A Tragedy of Errors

by Gergely Fahidi
27 July 2005

A Hungarian father and son have had their convictions for murder lifted in a case that shows how police and courts can mishandle Romani defendants. But the acquittal may yet be reversed.

Like the Pusoma case, the Burka case is likely to enter the law-school curriculum in Hungary. Here is an illustration of how the quick arrest of Romani "perpetrators" can send an investigation and a trial onto the wrong track, not to mention ruining the lives of families. Overturning an earlier ruling, the Hajdu-Bihar County Court on 6 July acquitted Ferenc Burka Sr. and Ferenc Burka Jr. of murder for gain, due to a lack of evidence. The verdict was appealed by the prosecution, so it is possible that the father and son will be found guilty in the end.

Denes Pusoma, an uneducated, simple Romani boy from the village of Ivad, was charged in March 1994 with murdering an elderly woman; the key piece of evidence against him was his identification by police dogs. Defended by a not very efficient appointed counsel, the young man was found guilty a year later, partly based on the provocation of a cellmate who spied on him, and sentenced to six years in prison. A year after that, police arrested the real perpetrator, but Pusoma was released from prison only three months later, having spent a total of 26 months there - innocently. He sued for 2.6 million forints [now about $13,000] in compensation, but before that case came to an end, he committed suicide. The only positive result of his tragedy was that the case led the Constitutional Court to annul several parts of the law on criminal procedure.

The case of the Burka family looks conspicuously like Pusoma's. The police were also led to them by police dogs, the key statement against them also came from a police informant (though it was later retracted); and the police ignored information that implicated a local power-broker in the murder. Without knowing the final verdict, it is already can be stated that the police officers, prosecutors, and judges dealing with the case have made serious professional mistakes, and they are responsible for the two Romani men spending an unacceptably long time, almost six years, in detention. If their acquittal becomes legally binding - the final verdict is expected no earlier than the autumn - their six years' imprisonment is clearly scandalous.

The story started in the pub in the village of Ujszentmargita on 4 March 1999. The impoverished, but "Hungarian," victim used his fresh state welfare payment to play the slot machines - and he won twice in a row. He left the pub to go home, or more precisely to the place he was house-sitting. The two Burkas, both with previous convictions, stayed in the pub for an hour longer. According to the prosecution, they first went home to put on some rubber boots, then broke into the house guarded by the victim, beat him to death, and took the antenna from the roof. The charges were flimsy to begin with: for instance, there was no explanation why the perpetrators, who, according to investigators spent almost an hour at the scene, wasted time getting the antenna instead of taking the more easily transportable valuables from the house - they even left some cash on the table. However, there were circumstances fitting the stereotype of a "typical Roma crime." For instance, according to investigators, it was revealing that Burka Jr.'s wife washed his clothes just at that time (although no traces of blood were found on them), and that a neighbor claimed to have smelled burning rubber, perhaps indicating that the perpetrators were getting rid of their boots.

Two committed lawyers, whose fees were paid in part by the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, defended the two Burkas: Laszlo Zeke and Peter Margitics, the latter having some experience as a prosecutor and also having worked on the most notorious Hungarian "mafia case," against a Ukrainian criminal Leonid Stecura. The lawyers appealed the extremely strict first verdict, reached on 29 March 2002, where the father was sentenced to 15 years in prison, his son to 13 years, and their wives received suspended prison sentences for complicity. Following the appeal, on 2 September 2003, the High Court of Appeal in Szeged annulled the previous verdict as "unsubstantiated and unsuitable for substantial revision" and ordered a new trial. This led to the defendants' acquittal in Hajdu-Bihar County Court.

Now the prosecution itself will appeal, taking the case to the next level - not to the High Court of Appeal in Szeged as before, but to the newly formed High Court of Appeal in Debrecen [in whose jurisdiction Ujszentmargita lies]. It is interesting to note that the chief county prosecutor who indicted the Burkas, Kalman Nagy, has since become the head of the Debrecen Appeals Prosecution Office, and the prosecutor in court during the first verdict, Istvan Toth, has also since been promoted to work for the same office. Furthermore, the judge who found the men guilty in the first instance has since joined the new High Court of Appeal in Debrecen [which began work in January 2005.]

In the course of the retrial, it came to light that two men - not Roma - had earlier contacted police headquarters in Debrecen claiming that a local potentate had committed the murder, not the two Burkas. "There was no officially recorded statement that I was heard by police or of my testimony as a witness," one of the men complained on 11 February 2004 at Budapest police headquarters, where he repeated the statement which had been set aside in Debrecen. According to this man, the real perpetrator, Laszlo T., "is on friendly terms with the investigators in the case; he feeds them and they go hunting together. He also has high contacts among the prosecutors involved; he does the [compulsory] technical inspection on the cars of some of the heads [of the prosecution office]." There is, then, one more lead to pursue, not only because of the murder case, but because either the new informants have made a false accusation, or at least one Debrecen police officer is responsible for serious crimes. It is typical, though, that while witnesses against the Burka family were allowed to testify anonymously, the new witnesses against Laszlo T. were, despite the defence's request, identified by name by the prosecutor in the public hearing.

This article originally appeared in the Hungarian weekly HVG on 16 July 2005.

Translated by Judit Szakacs.