West Cork murder: Paris verdict does not close case

Pierre-Louis Baudey Vignaud

Only hearts of stone would be unmoved by the enduring distress with which the son of Sophie Toscan du Plantier, murdered in West Cork almost a quarter of a century ago, lives. 

To the pain of losing a mother in his teenage years must be added the frustration caused by the inability of the Irish and French legal systems, after numerous police investigations and court hearings, to have the case closed with a convicted murderer behind bars.

Unhappily for Ms Toscan du Plantier’s family, however, the guilty verdict passed by a French court on a UK citizen resident in Ireland takes the case not one centimetre closer to closure, since it serves only to highlight yet again the fundamental difference between our common law tradition and France’s Napoleonic code which — contrary to popular opinion in English-speaking countries — presumes innocence until a defendant is proven guilty but nevertheless allows courts to consider material and circumstances that would not normally see the light of day in ours.

That was seen at the Paris court hearing that found the accused man guilty and sentenced him in his absence to a 25-year prison term, having heard no facts unknown to the Irish prosecutors who have uncovered no evidence sufficient to justify laying charges.

Particularly alarming was the decision by the three French judges, sitting without a jury, to hear the evidence that took the form of a report written by two psychologists who felt able to reach an adverse assessment of the accused man’s personality without actually meeting him.

Armed with that verdict, the next step for the authorities in France will be a request for extradition and a European arrest warrant.

It would be the third extradition attempt, the first two having been rejected by our courts. Ms Toscan du Plantier’s son, understandably, is hoping that the murder verdict in Paris will help to produce a different result when the case returns to Dublin.

“Of course France will succeed in extradition,” he says confidently. “I think Irish justice will see to that for sure; we are brothers, Ireland and France.”

Any brotherly affection, any concept of a special relationship that might bind two European Union states, however, cannot be permitted to sweep aside the principles which underpin the legal system in our sovereign state.

While the outcome of a third attempt at extradition in this decades-old case cannot be predicted, it will undoubtedly spotlight familiar concerns about the EU-wide system that can, when it works well, ensure that criminals are brought to justice speedily, but which is flawed because it does not take account of differing criminal justice standards in member states. 

Cross-border warrants can be, and are, issued without a shred of sound evidence that a prima facie case exists.

As the seemingly never-ending West Cork murder case has shown, the tests to which evidence is subjected in our country are markedly dissimilar from those accepted as standard in France.

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Evidence treated very differently than would be the case in an Irish court

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