Analysis: Trial of violent death of Romani man at hands of Czech Police involves witness suicide attempt
In mid-September the trial of police officers from the town of Kynšperk resumed at the District Court in Sokolov. The Plzeň Regional State Prosecutor charged them with negligently causing the 2012 death of Mr Ľudovít Kašpar, a Romani man also from Kynšperk.
Possible outcomes of the trial are either a stricter legal qualification of the crime or acquittals. According to the defense, no felony was committed and the brutally beaten Romani man died as a result of the coincidence of the unfortunate circumstances "of an otherwise justified intervention by police that was well-performed on the whole."
Dušan S., the brother-in-law of the deceased and a longtime employee of the local technical services, told the court how he had run into a friend, Jakub S., one morning in May two years ago. Jakub S. was shaken and told Dušan S. that he and another man had been having a drink on the riverbank when they witnessed police officers suddenly handcuffing Mr Kašpar and then "bashing and beating" him for half an hour, after which they "kicked him under the chin".
"He's really badly off. He probably won't survive," Dušan S. testified that Jakub S. said about his brother-in-law that day.
A skillfully criminalized witness
Two years later (i.e., this spring), Dušan S. suddenly learned that the eyewitness Jakub S. was describing the entire experience completely differently in his court testimony. Jakub S. then sought Dušan S. out one March evening on the streets of Kynšperk and addressed him as follows: "You Gypsies want me to lie in court?"
Dušan claims to have said: "Not at all. We want you to tell the court what happened, the way you described it to me at the time."
Jakub S. then denied his previous version and insisted on his new story. The denial wound Dušan S. up to such a degree that, he says, he hit Jakub S.
Local police officers and a district intervention unit with dogs immediately arrived at the scene to arrest Dušan S., and the state prosecutor charged him with attacking an important witness; he was remanded into custody. That intervention unit, by the way, only responds to important cases and ordinarily does not immediately make it to a crime scene, because its headquarters are in the district capital.
When police officers told Dušan S. that he faced a long prison stay for attacking a witness, he made an unsuccessful suicide attempt while in custody. He has no criminal record and has worked for the same employer for 16 years.
Dušan S. told the court that he regretted allowing himself to be provoked into violence. Judge Milan Tomeš asked whether he had known Jakub S. and if so, what his relationship was to him, to which Dušan S. answered that they had previously been friends.
"I didn't want to force him to do anything, I just wanted him to tell the truth in court," Dušan S. said. When asked how often he used to see his brother-in-law (the deceased), he said "Every day at home."
Even though Mr Kašpar was no longer living with his wife at the time of his death, he still visited her home daily to attend to their children. When asked by the judge why he had maintained contact with Mr Kašpar even though his sister had left him, Dušan S. said that Mr Kašpar had wanted to put the family back together because the children needed their father; he believed his brother-in-law never did anything wrong and did not have any psychological problems.
Another witness, Martin M., a Kynšperk police officer, was supposed to testify about an intervention he had performed at noon on that fateful day, during which he and his colleague were called by emergency responders from a local ambulance because they needed assistance with treating a citizen. Officer M. said he believed this was usually done when emergency responders don't know whether a patient is under the influence of alcohol or not.
Officer M. said he knew the late Mr Kašpar as "troubled" and had responded more than once to calls made when he argued with his common-law wife at home. He testified that it had always been enough during those incidents to reach agreement with Mr Kašpar, that he always calmed down immediately and obeyed instructions.
The officer also testified that he had never been afraid of the deceased, even though "Mr Kašpar was the strongest Gypsy." On the day in question, the police foot patrol answered the ambulance call at the residential hotel where Mr Kašpar had been living for several months, and the officer testified that when they arrived, Mr Kašpar ran out of his room completely naked.
"Did you see any clothing near him, perhaps in his room, had he been putting clothes on?" the judge asked the witness. Reportedly he had not.
A nurse then reportedly took Mr Kašpar's blood pressure; the officer said he spoke coherently and answered questions, and when they asked whether he wanted to go to hospital or whether he needed any medication, he said no and signed a release form. "Are you telling me that you didn't insist he get dressed when the nurse was treating him?" the judge asked.
"Well," the officer answered, "he was probably dressed by then." What clothing Mr Kašpar was wearing, however, he was unable to say.
A "weird" knife
The officer was then supposed to answer the judge's question of how a knife allegedly belonging to Mr Kašpar had ended up at the local police department that day. "The knife was lying next to his door in a transparent plastic bag. Mr Kašpar said it wasn't his, that we should take it, that he didn't want it there," the officer said.
So the officer took the knife and allegedly reported it at the police station as having been found. "Where is the knife today?" the judge asked.
"It was probably handed over to the town so someone could claim it. We didn't want to leave it there," the officer said.
The judge then asked whether they hadn't found the knife in front of the residential hotel, as was written in the official records. "No, the knife was inside," said the officer.
The defense then asked the witness if he had had the feeling that Mr Kašpar had been under the influence of drugs. The officer said he had not been drunk at all, that he had just said something about God, more than once.
When asked by an associate of the court whether he had seen any bruises, scratches or other injuries on the allegedly completely naked patient, the officer shook his head. "I didn't notice anything like that," he said.
The defendants, however, claimed in their testimony that Mr Kašpar had been injured prior to their intervention. Their fellow officer was obviously trying to make his testimony match that of the defendants', but he kept constantly getting tangled up in contradictions, both with the testimonies of other eyewitnesses to the intervention that happened at noon, and with the official record.
According to other eyewitnesses, an unidentified police officer opened up Kašpar's apartment on the day after the crime was committed against him and left carrying his knife. Local police then claimed the knife had been found near the scene of the crime that evening, where Mr Kašpar had allegedly dropped it.
This local police trick didn't succeed either - when the regional-level police intervention unit hermetically sealed the entire area around the crime scene immediately after the nighttime incident and thoroughly searched it, they found no suspicious objects. Evidently, there was nothing else they could do but ask a local officer to provide an explanation for how Mr Kašpar's knife had ended up in the official record when no one had found it near the crime scene.
Overconfident local police
The hearing culminated in the playing of excerpts from the telephone communications of the defendants with the police operations center, both directly from their intervention that night and from calls made in the hours afterward. In those calls, defendant Vítězslav N. breathlessly describes the ongoing intervention: "He's beating himself like a crazy person. We had a hard time holding onto him. We have already pacified him. We're lying on top of him, he's a Gypsy like a beast."
The dispatcher asks whether reinforcements should be sent, and the patrol says no. "He's stopped responding. He seems to be breathing, but his pulse is diminished. He's drunk or high," the telephone conversation continues.
"I understand, hang on," the dispatcher responds. Doctors later determined that the deceased had neither alcohol nor drugs in his blood.
After the ambulance transported the seriously injured man to hospital in Sokolov, the dispatcher informs the intervening patrol members of the victim's poor state of health and calls on them to visit the doctors and "come to an agreement". What was to have been agreed is not spelled out, but from the context anyone can easily imagine what that was.
After the audio recording was played, the defense asked the judge whether the court had the time data available for the various excerpts played. The judge said that while the hours and minutes were listed on the document supplied by police, there was not any information as to what day the excerpts came from; the defense, therefore, can now claim the recordings are not connected in time with this case, but that they could have come from a completely different case having nothing to do with the deceased at all.
Cases of police officers suspected of committing crimes are investigated, by law, by the Inspector-General of the Security Forces. Their detective requested the audio recordings from the day of the crime from the relevant police department, but received them without the date of their recording being provided.
The Inspector-General usually grapples with such problems when it asks for police cooperation in clarifying their colleagues' crimes. The judge has scheduled the next hearing for mid-November, when another expert medical witness will testify, concluding arguments will be made, and the first-instance verdict may even be pronounced.
Every time I attend a hearing in this case, I marvel at its Oscar-worthy screenplay of a film being made by no one. This trial is the reality, pure and simple, of the Czech Republic in the year 2014.
Almost all of the expert witnesses and eyewitnesses give their testimonies as if the death of the victim and the fate of the defendants is of essential concern to them. The judge attentively, patiently listens as each witness gives and answer to his targeted questions.
In the beginning the defendants' colleagues attended every hearing to support them. Today only journalists, the victims' relatives, and Emil Voráč, chair of the local Romani civic association Khamoro, are coming to the hearings.
Ever since Mr Kašpar's death, Voráč has helped his relatives communicate with investigators. Voráč also claims that Jakub S., the eyewitness to the police intervention who changed his story, has even visited him at home to apologize for causing such a quandary.
Allegedly Jakub S. has faced enormous pressure from local police to lie about what happened on the night of 6 May 2012 in Kynšperk and what he witnessed. According to news server iDNES.cz, Voráč also considers the officers' speech as captured on the recordings that night to be offensive.
"It completes the picture of how they treated the detainee. It is evidence of their character," Voráč told iDNES.cz.
A burning question hangs in the background of this entire trial: Does a police officer have the right to beat up a "black guy" just because he is behaving strangely? The court in Sokolov is being forced to answer that question, but it cannot resolve the issue for the entire country; as the recent unrest in the USA after the fatal police interventions against black citizens shows there, the Czech Republic is far from alone in this.
This reporting was made possible by the kind financial contribution of Pavel Dvořáček, rector of the Church of the Czech Brethren in Prague.
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