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Commentary: When judges go in-depth

Kynšperk, 22.12.2014 22:13, (ROMEA)
Markus Pape. (Photo: František Kostlán)
Markus Pape. (Photo: František Kostlán)

There are many cases of controversial police violence resulting in death, and not only in the Czech Republic. All we have to do is recall the recent, only partly violent, powerful protests by civil society in the United States about black youth shot dead by police officers.

Such cases rarely make it to trial. State prosecutors often take the claims of intervening law enforcement officials at face value.

Those directly affected in these cases are unable to make any claims. They are dead.

On Friday 28 November, the trial of two police officers from the town of Kynšperk charged with the negligent homicide of Mr Ľudovít K. continued before the District Court in Sokolov. The incident occurred at the start of May 2012.

After the police intervention, Mr K passed away in a Sokolov hospital. News server Romea.cz reported on the case of the tragic death of the 33-year-old father of three young children at the time.

Thorough evidence

Let's first briefly summarize the development of this scandal to date. In the beginning, an evaluation by the court expert in Sokolov who performed the autopsy on the deceased caused significant delays in the investigation.

In his evaluation, the expert stated that a sudden epileptic fit could not be ruled out as the cause of the victim's death, which he believed could have occurred in a person who was otherwise completely healthy. Through this finding, he cast doubt on any eventual blame for the police officers involved in the death.

What's more, some police functionaries insisted, through their own expert statement on the case, that the police intervention had been completely "normal" and justified with respect to its extent. A detective from the Inspector-General of the Security Services (or GIBS, in Czech Police jargon) - who are pejoratively referred to by other police as the "gypsies" because the acronym GIBS reminds them of the English word "gipsy" - took an entire year to decide whether to sue the officers involved.

Robert Pelikán, the attorney for the victim's family, then spent his own money to commission an expert evaluation of the case from the Charles University Medical Department in Prague 3, which is world-renowned in the field. The conclusion of that evaluation, signed by three renowned Prague physicians, was that the police intervention had unequivocally caused Ľudovít K's death.

Since all of the medical experts insisted to the court that their opinions were correct, the judge announced he would be commissioning a third expert evaluation to decide where the truth lies. During the months of October and November the court in Sokolov canceled two hearings in the case.

It seemed it would be difficult to find an expert who would be brave enough to produce a third evaluation as the referee when the initial evaluations were so contradictory. The judge ultimately chose a different solution: He commissioned evaluations from three other experts regarding the various contentious details of the previous expert evaluations.

The first expert to testify was an eye specialist who was supposed to evaluate the effects of the pepper spray used on the victim. He explained that the content of the type of spray used does blind one for a certain amount of time and makes it impossible for one to effectively defend oneself, but ruled out a direct, causal relationship between the use of the spray and the victim's death.

Expert witnesses' contest now 6:1

An expert in internal medicine was then questioned, who said that if the spray had made it into the mouth and then the larynx of the victim, it would have left 

demonstrable traces on the tissue. In the autopsy report, however, there is no mention of such marks.

According to an expert on the professional literature, which he has been studying for years, there has never been a case of a person dying after an intervention in which pepper spray was used without the deceased having previously suffered from a particularly serious disease or drug use. A third expert in the field of neurology refuted the above-mentioned claim of the Sokolov expert regarding epilepsy.

Through an extensive explanation of the medical findings, the neurological expert proved why the autopsy report and preceding medical documentation rule out the notion that the victim was afflicted with a serious disease that might have been the cause, in conjunction with other factors, of a brain swelling leading to his death. This expert supported the conclusions of the Prague experts that the police officers' intervention was to blame for the victim's death.

The hearing also included questioning of the first witness in the case who was not an eyewitness, nor an expert, nor a police officer, nor a relative of the victim, nor a member of the Romani community. He spoke at the suggestion of the victim's family's attorney after I brought him to their attention.

This witness, a local man from Kynšperk, had been visited by the victim Ľudovít K. over a 10-year period almost every day, and Mr K. had confided in him about his family situation. Over time this witness, as he himself testified, became something of a substitute father to Ludovít K., who had never known his own biological father.

Brutal honesty of a witness

By openly describing both the bad and the good sides of Ľudovít K., the witness credibly refuted various claims made by the defendants about the alleged danger posed by the victim. For example, the witness said Mr K. had broken up with his common-law wife more than once, but that they had always gotten back together.

When Mr K. "drank", it was only when he had problems at home, and then he was aggressive. He carried a collapsible truncheon and a knife, but only for his own protection.

Because he was enormously strong and had the corresponding physique, drunks often picked on him, attacking him in groups of three or four to test their own bravery and strength. In such situations, according to this witness, Mr K. had to defend himself somehow, perhaps even with a weapon in his hand.

During the questioning of this witness, there were long periods of silence in the courtroom when the judge, surprised by his brutal honesty, took quite some time to reflect on what the next question would be. The witness confirmed that the victim, when drunk, would spark conflicts himself, but did not specify whether such conflicts were sparked by his physical makeup alone or by his behavior.

The witness testified that he had met the victim at his place of residence just three hours before the police intervention against him, stating that he had seemed calm, sober, and not displaying any signs of mental illness. The defendants, on the other hand, claimed that they had perceived him as a very drunk person who was behaving strangely and needed medical aid.

Neither a dangerous perpetrator nor a dangerous life

The high point of the hearing ultimately was the interrogation of a former police official who, on that fateful night, had communicated with the intervening officers by radio. The judge replayed him the audio recording confirming that one of the defendants expressed himself in a defamatory way about the pereson he was pacifying.

That was followed by recordings of communications with a colleague of the witness who  had served with him at the operations center that night. There was also a recording of a conversation between that colleague and the dispatcher at the medical center in Karlovy Vary, who was not informed of developments in the arrested man's state of health, a fact that caused a significant delay in the arrival of a doctor at the scene of the crime.

If the summoned doctor had learned from the operation center about the risk to the patient's life in time, the father of three might be alive and able to care for his children today. The trial is scheduled to resume on 22 January 2015.

According to the judge, however, the first verdict will not be handed down then, as he is planning to call more witnesses. In May it will be three years since the victim's death, but the efforts by the judge to review this situation in-depth if necessary, no matter the cost, must be recognized.

For the victim's family this means an apparently endless wait for a verdict to take effect or for them to be eventually compensated. In the case of the defendants, who remain on duty as police officers, this must be like "bleeding to death slowly but surely".

Markus Pape, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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Násilí, Policie, Roma, Soud



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