Czech arson trial: Drunken stupidity or racially-motivated attempted murder?
On Monday the trial of a case of attempted arson committed last summer in the town of České Budějovice continued, with few representatives of the media in attendance. News server Romea.cz reported on the start of the trial in December last year.
More eyewitnesses have now given testimony, as has an expert in the field of psychology. The indictment states that in mid-July of last year, when anti-Romani unrest was culminating in the South Bohemian metropolis, local warehouse worker Josef S. drunkenly attempted to set an apartment building on fire there in which several Romani families live.
Tenants in the building noticed his efforts, physically intervened, and detained him until police officers arrived, for which the South Bohemian Regional Police publicly thanked them afterwards. State attorney Josef Richtr has charged Josef S. with reckless endangerment, for which he faces up to eight years in prison.
Witness Valérie B., who was visiting her mother in the building at the time, told the court that she noticed a strong smell of fuel in front of the building and informed some of its occupants, who then ran outside. Together they discovered a stranger standing near the adjacent parking lot, pouring an inflammable material in front of the building and trying to set it on fire.
Valérie B.'s husband, Slovak construction worker Gejza B., told the court that after visiting his mother-in-law he was going to fetch the car for his family when he also noticed the man in the parking lot. Of all the witnesses, Gejza B. was the only one who personally knew Josef S., as they had worked together before.
Gejza B. testified that the two had a normal conversation in the parking lot and that he had smelled liquor on the defendant's breath. When he discovered the defendant intended to set the fuel oil on fire, he told him to go home and not cause problems.
The construction worker said he had not really been concerned that his former colleague might set something on fire ("I know naphtha doesn't burn"), but when the defendant walked toward the building, Gejza B. called to his relatives to "grab him". When asked whether the incident had changed his view of his Josef S., he nodded and said "He lied to me!"
Gejza B. described Josef S. as someone with whom he had been on a first-name basis. He said the defendant had never given any indications about his views on Romani people and had never racially abused them to him.
The construction worker's testimony ended with the conclusion that the defendant had just done something stupid because he was drunk. Two occupants of the building, Josef and Roman P., then gave testimony that corroborated the prosecution's description of the crime.
The defendant's attorney drew attention to minor differences between the testimonies of Josef and Roman P., but the discrepancies can be explained by the witnesses' youth and by the fact that they no longer remember every single detail now that time has passed. Since they are young boys, they are preoccupied with other matters.
However, both Válerie B. and Roman P. gave testimony indicating that some occupants of the building remain traumatized by last summer's experience. Expert Václav Šnorek then told the court that he had found the defendant suffers from a specific personality disorder caused by long-term over-consumption of alcohol.
Šnorek believes Josef S. is an emotionally unstable, impulsive, uncomplicated personality whose rational control over his behavior fails when he is intoxicated by alcohol in particular. "There is no reason to believe he can change somehow," the expert testified.
Josef S. is said to have a very narrow frame of reference and to frequently not perceive what is going on around him. When drunk, he reportedly depersonalizes places such as the apartment building he wanted to set on fire, projecting the blame for any eventual harm his actions might cause onto completely unrelated people.
When the expert was asked to predict Josef S.'s chances for successful outpatient treatment, he responded guardedly, saying the defendant's interest in treatment could be solely related to the criminal prosecution underway against him. Šnorek told the court that no one can predict what will happen once such treatment is completed.
News server iDNES.cz reports that the expert believes Josef S.'s attempt to set fire to the Romani-occupied apartment building could have been a drunken impulse influenced, for example, by the incidents at the Máj housing estate that had sparked the anti-Romani unrest. When asked what he made of the information that the defendant was still at large, Šnorek responded that he had to restrain his own emotional responses to such news as part of his professional obligations.
The expert witness also pointed out that Josef S. was convicted of violent crimes eight times between 1985 and 2010. His most recent suspended sentence was overturned as part of the general amnesty announced by outgoing Czech President Václav Klaus.
The trial will resume on 16 April 2014. Evidence from the case file will be read into the court record at that time.
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