Greek police charged with murder of teenager deserve fair and impartial trial

Dimitrios Ioannidis [President, Hellenic Bar Association and counsel to the Consulate General of Greece in Boston]: "On December 6, 2008, a member of the elite Greek police forces shot and killed 15 year old Alexis Grigoropoulos in the Exarchia section of Athens. Eyewitnesses to the incident described a group of young adults throwing stones at the police officers involved in the shooting until one of the officers allegedly pointed his gun and shot Alexis. The officers testified in preliminary proceedings that the officer fired his gun up in the air but the bullet ricocheted and struck Alexis, a scenario that is allegedly supported by the ballistic report that concluded that the bullet struck a foreign object before it reached Alexis.

The killing of the youngster sparked public outrage that escalated to unprecedented riots in the center of Athens ravishing the business district and the surrounding public buildings and infrastructure. While the incident appears to be one of the worse moments for the Greek Police forces, the widespread looting and destruction bestowed a sense of paralysis of the central government given its inability to restore law and order for several days.

On June 12, 2009, the Council of Magistrate Judges in Athens charged the police officer who shot Alexis with premeditated murder, and also charged his partner as an accomplice to murder, sending the case to the Criminal Court of Felonies for the scheduling of the trial. The decision extends the order of temporary custody of the two officers until the time of trial, effectively foreclosing the possibility of bail under any circumstances. Even if the prosecution is ultimately able to sustain its burden in proving that the officers committed murder, the public outcry following the December 6, 2008 killing of Alexis will play a role as to whether or not the officers will have a fair trial. The two officers must face that reality as the verdict has already been rendered by the court of public opinion regardless of how liberal the Greek judiciary is in protecting individual rights. For a case that nearly toppled the Greek government and brought the entire system of the central authority into chaos, a not guilty verdict may prompt even more civic unrest with far reaching political consequences.

What complicates matters even more is the fact that the case will likely be tried twice. Under the Greek legal system the first trial takes place at the Court of First Instance and if either party appeals, a second trial is held at the appellate level but on a de novo basis; that is, the Court of Appeals of Greece will hear all the evidence again and determine the facts of the case in rendering its verdict without consideration of the lower court disposition. This will force the family of the victim, the accused and everyone involved in the case to go through the rigors of a trial twice when such deep emotions can easily translate into rioting given the sensitivity of the general public in Greece to this case. Many also fear that key witnesses will not testify at the first trial given the de novo nature of the trial at the appellate level and they suggest that this factor hinders the orderly administration of justice.

While there have been similar cases in the US when excessive force by the police led to riots and looting, the US system is based on jury trials and the notion that a change of venue may be appropriate in cases where the impartiality of the jury may come into question. That will not be the case for the two officers as they go through the trial, as Greece does not have an all jury trial system and a change of venue in not practical given the publicity of the case throughout Greece. One can only hope that the impartiality of the Greek judges will safeguard the officers' right to a fair trial and allow the trial process to proceed free from political interference and public sentiment; which demands justice for the death of the 15 year old boy. While all of us are deeply troubled by incidents of police brutality and the death of innocent people, this case will challenge the impartiality of the Greek legal system in adjudicating cases with great social consequences; yet, neither the need for justice nor the overwhelming public pressure must overshadow the right to a fair trial for the two officers."

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