Murder of a Roma family by a police officer. The lenient penalty, the ineffective investigation and non prosecution of the police officer for racist violence violated the right to life

JUDGMENT 

Lakatošová and Lakatoš v. Slovakia  11.12.2018 (no. 655/16)

see here  

SUMMARY

The case concerned a shooting spree in 2012 by an off-duty police officer at the home of a Roma
family. The two applicants in the case, a married couple, were seriously injured and three members
of their family were killed. When questioned by the police, the officer stated that he had been
thinking about “a radical solution” for “dealing with” Roma people. He was ultimately given
a reduced sentence of nine years’ imprisonment owing to diminished responsibility. The ruling was
adopted in the form of a simplified judgment which contained no legal reasoning.

The Court found that there had been plausible information in the case to alert the authorities to the
need to carry out an investigation into a possible racist motive for the assault.

It observed that racist violence was a particular affront to human dignity, and required special
vigilance and a vigorous reaction from the authorities.

Nevertheless, the authorities had failed to thoroughly examine powerful indicators of racism in the
case such as the police officer’s frustration at his inability to resolve public order issues concerning
Roma, as suggested in his psychological assessment. In addition, the police officer had not been
charged with a racially motivated crime and the prosecutor had not at all addressed or discussed the
possible aggravating factor of a racist motive in the bill of indictment.

Moreover, the courts had failed to remedy in any way the limited scope of the investigation and
prosecution and the simplified judgment in the case had contained no legal reasoning to address
that shortcoming. Indeed, as the applicants had been civil parties to the proceedings, they had only
been allowed to raise issues concerning their claims for damages.

PROVISIONS

Article 2

Article 14

PRINCIPAL FACTS

The applicants, Žaneta Lakatošová and Kristián Lakatoš, husband and wife, are Slovak nationals of
Roma origin who were both born in 1986. They live in Hurbanovo (Slovakia), a town where around a
thousand Roma people live.

On 16 June 2012 Mr J., a municipal police officer, drove to the applicants’ home town, entered their
property and, without saying a word, started shooting at members of the family who happened to
be in the yard. He was not on duty and used an illegally purchased gun. Mr Lakatoš’s father, brother
and brother-in-law were killed.

Mr J. was arrested and the police immediately conducted a preliminary investigation. They
questioned in particular Mr J. and other witnesses as to whether there was a possible racist background to the attack. Mr J. stated that he had driven to the applicants’ house to “deal with” the Roma, and confirmed that he had been thinking about a “radical solution”. His relatives and colleagues denied that he was biased against Roma. The victims’ relatives stated that they were not aware of any conflict between Mr J. and their family.

Two psychologists were also appointed to examine Mr J. They established that Mr J. had suffered
from a temporary mental disorder at the time of the assault and concluded that the immediate
motive for it was not clear, but that Mr J.’s continual frustration with his work and inability to
resolve public order issues concerning Roma could have been behind it. The experts also referred to
an incident shortly before the attack when Mr J. had been aggressive towards some Roma boys who
had been caught stealing.

In December 2012 Mr J. was charged with premeditated first-degree murder and carrying a
concealed weapon. The bill of indictment identified one aggravating factor, namely that the attack
had been against five people.

The case went to trial before the Special Criminal Court and a hearing took place in March 2013. The
applicants’ lawyer attempted to question witnesses about a possible racist motive for the attack, but
was not allowed to pursue this line of questioning because the applicants were civil parties to the
proceedings and as such could only raise issues concerning their claim for damages.

Mr J. was found guilty as charged by way of a simplified judgment, without any legal reasoning,
which was made possible because both the prosecution and the defence had waived their right of
appeal. Mr J. was given a reduced sentence of nine years’ imprisonment owing to diminished
responsibility. The applicants’ appeals were subsequently dismissed as was their constitutional
complaint.

The applicants withdrew their civil claim for damages in 2016. In the meantime the Minister of
Justice had awarded them compensation.

THE DECISION OF THE COURT 

The Court conceded that, in practice, it was often extremely difficult to prove a racist motivation.
Nevertheless, the authorities had to do whatever was reasonable in the circumstances to discover
the truth. In particular, if evidence of racism came to light in an investigation, it had to be checked
and, if confirmed, a thorough examination carried out.

The Court considered that there had been plausible information in the applicant couple’s case to
alert the investigators and prosecutors to the need to carry out an initial assessment of racism,
which they had indeed done. The investigating authorities had in particular questioned Mr J. and
other witnesses as to a possible racist background to his actions and had requested psychologists to
assess his motives.

However, they had not extended their investigation and analysis beyond this. They had in particular
failed to carry out a thorough examination of the fact that Mr J. had acted violently against some
Roma boys shortly before the attack, even though the expert witnesses had suggested a link
between this incident and the shooting. Nor had they examined another indicator of racism, namely
the police officer’s frustration at his inability to resolve public order issues concerning Roma, as
suggested in his psychological assessment.

Furthermore, despite the evidence collected in the investigation, Mr J. had not been charged with a
racially motivated crime. The prosecutor had then failed to address that shortcoming in the
indictment, not addressing or discussing at all the possible aggravating factor of a racist motive.
Nor had the courts reacted in any way to the limited scope of the investigation and prosecution. As
the applicants were civil parties to the proceedings, they had only been able to raise issues
concerning their claims for damages. The courts had therefore not allowed their lawyer’s line of
questioning about a possible racist motive for the attack and they had not been able to lodge an
appeal because an injured party only had the right to appeal rulings on compensation. Lastly, no
stance on a possible racist motive had been taken in the ruling against the police officer either as the
case had been resolved in the form of a shortened judgment, which contained no legal reasoning.
The Court emphasised that racist violence was a particular affront to human dignity, which required
special vigilance and a vigorous reaction from the authorities. However, the investigation and
prosecution in the applicants’ case had been impaired to an extent that it had been irreconcilable
with that obligation. Indeed, in the face of powerful indicators of racism, the authorities had failed
to properly examine whether or not the attack had been motivated by racial hatred.

There had therefore been a violation of Article 14, read in conjunction with Article 2.

Given that finding, the Court held that there was no need for a separate examination of the
applicants’ complaints under Article 13 in conjunction with Article 2.

Just satisfaction (Article 41)

The Court held that Slovakia was to pay each of the applicants 25,000 euros (EUR) in respect of
non-pecuniary damage(echrcaselaw.com editing). 

 

 


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