Czech trial of last year's murder of a Romani man in Chomutov, defendant claims he was trying to protect people
On 4 April the Regional Court in Ústí nad Labem began to hear the case of last year's murder at a housing estate in Chomutov. Defendant Petr Benda (age 37) faces up to 20 years in prison and has been charged with firing his weapon 13 times at a van being driven by Radek Š.
Benda told the court he never intended to kill anybody. He claimed to have been concerned about the lives of people outside the building where he lived and to have feared for his own life as well.
The family of the deceased is seeking millions in compensation for the murder. The indictment does not mention a racial subtext to the crime.
The unfortunate incident happened on Saturday, 27 May 2017. During that evening a young man and his uncle had a dispute about family matters that escalated at about 3 AM.
As a result of this argument, Radek Š. got into his van and decided to drive away, but his relatives did their best to prevent him from doing so. During his maneuvers he damaged a parked vehicle with the van.
Based on what his mother told him was happening outside, Benda then ran out of a nearby building and began to fire his weapon at Radek Š. Benda's mother claimed the van had driven past and crashed into other cars and allegedly also into people.
"He saw a silver van that was moving in the parking lot in front of their building and a crowd of different people shouting around that vehicle. Convinced that a crime was underway and that some crazy person was killing people, he loaded at least 13 bullets into the clip of his legally-held Beretta nine millimeter firearm, attached the clip to the gun, and prepared to fire it by releasing the safety," state prosecutor Vladimír Jan described in the indictment.
Benda rejects the allegation that he intended to commit murder. He testified that disruptions of nighttime quiet at the housing estate are almost a daily occurrence, that this time there had been shouting and yelling, and that the van had just narrowly missed hitting a small group of people.
"Immediately I thought of all these foul things that are happening, attacks using vehicles and other attacks. I decided to go outside and aid those people," Benda argued, reminding the court of the different terrorist attacks that have been committed using vehicles in France and in the USA.
"I brought my weapon with me because I wanted to protect people. I brought my weapon with me because I was convinced those people were in danger," he told the court.
Benda admitted that he never heard anybody outside calling for help and never saw the vehicle hit or run into anybody. "I saw that the car had passed by a small group of people and I assumed it had just missed them," he testified.
The defendant also said he has just a frayed recollection of the moments prior to firing the weapon and of actually firing the weapon and apparently had been in some kind of shock or trance. "To this day I cannot remember how I traveled from the third floor to the corridor. I do not know if I ran down the stairs or took the elevator," he testified.
Benda claimed to have begun shooting when the van began to head for him and he was afraid for his own life. According to the indictment, however, at the moment of the shooting, the van was moving very slowly and there were no obstacles or people in its lane that would have been endangered by it.
"With the indirect intention of killing the driver he fired at least 13 times at the victim who was driving the motor vehicle at that time and who passed by at a speed of seven or eight kilometers per hour along the road," the prosecutor said. Eight of Benda's bullets hit the 34-year-old Romani man, including in his back and in his chest.
The victim died as a consequence of the serious injuries. "I did not run out to shoot somebody at 3 AM for no reason," Benda said, rejecting that characterization of his actions.
"The prosecutor alleges that I went outside with the intention of shooting that person. I don't know how anybody can predict such behavior," said the defendant, adding that he has held a class E firearms license since 2002 and is authorized to carry the gun.
"I don't feel that I am guilty of anything," Benda said. The prosecutor had previously stated that there was no racial motivation to the crime.
The judge also asked about that during the course of the deliberations, stating that an eyewitness had testified that somebody had shouted from a window "Shut your black mugs!" Benda rejected that testimony by saying that he had not been able to see who was on the street from his window, which was 50 meters away from the van.
"Nobody was carrying a flag there reading 'I am Roma'. It's impossible to tell," Benda said.
In almost two hours of testimony the defendant said just three words expressing regret for the death of the person struck by his bullets. When asked whether that appeared to be enough remorse to him, he said that he did not know what words would it would take for him and asked rhetorically whether he should be banging his head against the wall in court.
Since Benda stated more than once that he had been coming to people's aid, the question was asked as to why he did not provide first aid to Radek Š. " I saw him just for a couple of seconds, then I know I stepped away from the car. A lot of people rushed to the van ahead of me and did their best to open the door and get inside. I backed away from the car," he testified.
Loved ones of the gunshot victim are seeking damages of CZK 5 million [EUR 200 000]. The victim's parents and common-law wife are asking for CZK 1 million [EUR 40,000] each and his siblings are seeking CZK 500 000 [EUR 20,000] each.
"Those are unrealistic amounts that I cannot pay. It's not proportional to what happened," Benda said, adding that in his view it was Radek Š. who had endangered people's lives.
Expert witnesses also testified on the afternoon of the 4 April trial. According to a forensic psychiatrist, the shooter's behavior had represented a "short-circuit" in his responses.
"He regretted the death, but he was convinced that it was an unfortunate accident," the expert testified. "He sees himself as belonging on the spectrum to that smaller part of society comprised of individuals who are not indifferent. Naturally, he assessed the actions that were underway poorly."
Defendant has a tendency to take justice into his own hands
"He is not yet a sufficiently mature personality. That immaturity is demonstrated in just some of his attitudes. He has adapted himself very well in terms of work; nevertheless we see a certain immaturity in his social contacts. He is closed, focused on privacy, reserved to a certain extent, detached and has a smaller than usual number of social contacts. He does not confide in others about his problems. On the question of justice he is so sensitive as to be oversensitive," said expert psychologist Štěpánka Tůmová.
"The scale of his values is dominated by tendencies that are almost messianic. It is not possible to say these attitudes and ideas are immoral, on the contrary, they are a testament to his high level of morality, but how he deals with situations is, to a certain extent, detached from reality," the expert said, adding that in lay terms it was possible to say the defendant has a tendency to take justice into his own hands and to act on that basis.
A traffic expert said that at the time of the incident Radek Š. was driving the van at an average speed of seven or eight kilometers per hour, which is something between a brisk walking pace and running. "The distance it takes to stop the car is about two or three meters, including the driver's reaction. Naturally in a case where the driver is influenced by toxic materials that distance becomes longer," said the expert.
According to the autopsy the victim had been under the influence of alcohol and marijuana at the time of death. Screening video recordings to the court of the reconstruction of the shooting and the interrogation of eyewitnesses was also scheduled to take place by the end of last week.
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- † 17. 5. 1998, Orlová, Czech Republic: Milan Lacko