Man who beat S.F. rabbi gets work detail, not prison

The man who last year beat up Rabbi Bentzion Pil and congregant Michael Medvedev in front of the rabbi's Richmond District home has been sentenced to a pair of misdemeanor battery charges and will serve 90 days in a county work program.

With John Henning III initially being charged with seven felony counts in a hate-crime incident, the victims and their lawyers expressed shock and disgust at the Monday plea-bargain agreement negotiated by San Francisco District Attorney Terrence Hallinan, which they characterized as a slap on the wrist.

"Hit a Jew, sweep the street. That seems to be the philosophy of how they consider hate crimes at the D.A.'s office," said Alexander Anolik, who has served as a pro bono counsel for Pil.

"The amount of time [Pil and Medvedev] spent standing around waiting in court for hearings is more than this guy will serve in jail, because he won't serve any time. He's going to go sweep some streets."

In addition to 90 days of service with the Sheriff's Work Alternative Program, Henning, a 32-year-old San Francisco lawyer, was sentenced to three years probation, must receive anger management counseling and is liable for the medical costs of both victims. Henning must also keep his distance from Pil, Medvedev, Anolik and Pil's home, which is also an Orthodox shul. Both Pil and Medvedev have filed civil suits against Henning.

Medvedev, who suffered broken ribs, a black eye and multiple lacerations in the altercation, said he hasn't been able to sleep since the punishment was handed down.

"I would have expected a real punishment, and what he got isn't a real punishment. He's not going to spend even one day in jail," said Medvedev, a Russian-born Israeli immigrant.

"Now I don't feel safe going out with a kippah on my head. Where can I go in this country if this is considered the most liberal and free city?"

Neither Pil nor Henning could be reached for comment.

Anolik charged that longstanding connections between Hallinan and Henning's father, also a San Francisco lawyer, and his grandfather, the former head of the AFL-CIO and an ambassador to New Zealand, may have resulted in a lenient punishment.

Hallinan said he'd met both Henning and his father a couple of times, but he denied any personal relations that would interfere with the case. While Hallinan's spokesman, Mark MacNamara, said the Henning family requested that Hallinan personally involve himself in the case, Hallinan denied this.

Explaining his decision not to push for felony charges, Hallinan said: "I look on this as just a simple fistfight. No deadly weapon was used; there was no kicking, no beating of people when they were down. In fact, [Henning] ended up losing the fight. [But] what he did in even getting into this dispute was out of line, and he had to be punished for doing that.

"Certainly this is not intended to send a bad message [to the Jewish community]. I feel strongly about anti-Semitism and will punish anyone who does it. And 90 days of SWAP is not a slap on the wrist. Not only is he giving up 90 days of his time, he won't be able to make a living during that time."

Henning had previously offered to serve 60 days in jail or six months on a kibbutz. Both offers were dismissed by Anolik, who commented, "the kibbutzim movement is not meant as a halfway house."

Pil and Medvedev claimed the 6-foot 5-inch tall, 235-pound Henning walked past Pil's shul in the early morning hours of April 28, 2001 before walking back, shouting a litany of anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist insults at them and then attacking and savagely beating them both. Over a roughly 10-minute period, the pair claim to have overpowered the intoxicated Henning and were on top of him when police arrived.

Henning denied starting a fight, but Hallinan believes he did. Instead of a hate crime, Hallinan characterized the fight as "a stupid political thing, maybe alcohol played a role…He was arguing over the Palestinian-Israeli thing."

Henning's lawyer, Jim Collins, said he never doubted his client would escape felony charges, considering Pil and Medvedev "won" the fight and taking into account Pil's checkered past.

Pil, the former director of the Jewish Educational Center in San Francisco, pleaded guilty to illegally structuring $1.7 million in bank deposits, intentionally evading federal reporting laws on coin or currency transactions exceeding $10,000. He served a nine-month sentence at a halfway house and is currently on federal probation.

In Collins words, Pil is currently on probation for a "moral turpitude crime" and his "long history of untruthfulness" would not have played well with a jury.

In addition to the civil suits, Anolik hopes to get Henning disbarred or have his license suspended. Hallinan said he believed Henning "will get in trouble with the state bar over this, but what the consequences will be, I don't know." Collins said Henning's lawyer in the bar matter did not believe the University of San Francisco Law School graduate would lose his license.

"This is my city — I was born here and I love it. But everyone is bending over backwards to show they're not pro-Israel or pro-Jew," said Anolik, who also represents San Francisco State student Tatiana Menaker, accused of hate speech at a pro-Israel rally.

"Finally they catch somebody committing a hate crime. Don't tell me they prosecute hate crimes with a slap on the wrist like this."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.