Raphael Golb’s conviction wasn’t quite like any other: using online aliases to discredit his father’s adversary in a scholarly debate over the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The 9-year-old case got a New York law thrown out and finally ended Monday with no jail time for Golb, who persuaded a judge to sentence him to three years’ probation rather than two months in jail.
Appeals had put the jail term on hold and narrowed the counts in his criminal impersonation and forgery conviction in a curious case of ancient religious texts, digital misdeeds, academic rivalries and filial loyalty.
“Obviously, I’m relieved not to be going to jail,” Golb said, adding that he remains concerned by having been prosecuted for online activity he said was meant as satire. “The judge today did the right thing, but the whole thing should have been thrown out nine years ago.”
Prosecutors said jail was a fair punishment for a man who posed online as a prominent professor to send academically damning emails about the scholar himself.
“The (jail) sentence should stand,” Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Elizabeth Roper said.
The case began in 2008 when colleagues and students of New York University Judaic studies scholar Lawrence Schiffman got emails in which he seemed to suggest he’d plagiarized the work of another Jewish history expert, Norman Golb of the University of Chicago.
The two were on different sides of an obscure but heated dispute over which ancient Jews wrote the more than 2,000-year-old scrolls, which include the earliest known version of portions of the Hebrew Bible.
But the emails weren’t actually from Schiffman, who later said he spent weeks refuting the claims.
By 2009, authorities said they’d figured out who was behind the messages: Raphael Golb, a literature scholar and now-disbarred lawyer who is Norman Golb’s son. Charging Raphael Golb with identity theft and other crimes, prosecutors said he’d created an elaborate electronic campaign involving blog posts and 70 phony email accounts to tarnish his father’s detractors.
Raphael Golb initially argued the writings weren’t a crime but parody and academic whistle-blowing meant to counter scholarly scorn directed at his father and expose “unethical conduct” in his field.
Or, as Golb put it in 2010 testimony: “I used methods of satire, irony, parody and any other form of verbal rhetoric that became the type of language used by philosophers during the Enlightenment to expose the irrational arguments of their opponents.”
Indeed, the trial was so full of erudite references that it sometimes felt more like an academic conference, touching on the French Enlightenment writer Voltaire, the early 1900s Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, the Roman thinker Pliny the Elder, and more.
But it also was, particularly at the time, a relatively rare internet impersonation prosecution that didn’t involve financial crimes.
Golb was convicted in 2010. He was sentenced then to six months in jail, a term that would be reduced as his appeals cut a twist-filled path through state and federal courts and the state Legislature.
In one turn, the case prompted New York state’s highest court in 2014 to strike down an often-used aggravated harassment law that made it a misdemeanor to communicate with someone “in a manner likely to cause annoyance or alarm” and with the intent to do so. Police and prosecutors saw it as an important tool for pursuing domestic violence and other cases, but Golb and his lawyer called it an unconstitutional intrusion on free-speech rights.
The state Court of Appeals concluded the law was “unconstitutionally vague and overbroad.” The state Legislature later passed a revised version.
The Court of Appeals also dismissed some of the counts in Golb’s conviction, including the only felony — identity theft — which had led to his disbarment. He was resentenced to two months in jail.
Federal courts subsequently cut some more counts, leaving a total of 10. They reflected a total of five emails sent over two days, noted Golb’s lawyer, Ron Kuby.
Said Manhattan state Supreme Court Justice Laura Ward: “I think Mr. Golb has been punished enough.”