Another petition and a protest rally were organised in connection to the Sotirya murder case in Bulgaria. Although the accused man was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole, the Penal Code envisioned a hypothesis for reduction of the sentence to 30 years in case of confession. The general public disliked this “legal loophole”. The victim’s family and their community organised a petition urging for amendments to the Penal Code that would eliminate this opportunity to people charged with intentional murder. The petition gained a great popularity and was supported by ministers and MPs who later adopted it in parliament.
In three of the above-mentioned cases the accused were presented in a significantly unfavourable manner by both public authorities and media outlets. They have been publicly disgraced as details about their past and private life were published. In addition, publicly expressed opinions about their “bad” characters and personalities appeared in some publications. The incriminatory statements inevitably affected public perceptions and triggered vindictive attitudes. As already pointed out, the media’s power of shaping public opinion should not be underestimated. In addition, people usually have much more sympathy to the victims and their families, which provokes resentment and enmity to the suspect and accused. In the context of the issue at hand, the generated public pressure may affect the criminal proceedings and the execution of a fair trial, demanding, for instance, increased penalties and “extra” punishments.
Although the judiciary is considered politically independent and unsusceptible to public sentiments, legislative bodies consist of MPs that pursue the public approval. The long-run implications, as shown, could be legislative changes providing for tougher penalties introduced as a result of the public desire for revenge in connection to a particular case.
The case studies analysis raised the question whether the public pressure is able to affect the decisions of authorities at the pre-trial stage. A good example in this regard is the Professor “Fakelakis”case where the accused professor was held in custody for 10 months as a result of the vigorous media attack on him and the great popularity of the case. Additionally, he was suspended from teaching at the university long before his conviction in an attempt of the school to differentiate itself and preserve its reputation. Thereby, his reputation and academic career were impaired even in the absence of a verdict of guilty. In the course of the proceedings for the car accident in which journalist Milen Tsvetkov died, the prosecution changed the indictment with the prospect of a more severe sentence. The initial offense of causing death after the use of alcohol and opiates, penalised by 3 to 15 years of imprisonment, was replaced by a more serious offense of intentionally causing death when driving a vehicle, punished by 15 to 20 years of imprisonment. Thus, although legislative changes were not adopted, the public demands for a stricter penalty were partially satisfied. Another case where the high publicity influenced the course of proceedings was observed in the cases of HIV positive women. The accused women were detained for more than six months after their arrest and immediate disclosure of their photographs and personal medical data by the Greek authorities was made. Since the first day of publishing the sensitive information, the detained women received pro bono legal support by various actors (organisations, lawyers, civil society initiatives, etc.). Eventually, the women were released from custody, the felony charges were rejected and the indictment was changed, and the women were acquitted. The advocacy and public support certainly helped their defence, access to legal aid, and the full enjoyment of the right to a fair trial, right to effective remedy and other inter-related rights. The present analysis is not able to detect and prove with certainty a direct connection between the media publicity and the imposed coercive measures. The main aim is to contribute to the existing volume of literature in the field by raising questions and providing concrete real-life examples.
Improper disclosure of information and misleading news materials in the press could result in consequences such as public backlash about the outcome of criminal cases. The case studies show examples of public demonstrations and demands for more severe punishments than those prescribed by current penal laws. It is noteworthy that “no punishment without a law” is a well-established principle in international human rights law. Thus, a key element of Article 7 of the European Convention on Human Rights is that “a heavier penalty [shall not] be imposed than the one that was applicable at the time the criminal offence was committed.” Moreover, Article 15 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights expressly mentions the principle of the retroactivity of the lighter penalty, stating “If, subsequent to the commission of the offence, provision is made by law for the imposition of the lighter penalty, the offender shall benefit thereby.” In contrast, at several instances petitions for higher sanctions were initiated by groups of the local society at the pre-trial, trial and post-trial stage.
In Spain, a petition for imposing a life imprisonment of the accused woman for the murder of Gabriel Cruz case reached at least 130,000 signatures along with demands for her extradition. The activists requested the government to ensure that she serves her sentence in poor conditions in prison in the Dominican Republic and to be declared a persona non grata in Spain. The arguments behind the petition, namely that "knowing that Spanish justice will fail to provide sufficient punishment and will prove to be too complacent towards this murderer” and that “she would be comfortable in any of Spain's prisons” shows that principles such as equality before the law and equal treatment can be disregarded by the general public and replaced by discrimination when polarised public opinions are formed. Arguably, such demands would not arise if the public authorities and the media had a more balanced approach towards the accused woman. In particular, authorities and media contributed to the formation of a negative portrayal of Quezada through references to her personality, past and ethnic origin. Likewise, a petition requiring a sentence of maximum term for “the drugged driver who killed Milen Tsvetkov” was initiated for the car accident in which journalist Milen Tsvetkov died. The fact that the victim was a prominent journalist along with the detailed coverage of the case by the media have triggered a sharp social response. Numerous people urged for legislative amendments that would increase the sanction for driving under intoxication. It could have affected the punishment of the alleged perpetrator. The petition was signed by over 25,000 people for a very short time. The Penal Code in effect envisioned 3 to 15 years of imprisonment for causing death after the use of alcohol and opiates, which, according to the public, was no adequate punishment for the death of the Bulgarian journalist. In response to the outcry, the ruling parties and the Prosecutor’s Office submitted a proposal for legislative amendments to the Bulgarian parliament for a more severe punishment of 15 to 20 years of imprisonment or a life sentence, and confiscation of the vehicle.chevron_right
Assessing the Risk of Isolation of Suspects and Accused (ARISA) is a series of projects striving to promote the rights of suspects, accused and convicted persons in the European Union.
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