names to take his father's side in an obscure but sharp-elbowed scholarly dispute over the scrolls' origins. Golb acknowledged on the stand that he crafted the e-mails and blog posts, but said the writings amounted to academic whistle-blowing and blogosphere banter - not crime. He said he was using irony, satire and parody to expose a plagiarist.

Defense Attorney Ron Kuby said the case was a clear violation of the First Amendment.

"Today what happened was the District Attorney of New York County and the trial court made hurting somebody's feelings a criminal act," he said. "And in New York, hurting people's feelings or being annoying is not a crime, we call that Monday."

The jury deliberated about five hours. Golb was acquitted of impersonating one scholar, but convicted of identity theft, harassment and criminal impersonation of Dr. Lawrence Schiffman, a longtime rival of his father's whom he said plagiarized research and was never punished. Schiffman took the case to authorities.

Golb's father and Schiffman, who is chairman of New York University's Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies have long disagreed on the origins of the texts. Schiffman says they were assembled by a sect known as the Essenes. Norman Golb, a University of Chicago professor, believes the writings to be the work of a range of Jewish groups and communities.

Scholars are split on the debate; there are supporters of both arguments.

Raphael Golb, a linguistics scholar and lawyer with degrees from Oberlin College, Harvard University and NYU, said he was angry the plagiarism accusations were never brought to light and that his father's theory was being smeared online.

Golb created an account under Schiffman's name and sent messages from it to Schiffman's students and colleagues. They pointed to blog posts about the plagiarism allegation and asked the recipients to help keep it quiet. "This is my career at stake," some of the e-mails said.

The blog posts, too, were Raphael Golb's work under other names, prosecutors said. They said he also opened up e-mail accounts in the names of other scholars of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Schiffman denies copying Norman Golb's work and says he's never had a personal problem with the Chicago historian.

He said in a statement Thursday that he was appreciative of the work on the case.

"Let us hope that the field of Dead Sea Scrolls research can get back to its real business - interpreting the ancient scrolls and explaining their significance for the history of Judaism and the background of early Christianity," he said.

Jurors left without speaking to reporters. During the three-week trial, they were given a history lesson on the more than 2,000-year-old documents, found in caves in Israel in the 1940s by a Bedouin shepherd searching for a lost goat. The texts contain the earliest known versions of portions of the Hebrew Bible and have provided important insight into the history of Judaism and the beginnings of Christianity.

Access to the scrolls was tightly controlled by a group known as the monopoly. Jewish scholars - including Norman Golb - were not allowed to evaluate them. The controlled access to the scrolls continues, Golb argued during his testimony. He said his father was excluded from participating in workshops and museum exhibits on the texts while other more popular scholars were invited.

District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance said stealing money isn't the only type of identity fraud.

"Using fictitious identities to impersonate victims is not what open academic debate seeks to foster," he said.

Golb faces at least four years in prison on the top charge when he is sentenced Nov. 18. He is free until then.

While Internet impersonation claims have generated lawsuits, prosecutions are rare unless phony identities are used to steal money, experts say.

In one high-profile prosecution, Missouri mother Lori Drew was accused of helping her daughter and a friend pose as a teen boy on MySpace to send hurtful messages to a 13-year-old neighbor girl. The girl committed suicide.

A federal jury in California, where MySpace has its servers, convicted Drew of misdemeanor counts of accessing computers without authorization. A judge overturned the verdict and acquitted her.

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Associated Press Writer Jennifer Peltz contributed to this report.

© 2010 The Associated Press