Case of European Court of Human Rights, June 25, 2020 (case TEMPEL v. THE CZECH REPUBLIC)

Defense:THE CZECH REPUBLIC
Resolution Date:June 25, 2020

FIRST SECTION

CASE OF TEMPEL v. THE CZECH REPUBLIC

(Application no. 44151/12)

JUDGMENT

Article 6 (criminal) • Fair hearing • Case repeatedly remitted to first-instance court for new examination until guilty verdict obtained on fifth occasion • High Court criticising first-instance courts’ assessment of evidence and credibility of witness, an approach at odds with domestic law • High Court’s failure to provide reasons for its decision not to hear the key witness directly and assess his credibility itself • High Court’s approach suggesting that only a guilty verdict would be acceptable • Particular succession of events strongly indicating dysfunction in the operation of the judiciary, vitiating the overall fairness of the proceedings

Article 6 (criminal) • Reasonable time • Excessive length of proceedings

STRASBOURG

25 June 2020

This judgment will become final in the circumstances set out in Article 44 § 2 of the Convention. It may be subject to editorial revision.

In the case of Tempel v. the Czech Republic,

The European Court of Human Rights (First Section), sitting as a Chamber composed of:

Ksenija Turković, President,Krzysztof Wojtyczek,Aleš Pejchal,Armen Harutyunyan,Pere Pastor Vilanova,Pauliine Koskelo,Tim Eicke, judges,and Abel Campos, Section Registrar,

Having deliberated in private on 2 June 2020,

Delivers the following judgment, which was adopted on that date:

PROCEDURE

  1. The case originated in an application (no. 44151/12) against the Czech Republic lodged with the Court under Article 34 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (“the Convention”) by a Czech national, Mr Robert Tempel (“the applicant”), on 11 July 2012.

  2. The applicant, who had been granted legal aid, was represented by Mr J. Kříž, a lawyer practising in Prague. The Czech Government (“the Government”) were represented by their Agent, Mr V.A. Schorm, Ministry of Justice.

  3. The applicant complained, under Article 6 §§ 1 and 2 of the Convention, that criminal proceedings against him had been unfair because the appellate court in question had essentially imposed a presumption of guilt upon the first-instance court which had acquitted him four times. When the first-instance court had refused to accept that he was guilty, the appellate court had unlawfully and in breach of the principle of a tribunal established by law assigned the case to another first-instance court, which had arbitrarily assessed the evidence as the appellate court had done and had thus violated the principle of immediacy. The applicant further complained of the unreasonable length of the trial.

  4. On 26 June 2015 the Government were given notice of the above complaints and the remainder of the application was declared inadmissible pursuant to Rule 54 § 3 of the Rules of Court.

    THE FACTS

    1. THE CIRCUMSTANCES OF THE CASE

  5. The applicant was born in 1973. He is currently serving a sentence of life imprisonment in Valdice Prison for different crimes, including the conviction for murder which is the subject of the present application.

  6. In 1996 the applicant was found guilty of robbery and unlawful possession of a weapon, and sentenced to five years and six months’ imprisonment. On 3 May 1999 he was conditionally released and a probation period of five years was set.

    1. Criminal proceedings

  7. On 4 March 2002 the applicant was charged with murdering two people on 20 August 2001. On 10 January 2003 he was also charged with robbery and unlawful possession of a weapon.

  8. On 28 January 2003 the applicant was indicted for the murder of two people, and on 25 April 2003 he was indicted for robbery and unlawful possession of a weapon. On 2 May 2003 the Plzeň Regional Court (krajský soud) joined these sets of proceedings.

  9. First set of proceedings

  10. On 17 September 2004 the Plzeň Regional Court found the applicant guilty of robbery and acquitted him of murder and unlawful possession of a weapon. According to the court, it had not been proved that he had murdered the two people in question. It observed that there were two accounts of the events of 20 August 2001. According to the first account, put forward by the applicant, it was the key prosecution witness L.V. who had murdered those people, in connection with a drug deal. According to the second account, put forward by L.V., it was the applicant who had committed the murders, in order to take possession of the car of one of the victims. The court found that the L.V.’s witness testimony, the only direct evidence against the applicant, was not credible, and acquitted the applicant.

  11. The applicant appealed against the conviction for robbery, while the prosecution appealed against his acquittal in respect of the charges of murder and unlawful possession of a weapon.

  12. On 1 December 2004 the Prague High Court (vrchní soud, “the High Court”) quashed the impugned judgment and remitted the case to the Plzeň Regional Court. In the appellate court’s view, the acquittal had been premature, because the reasoning of the judgment did not contain any assessment of the evidence, apart from an assessment of the credibility of the witness L.V., and even this was incomplete. The High Court further explained that it did not aim to presume how the Plzeň Regional Court, as a first-instance court, should assess the evidence, as the first-instance court had exclusive jurisdiction over that matter. The errors in question were due to the lack of any assessment of the evidence.

  13. Second set of proceedings

  14. On 1 February 2005 the Plzeň Regional Court found the applicant guilty of robbery and sentenced him to thirteen years and six months’ imprisonment. At the same time, it acquitted him of murder and unlawful possession of a weapon. The court remained convinced that the key prosecution witness L.V. lacked credibility.

  15. The applicant appealed against the conviction, while the prosecution appealed against the acquittal.

  16. On 27 April 2005 the High Court upheld the conviction for robbery and the acquittal in respect of the charge of unlawful possession of a weapon, but quashed the judgment as regards the applicant’s acquittal in respect of the charge of murder, and remitted the case to a different chamber of the Plzeň Regional Court, relying on Article 262 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (hereinafter “the CCP”). The appellate court repeated its criticism and held that while the first-instance court had elaborated on the assessment of the credibility of the witness L.V., the judgment barely contained any assessment of the evidence, and paid insufficient attention to the applicant’s version of events and his credibility.

  17. As regards the assignment of the case to a different chamber of the Plzeň Regional Court, the appellate court held that the current composition of the chamber had not rectified the mistakes which had been criticised, and had adopted a one-sided position favouring the applicant. The appellate court expressed doubts about that chamber’s ability to objectively decide the case.

  18. As the applicant had not appealed against his conviction for robbery, it became final. Consequently, he started serving his sentence.

  19. The applicant lodged a constitutional complaint (ústavní stížnost) against the High Court’s decision to assign the case to a different chamber of the Plzeň Regional Court, claiming that his right to a lawful judge had been violated.

  20. On 15 September 2005 the Constitutional Court (Ústavní soud) (III. ÚS 389/05) dismissed the applicant’s constitutional complaint as manifestly ill-founded. The court concluded that the conditions for applying Article 262 of the CCP had been fulfilled.

  21. Third set of proceedings

  22. On 18 May 2006 a different chamber of the Plzeň Regional Court acquitted the applicant of murder. The court did not find L.V.’s testimony credible, because it was full of contradictions. According to the court, the circumstantial evidence did not unambiguously point to the applicant’s guilt and there were other possible explanations for the events. It had not been proved beyond reasonable doubt that the crime had been committed by the applicant.

  23. On 4 October 2006 the High Court again quashed the first-instance court’s judgment and remitted the case to the same chamber of the Plzeň Regional Court. It noted that the judgment which had been appealed against was sufficiently reasoned and that great attention had been paid to the assessment of the evidence. However, the way in which the evidence had been assessed had violated Article 2 § 6 of the CCP and the principles of formal logic. The first-instance court was unable to disengage from its one-sided position whereby it unequivocally assessed the evidence in the applicant’s favour. In the appellate court’s view, the principle of in dubio pro reo had its limits, and did not mean that all doubts as regards the assessment of evidence had to be interpreted strictly in the accused’s favour.

  24. While stressing that the assessment of evidence was, in principle, the exclusive right of the first-instance court, the appellate court considered that L.V.’s credibility had again been assessed in a “destructive way”. The appellate court pointed out that the first-instance court had failed to clarify certain discrepancies that were decisive for the conclusion concerning the witness’s credibility. Without hearing L.V., the court went on to draw alternative conclusions from the evidence which the first-instance court examined. The High Court also observed that the first-instance court had relied on L.V.’s testimonies from the hearings conducted before the previous chamber, which had been obtained through examinations which had been conducted in a tendentious manner. The court concluded:

    “The regional court again assessed the evidence in a one-sided manner, as it did not attach proper importance to a number of pieces of evidence, in particular those which were to the accused’s disadvantage, [and] downplayed them or did not deal with them in the...

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