The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) rejected an appeal on Thursday by infamous French killer Pierre Bodein, dubbed "Pierre the Madman," to have his life sentence reduced.
Bodein was sentenced to life in prison in 2007 for a series of gruesome slayings that shocked France in 2004. A known serial re-offender over the previous decades, that year he was charged with the rape and murder of two teenage girls and the murder and mutilation of a 38-year-old woman.
Bodein was the first Frenchman to be sentenced to life without parole — the harshest punishment available in French criminal law— and Thursday's ruling has revived the debate on life sentences, described by French magistrate Denis Salas as "drawn-out death sentences."
In France, life sentences without parole are usually reserved for criminals who have committed both murder and rape on victims 15 years old or younger, or in murder cases where the victims are public figures. Even though custodial sentences rarely exceed 22 or 30 years in certain child murder cases, life sentences without parole are indefinite.
The court's decision against Bodein this week states that his sentence may be re-examined 26 years from the date it was passed. According to the court, the law does allow for the possibility of reviewing sentences, and each European state has "a margin of maneuver" as to how they institute this right.
In France, criminals serving a life sentence can appeal for parole after 30 years, and after being "subject to psychiatric assessment by a panel of experts." So ultimately, life sentences without parole in France aren't necessarily lifelong.
Bodein's attorney Maître Dominique Bergmann explained to VICE News that his client had lodged his appeal with the ECHR back in 2010, arguing that a life sentence constituted a violation of article 3 of the European human rights convention, which prohibits torture and inhuman or degrading treatment.
In 2013, the court ruled in favor of a similar case brought by three convicted British murderers. At the time, the ECHR had pronounced that jailing the men for life was in breach of article 3, and that provision should be made for a review of sentences, no matter how serious the crime.
According to Bergmann, the ECHR was swayed by the emotional context surrounding his client's criminal past.
Following a first conviction in 1969 for battery and sexual assault, Bodein spent the next 25 years in and out of jails and psychiatric institutions. In 1976, a panel of psychiatric experts decided that he was insane. Refusing to move or talk, and confined to a wheelchair, Bodein was released in 1980. He was arrested again in 1989 after a new series of assaults, and committed once again to a psychiatric facility.
In 1992, he escaped the facility through an open window, and went on a three-day rampage, during which he robbed a bank and an arms depot, raped a woman, assaulted another, and shot two police officers. When the police finally caught up with him, psychiatrist Michel Patris said, "Pierre Bodein pulled the wool over our eyes by pretending to be mentally ill."
After he was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 1996, Bodein adopted a new strategy, becoming a model prisoner. He was granted parole in March 2004. Upon being freed, Bodein went on the aforementioned vicious killing spree.
For Salas, who aside from being a French magistrate is also a high-profile essayist, life sentences are never justifiable.
"Any sentence has to respect the dignity of the human person, and should ultimately lead to the rehabilitation of the prisoner," he told VICE News. "I have visited prisons on many occasions and I can tell you that prisoners who have been there for 30 years are harmless old men. After 30 years in prison, what is the point in detaining these individuals? There is none."
Despite the ECHR's ruling, Salas maintains that life sentences go against the very principles of human dignity.
"[These sentences] stand in for the death sentence, which has been abolished in most European countries," he said. "We have kept the death penalty but given it another name. We detain them for life and their sentence no longer means anything. Let us not be hypocritical: let us not hide behind the non-condemnation of France [by the ECHR]. These are drawn-out death sentences. People are dying in prison, inside their cells. There are whole prison wings that are full of people in wheelchairs. That's what I find shocking."
Sweden abandoned capital punishment in 1921, Germany in 1949, and France in 1981. In the UK, the death penalty was abolished for murder convictions in 1965, and in all circumstances in 1998. In 2004 the 13th Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits the death penalty, became legally binding on the UK. The European Union's website states that, "The death penalty is a cruel and inhuman sanction and it has been proved that it is not an efficient deterrent against crime."
"In 1981, people were up in arms against the death penalty, but nowadays, no one is shocked by these drawn-out death sentences," says Salas. "In other northern European countries and in Portugal, the longest custodial sentences last 20 years."
Salas is all too aware of his opponents' arguments, which accuse him of insensitivity towards the victims' suffering. But Salas explains that, "It is impossible to judge with emotion and to condemn with indignation," since no sentence is ever harsh enough to compensate for a victim's suffering. Unless you follow the eye-for-an-eye reciprocal concept of justice, which, for Salas, is incompatible with a democratic legal system.
"The media only ever highlights unusual cases," he said. "But I could give you many examples of successful reinsertions, of detained criminals who were able to turn over a new leaf. This kind of success story is what truly makes a democracy shine. Politicians have the power to change this, to rethink the prison system, by giving detainees a chance for social reintegration before it is too late."
By the time Bodein can appeal for parole, in 2036, he will be 89.
Follow Virgile dall'Armellina on Twitter: @armellina