Highest French Court Rules Killer of Jewish Woman Cannot Stand Trial
To the alarm of Jewish leaders, Sarah Halimi’s killer will go unpunished because of his mental state, brought on by cannabis, at the time of the crime.,
PARIS — The highest court in France has ruled that the man who killed a Jewish woman in 2017 in an anti-Semitic frenzy cannot stand trial because he was in a state of acute mental delirium brought on by his consumption of cannabis.
Kobili Traore, who has admitted to the killing and is in a psychiatric institution, beat Sarah Halimi, 65, before throwing her out the window of her Paris apartment to cries of “Allahu akbar,” or God is great, and “I killed the devil.”
Mr. Traore, who was 27 at the time, had been troubled by Ms. Halimi’s mezuza, which “amplified the frantic outburst of hate,” according to one psychiatric report.
The verdict, more than four years after the killing, ended judicial proceedings in France for the case. The verdict came after a lower-court ruling rejected a trial, and the Halimi family appealed. President Emmanuel Macron made an unusual personal intervention by calling for the case to have its day in court. Outrage in the large French Jewish community has accompanied the long failure to try Mr. Traore.
Francis Kalifat, the president of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France, said, “From now on in our country, we can torture and kill Jews with complete impunity.”
Francis Szpiner, a lawyer for Ms. Halimi’s children, said it was “troubling and unjust” that the law fails to take account of “the origin of the mental state” behind the crime — in this case, Mr. Traore’s drug use.
The highest court, known as the Court of Cassation, does not re-litigate the facts of a case. It only verifies that lower courts have correctly applied the law.
In its ruling, the court noted that under French law, “a person is not criminally responsible if suffering, at the time of the event, from psychic or neuropsychic disturbance that has eliminated all discernment or control” over the acts.
The court said the law, as currently written, does not distinguish between the reasons for that person’s condition. Even someone who, like Mr. Traore, enters a delirious state because of voluntary drug use cannot be tried.
“The judge cannot distinguish where the legislator has chosen not to make a distinction,” the court said in a statement.
But Emmanuel Piwnica, another lawyer for the Halimi family, argued that the law was aimed at psychiatric disturbance, “not the consumption of narcotics or alcohol.” Judges should recognize, she said, that “the use of narcotics cannot be the basis for arguing penal irresponsibility.” Or, in other words, being high is no basis for a plea of insanity.
Mr. Traore, a neighbor of Ms. Halimi, was an immigrant from Mali. He was a drug dealer and a heavy pot smoker, the criminal investigation found. He pushed Ms. Halimi, a retired physician and mother of three, from a third-floor window in the Belleville district of Paris. It remains unclear whether she was already dead from his brutal beating.
French prosecutors initially hesitated to call the crime anti-Semitic, another source of anger in a Jewish community used to circumlocutions when it comes to crimes against them.
Almost a year after Ms. Halimi was killed, a Holocaust survivor, Mireille Knoll was stabbed to death in her Paris apartment in what the prosecutor’s office called a killing tied to the “victim’s membership, real or supposed, of a particular religion.” In this case, the nature of the killing — a hate crime — was quickly recognized.
French Jews have been repeatedly targeted by jihadists over the past decade. In 2012, an Islamist gunman, Mohammed Merah, shot dead three children and a teacher at a Jewish school in the southern city of Toulouse. In 2015, Amedy Coulibaly identified customers as Jews at a kosher Paris supermarket before killing four of them. He declared he was murdering the people he hated most in the world: “the Jews and the French.”
Mr. Macron, sensitive to anger in the Jewish community at lone-wolf explanations of the violence, and at hesitation in some French media to use the words “anti-Semitic” in describing the crimes, said in January last year that the Halimi case “needs a trial.” He was widely rebuked for failing to respect the independence of the justice system.
Criticism has mounted over the law that has allowed Mr. Traore to avoid trial. “It is possible to consider that the current law is unsatisfactory,” said Sandrine Zientara, one of the public prosecutors in the case. “Its application has led here to complete impunity.”
The outcome in the Halimi case, she said, had been met by “a great deal of incomprehension.”
Dozens of senators, reacting to the case, have proposed a revision of the law to the effect that psychic disturbance cannot exonerate someone whose troubled mental state is induced by a narcotic.
Of three psychiatric reports on Mr. Traore, two said he could not appear in court because his capacity for discernment at the time of the crime had been “eliminated” by his delirious mental state. The third, by Daniel Zagury, said his mental state had only been “altered” and so he could be tried.
“The crime of Mr. Traore is a frenzied, anti-Semitic act,” Mr. Zagury wrote.
Shimon Samuels, the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s director for international relations, called the verdict a “devastating blow,” which, he argued, “potentially creates a precedent for all hate criminals to simply claim insanity or decide to smoke, snort or inject drugs or even get drunk before committing their crimes.”