Hate-crime verdict in Wiesel incident sends a message

The Anti-Defamation League was quick to praise the San Francisco jury that this week found a New Jersey man guilty of a hate crime for snatching Elie Wiesel from a hotel elevator last year.

Nancy Appel, associate director of the Central Pacific Region of the ADL, attended the nine-day trial and thought the jury’s decision was appropriate for the crime.

“This sends a message to anyone else out there — who gets caught up in extreme ideology — that if you get caught up with this kind of hatred, and you act out on that hatred, there is a price to pay,” Appel said.

Eric Hunt, 24, was convicted July 21 in San Francisco Superior Court of one felony charge of false imprisonment with special hate crime allegations. He also was convicted of two misdemeanor counts — one for battery and one for elder abuse.

The jury dismissed other felony charges of attempted kidnapping, stalking and a second false imprisonment charge.

Hunt attacked Wiesel on Feb. 1, 2007 in San Francisco’s Argent Hotel, where Wiesel was staying while in town for a peace conference. Hunt dragged the Nobel Prize-winning author and human rights activist out of an elevator and demanded Wiesel admit his Holocaust memoir “Night” was a work of fiction.

Hunt later posted an essay about the attack on an anti-Semitic Web site. He was arrested Feb. 17.

Wiesel, 79, testified against Hunt on two days of the trial at the San Francisco Hall of Justice.

“To negate someone’s memory is a violation of that person’s humanity,” Wiesel said in response to a question about the concept of Holocaust denial. “So reading [Hunt’s essay] shook me up.”

Hunt had originally pled not guilty by reason of insanity, but withdrew the plea, eliminating the need for a second trial to determine his sanity at the time of the crime.

Hunt could face as many as three years in a state prison for the hate crime conviction; battery and elder abuse are misdemeanors that carry maximum county jail terms of six months each.

Alan Kennedy, the assistant district attorney who prosecuted the case, was not available for comment. San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris released this official statement: “Crimes motivated by hate are among the most reprehensible offenses. This defendant has been made to answer for an unwarranted and biased attack on a man who has dedicated his life to peace.”

Hunt’s attorney, John Runfola, told the Associated Press that he was pleased with the verdict, and that he was “saddened it took this long to get justice for this young guy who is mentally ill.”

Appel said she finds that comment “appalling.”

“Eric Hunt assaulted Elie Wiesel,” she said. “Justice, in this case, is for professor Wiesel and for society.”

Superior Court Judge Robert Dondero has scheduled sentencing for Aug. 18.

Runfola told the San Francisco Chronicle that he expected his client’s sentence to be short because Hunt already has spent 18 months in custody and has accumulated good-conduct credits.

Appel, a former trial lawyer, said that prediction was unfounded.

“You can’t predict what the court will do,” she said. “We hope the sentence confirms the jury’s message — that there is a price to be paid for this kind of hateful, violent criminal activity.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.