A case of French justice – a window on the nation

The burglary defendant hauled his loot in a taxi, the defense attorney wore slippers, and the judge deemed the victims guilty by reason of naiveté.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

The trial of the serial burglar unfolded in a wood-paneled courtroom under a massive 18th-century crystal chandelier.

The lawyers wore black robes and ermine-tipped ties. Stylized Phrygian hats, olive wreaths, swords, and scales danced in frescoes across the ceiling. Above the raised judges' podium, an enormous oval oil painting portrayed a square-jawed woman sitting in judgment, one hand resting on the hilt of her sword.

For those whose apartments had been burgled, 14 of us robbed by the same man in a period of just six weeks, the effect was both daunting and reassuring. Everything seemed to announce Tradition and Justice. The trial itself would surely be formal, mannered, and businesslike.

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But a courtroom is a microcosm of the society it serves. And the trial of accused thief Radouane Aidour Dahib could be seen as a reflection, perhaps a caricature, of France. Like much of daily life here, it was delayed by public transit strikes, governed by ancient procedural rules, distracted by philosophical debates, and shot through with a streak of rebellion. In the end, everybody, including the victims, was assessed a share of guilt.

Mr. Dahib was a tall man of 31 with an extraordinarily narrow face and a criminal record dating back to his teens. Born in Morocco but raised in central France, he'd been unemployed nearly all his adult life. When the police arrested him for his latest string of burglaries, in the fall of 2006, he confessed to the crimes. So the trial, only vaguely structured like an American criminal trial, was focused on what punishment to mete out and whether extenuating circumstances should be taken into account.

The defendant set the tone from the start: "It wasn't me," he said, after the investigative report on his burglaries and his personal history was read out in court. "It was the drugs, the cocaine, the hashish, the alcohol I was consuming. It was my illness."

He then turned to me, the only one of his victims present in the courtroom. "I'm sick," he said. "It wasn't personal."

But it did feel personal. And I felt unsympathetic and briefly stared at him. He smiled back, like a naughty child appealing for forgiveness.

As a civil plaintiff claiming damages, I'd been asked to come forward and sit at the front of the courtroom, a position that made me the third point of a triangle with the defendant and judges (one who presented the details of the case and the other who presided over the proceedings). It was clear, given Dahib's admitted drug habit, that the chances of recovering my stolen computer, jewelry, suitcase, and stereo were nil. The idea that he suffered from "a social disease," as in the song from "West Side Story," left me cold.

The French criminal system, like those everywhere in the world, is overburdened. Crime and punishment are perennial political flash points. President Nicolas Sarkozy, once France's Interior Minister, won election last year on a law-and-order platform. His first successful reform was to institute mandatory sentences for repeat criminals. Mr. Sarkozy's promises to get tough on crime hung heavy over the courtroom. Dahib had already spent more than a year in pretrial detention at the Fleury-Mérogis prison outside Paris, the biggest in Europe. European Union human rights commissioners have called the French jail system one of the most antiquated and crowded on the continent.

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Dahib's judges – there was no jury of peers – had some leeway in sentencing. But if Dahib were to commit another crime in the future, he'd be tried under the tough new law that makes a long prison term compulsory.

"He knows very well that this is his last chance," said the defense attorney, a young man who wore house slippers and bluejeans that peeked out from under his black robe. "He knows that if he commits another crime there's not going to be much we can do for him."

The trial took place in the cavernous Palais de Justice. Built on the foundations of a 3rd-century fortress, the 10-acre compound with 15 miles of corridors, 700 doors, and 3,150 windows, played a starring role in French history. It was set afire in the Revolution and then during the Commune. Marie-Antoinette was sentenced to death here. Zola, Marshall Petain, and Mata Hari were tried here, as was Sarah Bernhard (for breaking her contract with the Comédie Française). Compared with such weighty matters, Dahib's case seemed almost comical. According to his own account, his modus operandi was simple. Thanks to an accomplice in the post office of the 12th arrondissement in Paris, a friendly mailman called him every time keys were spotted in a mailbox during morning deliveries. Dahib came by in the afternoon and, using a postal service master key, simply retrieved the keys and let himself in to apartments while their owners were away. The alleged accomplice was never found by the police.

The judge-rapporteur, who summarized the case against the defendant on behalf of the court, recounted the burglaries as if he was reading out tales of the Indiana Jones's adventure series.

"It was amazing," the judge observed, that on the day Dahib was arrested, he'd asked the doorman of a building he had just burgled to call him a taxi to take his loot home. He returned to the same building to hit another apartment. With a set of stolen golf clubs and other items in his arms, he asked the same doorman to call him a taxi again. "Maybe he has problems but he is also a practiced con man," the judge said. "He committed 14 thefts over a period of not even two months. His storage room was like Ali Baba's cave."

Dahib listened attentively to the description. He seemed impatient. Only a month earlier, he'd told the court that he was eager to get the trial over with. But it had been scheduled on a day that transportation workers across France went on strike. His lawyer was stuck in the Paris suburbs and could not come. "You know and I know it's not going to make a difference whether he's here or not," Dahib said then. But the judges postponed the trial.

As it turned out, Dahib was well served by his defense attorney, who successfully argued that his client's criminal record was proof of psychological problems that the state was obliged to treat, not punish.

"I've been representing him for five or six years in criminal trials and I always ask myself the same question: Why, at the age of 31, is he still doing this?" the lawyer told the court. The answer, he said, was that Dahib "suffers from an unhealthy psyche."

That opened the way for a long philosophical discussion between the presiding judge and the defendant that ranged from abstract principals to amateur psychology.

"It's your personality that this tribunal will examine," the judge told him.

"I am a schizophrenic," Dahib responded. "I can't understand myself, why I act as I do. I was destroyed by ... a lack of direction."

"By all your repeat offenses, you have entered in a sort of war with authority. How do you see your future, your occupation?" the judge asked.

"Anything you tell me to do today, any road, I'll take it," Dahib said.

In the French criminal justice system, judges consider the evidence but aren't obliged to justify their decision according to the evidence. Instead, the law requires a judge to "interrogate himself, in silence or meditation," to weigh the personality of the offender and the gravity of the offense.

The internal reflection took 20 minutes. Then the judge sentenced Dahib to two years in prison and one year of parole, with an admonition that he stick to any treatment provided for his mental illness. The year he spent in pretrial detention will be deducted as time served.

Theoretically, he must also pay tens of thousands of euros in damages and compensation to those he robbed. But in another twist of French justice, we victims were held responsible for 25 percent of our own losses.

As Dahib's lawyer put it, and as the judge agreed, we were criminally naive to leave our apartment keys in our mailboxes.

"He's a sick crook," he said. "But we have to take into account the victims' behavior. "None of the apartments was broken into. No letter box was damaged. You have all these thefts and no breaking and entering, and all because the victims carelessly left keys in their mailboxes."

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