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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.

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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.

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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."