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Lawyers Talk About the Cases They Can't Forget

Frédéric Berna once had to defend a man accused of killing his baby, sexually assaulting his daughter and fatally hitting his girlfriend with a flashlight, before raping her corpse.

av Sandrine Issartel
2016 10 06, 9:00am

This article originally appeared on VICE France

People become solicitors for many different reasons – some do it for the fancy robes, others to seek justice for the unfortunate and downtrodden. Whatever their underlying motivation, most members of the bar will face a complex or gruesome case at some point in their career. Wanting to know more about those kinds of cases, I got in touch with five French lawyers and asked about the human horror stories that affected them the most.

Nicolas Pasina, who practices law in Nancy and Saint-Dié des Vosges, remembers defending a 35-year-old woman, accused of stabbing a judge in a juvenile court. On the 5th of June 2007, after the judge announced that he was extending the foster placement of Fatiha Benzioua's three-year-old son, she pulled a 20cm long kitchen knife out of her bag and attacked him. The judge, Jacques Noris, was rushed to the hospital with several wounds in his abdomen. Luckily, he survived. "This woman is very petite – she's not even five feet tall – but when she attacked the judge no one could contain her. Not even her partner, who is a 198 cm butcher," Pasina told me.

He seemed convinced that his client wasn't in full possession of her faculties: "Social workers say that in the weeks preceding the hearing, she became convinced she could speak to Michael Jackson," he said. In April 2010, Fatiha Benzioua appeared before the court once again, this time accused of attempting to murder a magistrate.

It was a challenging lawsuit for Pasina because, as he maintains, "during the trial she was under medication and in no condition to defend herself." Having been seen by four psychiatric experts, only one of them reckoned that she had taken leave of her senses during the attack. "We had to fight the other three psychiatrists who insisted she was fine. She wasn't fine. She spent the trial staring at a wall, rocking her body back and forth. At the end, the Attorney General requested a sentence of 13 to 15 years in prison, and the court sentenced her to 13. Later, that sentence was upheld on appeal. This was an unfair punishment for Pasina, who also believes that "real justice doesn't exist. Mental illness scares us. Evil, you can explain. But you can't always explain insanity."

For me it's inconceivable. It's a crime that I can't intellectually understand. How can someone remember to give water to their dog but forget about their child?


On June 19th, 2013, a 9-month-old girl died at her home near Toul, due to severe dehydration. According to forensic experts, the child had slept in an unventilated room with a temperature close to 30 °C and appeared to not have had a drink for 12 to 15 hours. The day before, her father – who was 25 at the time – had taken her for a stroll in direct sunlight. "The first question I asked was how could the parents have allowed for that to happen?" says Gregoire Niango, who served as the legal counsel for the elder brother of the deceased girl. "For me it's inconceivable. It's a crime that I can't intellectually understand. How can someone remember to give water to their dog but forget about their child?"

The trial was held in Nancy, in October 2015. "Every single night during the trial, I would dream about this case. They let their baby die of thirst because of laziness. It's just incomprehensible," Niango despaired. He went on to admit to indulging in a "temper tantrum" in court, when he asked the father: "Has your dog died? Has your fish died? Has your baby died?" The defendant – who up to that point seemed unfazed – broke down in tears. "I was relieved to see him cry, because that reinstated his humanity," he said. The couple were sentenced to five years in prison.


In April 2015, Frédéric Berna defended a 40-year-old accused of, on the same night, killing his baby, sexually assaulting his daughter and fatally hitting his girlfriend with a flashlight before raping her corpse. A terrible trial, after which the defendant was sentenced to lifelong imprisonment. However, this was not the case that Berna found most difficult to defend. "Defending an absolute bastard, who the common man considers a monster, is not that difficult. This is when your practical self takes over and you think, 'It's only business'. What is more complicated is defending a client, for whom you feel sympathy," Berna told me.

He recalled his encounter with a young prisoner, who had been accused of torturing a fellow prisoner to death, together with his cellmate: "He was a young lad. He had just been transferred to the adults' prison, and I immediately took a liking to him." Sébastien Schwartz was sharing a cell of the Charles III prison with Johnny Agasucci (a 26-year-old construction painter, who had been implicated in a drugs case) and Sébastien Simonet, who awaited his trial for acts of torture committed on another cellmate. The latter had a habit of marking his roommates with an iron rod and was clearly reigning terror in the prison.

I felt tremendous pressure. I had come to think of Schwartz as a son. I'd lost all sense of perspective. As the trial approached, I couldn't sleep or eat properly.

On the night of the 25th August, 2004, Agasucci was found dead in his cell. He had been repeatedly punched in the stomach and the genitals, and also carried stab wounds from a fork. He was found with his arms shackled behind his back and a rope tied around his neck. His cellmates were immediately held responsible.

Schwartz described the scenes of violence to the police and insisted that he had not participated in the torture. His story seemed to agree with the results of the autopsy: "Schwartz was a small guy of around 158 cm and 53 kg – and he seemed completely traumatised by what he had witnessed. He had beaten up the victim on Simonet's orders," explained Berna. "I was convinced that he was more of a victim than a suspect. He found himself in a situation that he couldn't change for fear of his own life." Freed while awaiting trial, the young man found a job, went to live with his girlfriend and started a family.

The demanding trial took place in January 2009, at the Meurthe-et-Moselle court, where Simonet's defence tried to put the blame on Schwarz. "I felt tremendous pressure. I had come to think of Schwartz as a son. I'd lost all sense of perspective. As the trial approached, I couldn't sleep or eat properly," Berna recalled. "When my time came to take the stand, I was almost paralysed by the fear of getting it wrong. Addressing the jury, I started by talking about myself and how working on this case had affected me. Once I was done, I sat down and pretty much blacked out. I felt a black veil cover me," he recalls.

In the end, Simonet was sentenced to life imprisonment, while Schwartz was given one year in prison for battery. The Attorney General had requested 10 years for murder for Schwartz. "It was the best result of my career," smiled Berna.

She spoke of all the horrible things she had done, as if reciting a grocery list. It made me really uncomfortable.


It's an even more sordid story that Épinal-based attorney Pierre-André Babel was confronted with, back in 2009. A man from Saint-Dié des Vosges had started a relationship with a woman, who would eventually become Babel's client. According to the lawyer, the man was "a real pervert with an insatiable sexual appetite." He also maintained a relationship with his neighbour and kept a photo album of orgies that he had partaken in together with her and her young daughter. "He managed to manipulate these two women, who were both modest people, with serious deficiencies," Berna told me. Accused of sexual assault on a minor, the man, his partner and the neighbour were taken to the Court of Vosges, in June 2009. "Simply going through that photo album was a test of character," the lawyer remembers. "It was the first time in my career that what I saw gave me nightmares."

What reassured the lawyer about the intentions of his client were the pre-trial interviews. Apparently, these made it obvious that the woman he had to defend had been manipulated. However, a few months before the trial, the male defendant stopped eating and taking his heart medication, which caused him to die in prison. "That was the first obstacle I had to overcome, because if the defendant was present at his trial, the jurors would have been made aware of his character and realised that he was the mastermind," said Babel. "The second difficulty, was that my own client had 'frozen' emotionally, and become unable to express compassion. She spoke of all the horrible things she had done, as if reciting a grocery list. It made me really uncomfortable. More importantly, if the jurors can't see a bit of humanity they cannot sympathise. I was afraid that her psychiatric pathology would lead to a sentence that was heavier than what she deserved."

Indeed, at the trial, his client was sentenced to seven years in prison, while the accomplice – the mother of the victim – was sentenced to 15 years. This trial was followed by an appeal trial before the Court of Meuse. Meanwhile, the defendant started working with a psychiatrist. She started that trial with the same frosty attitude until the second day, when she burst in uncontrollable tears while on the stand. "It was a moment of honesty that may have added to the fact that her sentence was reduced," concluded Babel.

That morning she had found the cold body of her baby in the crib. The autopsy revealed that his ribs had been fractured, and that he had also received violent blows to the head.

"One morning in 1998, a 17-year-old woman walked into my office. She was pushing a pram, with a little blonde girl inside, and she was also heavily pregnant," recalled Hélène Strohmann – another lawyer from Nancy. The woman's boyfriend, whom Strohmann had defended a few years earlier, had been murdered before her eyes because of a drug deal that had gone awry. "The woman was a drug addict too and social services were threatening to take her children and place them under state custody. While we fought for that, she fell in love with another man. She was seven months into her pregnancy at the time."

A few weeks after the birth of the child, Strohman was called to the Nancy police station to find out that the young woman had been arrested under the suspicion of infanticide. Apparently, that morning she had found the cold body of her baby in the crib. The autopsy revealed that his ribs had been fractured, and that he had also received violent blows to the head.

"I had known her for several years by that time and could not imagine she was capable of that kind of thing. Neither her or her partner ever sought to blame the other and they both maintained they had no idea how this had happened. Of course, everyone in her neighbourhood put the blame on her. At the end, the court of Meurthe-et-Moselle sentenced her to 14 years in prison, but acquitted her boyfriend. I will always remember her putting on her coat after the verdict was announced," Strohmann recalled.

An appeal trial was later held in Saint-Dié des Vosges, the deliberations for which went on till 2AM. In the end, the young mother was acquitted. "It's a fair decision from a legal point of view, but unjust in human terms because we still don't know how that child died," said Strohmann. "The story of this young woman really had an effect on me because she had such a hard life. It's as if she was never given a choice. I was her lawyer twice: Once, she was the victim – she saw the father of her children get killed before her eyes. Then she was the defendant, suspected of having killed her baby," she resumed. "It's the kind of case you can't leave unscathed."

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