Power and stupidity

January 11, 2008

Suppose we follow the preliminary results for the election of the next president of the US. Suppose we hope that this time not a person of the same type as president George W. Bush will come out of all this. What can we do? Very little of course!

Now we follow the democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. As usual, the democratic candidates are infinitely more interesting than the republican candidates. So now we can choose (for the democrats) between a woman and a (half-)black person. For the first time in history! Wow!

It is true that Barack Obama uses the word “change” very much. It is also true that the presidency of George W. Bush makes one crave for change, so in that sense he is of course right on target. But how are these two on the scale from stupidity to “lucidity”? Hard to judge! Having brains might be a disadvantage for a candidate for presidency. A person with brains might do something unexpected. The American voters might find it safer to vote for an old predictable candidate who will probably continue to ruin America and the rest of the world, in spite of the fact that (for example) Barack Obama is a brilliant speaker and possesses “charisma”.

Since May last year I am fighting Dutch lawyers in an attempt to get a reopening of the Lucia de Berk case. Never have I experienced so much the powerlessness of individuals against a closed and totalitarian system of people who try to defend their own name, no matter what it costs. In surrounding countries there are still laymen judges, juries, etc. In the Netherlands there is nothing similar, lawyers are in total, uncontrollable, power of what happens in law cases.

In the Schiedam Park murder, see Miscarriage of justice, another person than the convicted one confessed having committed the crime. This was an occasion where the lawyers could not escape from releasing the convicted person from prison. In the Lucia de Berk case there were probably no murders, so there is not someone other than Lucia de Berk who can confess. This gives the Dutch lawyers the opportunity to leave her in prison. One also gets the impression that this is what they want to do to prevent further embarrassment after the disastrous treatment of the Schiedam Park murder. There is an endless postponing of further action in this case. In the mean time even a committee of lawyers (the “Grimbergen committee”) has advised a reopening of the case; however, the “advocate general” of the Supreme Court has introduced another intermediate step before this advice will finally be considered by the Supreme Court in the Netherlands. This may mean that another year may go by: the Grimbergen committee already took a whole year to finish its report. Lucia de Berk has been in prison now for 7 years and still has a life sentence.

This week I was confronted with an article in the journal for Dutch lawyers, entitled: “An academic public lynching: the advertisement in connection with the Lucia de Berk case”. The word “public lynching” is closest (in intention) to the Dutch word “volksgericht”, used by the author of this article, the lawyer Prof. Mr. G.E. van Maanen. So van Maanen tries to argue that the poor Dutch lawyers are victims of a bunch of unreasonable scientists, who signed the petition for reopening of the Lucia de Berk case, and who are out “for the blood” of the Dutch lawyers. From his article it is completely clear that he has no knowledge whatsoever of the case, but his “argument” is: the persons who signed the petition which led to the advertisement in the Dutch newspaper did not have access to all the files connected with the case and should therefore keep their mouths shut. The signing of the petition is endangering the stability of Dutch society and the trust in the Dutch legal system!

Among the people who signed the petition are many scientists from abroad, but this is of no concern to the Dutch lawyers. Also, it is clear from comments made by the people signing the petition (over 1250 now, see: Petition for reopening the Lucia de Berk case) that they actually studied the verdict, something van Maanen clearly did not do.

Professor Gerard ‘t Hooft , Nobel prize winner physics and one of the many scientists who signed the petition, states for example: “That the Court pretends not to have used arguments of a statistical nature is contradicted by the wording of the verdict itself”. So he actually studied the verdict. I also studied the verdict and analyze it in The Lucia de Berk case, part 2. The statement that the verdict does not use arguments of a statistical nature, also issued to the Dutch newspapers, is simply a lie.

Moreover, a number of people who have initiated the petition, together with Richard Gill who finally took it on him to start the Petition for reopening the Lucia de Berk case on internet, and who are among the people who signed the petition, have in fact read all the files connected with the case, in particular the medical files. On the other hand, during the trial only a biased summary of the medical files was shown to the consulted experts. One of these consulted medical experts even wrote a letter to the president of the Court, complaining about the fact that only a selection from the medical files was presented to her during a session of the court, a selection which moreover later turned out to contain incorrect information, as was publicly revealed in 2006. So van Maanen’s accusation that the people who signed the petition did not know the files is totally beside the mark; the people who initiated the petition read all the files, but also have additional information. They made their conclusions public, and these publicly available facts, together with the publicly available verdict, made people sign the petition.

Somewhat amusingly, professor Ybo Buruma, who supervises the commission for evaluation of closed cases CEAS, a (much) weak(er) version of the British Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRS, see the references below), states in a monthly for the Dutch prosecution officers which has the remarkable title “Opportune”, see Opportuun, that the commission CEAS continuously reasons from what is not in the files. So the Dutch lawyers Buruma and van Maanen seem to have a rather different view on what is really important: van Maanen states that non-lawyers should keep their mouths shut because they did not have access to all the files and Buruma states that it is very important that the commission CEAS reasons from what is not in the files.

Furthermore, professor Peter van Koppen states in the journal for the Dutch lawyers NJB that the scientists from abroad who signed the petition for reopening can base their “underbelly feeling” only on “disinformation which appeared in foreign journals”. With the latter he aims (I guess) for example at the rather prominent international journal Nature, where the misuse of statistics in the Lucia de Berk case was discussed, see Conviction by Numbers, Nature, January 2007. Prof. Peter van Koppen is a “law psychologist”, just as his colleague Prof. Henk Elffers, who spoke the by now famous words: “Honoured court, this is not a coincidence. The rest is up to you”, and who was the “statistician”, consulted by the court; for more information on his role in the Lucia de Berk case, see, e.g., The Lucia de Berk case, part 2. But in their signing of the petition these scientists from abroad were actually also fighting against both power (the monopoly lawyers have in the Netherlands) and stupidity.

We have a village in the Netherlands, called “Staphorst” (for information on this village, see, e.g., Staphorst; Staphorst and other similar areas in Holland are classified as risk areas by the World Health Organization, the only such areas in Europe), where people not belonging to the village were spit upon and subjected to other types of degrading behavior. Also, if a man and a woman who were not properly married (to the “other party”) had “done it” and had been caught in the act (or something close to it, I guess), they were run around in a cart through the village. This is the real meaning of the Dutch expression “volksgericht”. This is also exactly the right word for the way Lucia de Berk has been treated by the hospital where she was employed and, subsequently, for the way she has been treated by the Dutch lawyers. The last “volksgericht” in Staphorst was in 1961. Dutch Professors of Law Psychology like van Koppen seem to want to make the Netherlands the “Staphorst of the world”. It is all extremely depressing.

References: for readers who can read Dutch: van Maanen’s contribution to the Dutch Journal for lawyers: (NJB) is: van Maanen (in the issue of NJB of January 4, 2008), and van Koppen’s continuation on van Maanen’s reaction is given in: van Koppen (in the issue of NJB of January 11, 2008). Harald Kunst wrote a letter to the journal NJB, which first had “not been received”, and next has been rejected for publication, since the NJB “closed the discussion”. Since I think that his reaction is completely to the point, it is given here (in Dutch): de volksrechter (reference added January 25, 2008).

In an interesting article in the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant, of January 19, 2008, Innocent behind bars by Menno van Dongen, one can read that presently England is far ahead of the Netherlands in giving the oppurtunity to reopen a law case. Since 1997 about 400 cases have been reopened by the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRS). These were cases dealing with serious criminal accusations: murder, rape, violence and drug dealing.
In comparison, in the Netherlands one has only been willing to reopen three such cases since 1997, one of which is the Schiedam Park murder, see Miscarriage of justice, where another person than the convicted one confessed (see above). Not counting the Schiedam Park murder, we even only have two such cases in the Netherlands since 1997!

Nevertheless, the head of the Dutch prosecution officers, Mr. Harm Brouwer, has stated that he is not in favor of a commission, comparable to the Criminal Cases Review Commission in the Netherlands: “it does not fit in the Dutch system of law”. I guess he fears loss of power, a fear (apparently) shared by the Ministry of Justice, which is also not in favor of a commission of this type. In an interesting addition to this article: “In 70 % of the cases the judge revokes the verdict”, one can read that in 70 % of the cases the original verdict is declared non-valid. It is mentioned in this article that CCRC has 103 employees, of which 11 are “Commissionars”, appointed by the queen, and that CCRC has a budget of about 10 million Euros per year. How long will it take before the Netherlands will have something similar?

The petition for reopening the Lucia de Berk can still be signed, see: Petition for reopening the Lucia de Berk case.