Hungarian Court Acquits Two Romani Men after 2100 Days in Prison

ERRC Secures Release after Wrongful Imprisonment for Murder

The Hajdú-Bihar County Court has acquitted at retrial two Romani men previously found guilty of murder. The two men, originally convicted on the basis of very weak evidence, had been sentenced to serve 15 and 13 years imprisonment respectively in 1999.

The facts of the case are as follows:

On 4 March 1999, a man was robbed and murdered in the village of Újszentmargita in northeastern Hungary. On the same evening and sometime before the incident, Mr. Ferenc Burka Jr. (28) and his father, Mr. Ferenc Burka Sr. (48), both Romani men, had a few drinks together in a local bar. On the following day, the two men were arrested and an investigation was initiated against them. Two witness testimonies were considered sufficient evidence for an indictment. The first was the bartender's witness statement, according to which the two Romani men had seen a large amount of money in the possession of the victim on that day. The second was the testimony of a villager who reportedly saw the two Romani men walking in the direction of the victim's house, where the murder took place.

The investigation produced solely circumstantial evidence. An officer of the local police department even stated during one of the court hearings, "I immediately thought of Ferenc Burka. It was intuition. I thought he was probably the perpetrator." During proceedings, the prosecutor stated that Ferenc Burka Jr. had burnt and buried the boots of his father, "a common perpetratoral behaviour of Gypsies when they commit a murder and robbery". However, no buried boots – destroyed or otherwise -- were actually found. The prosecutor took as evidence that a pair of boots had been burned and buried the fact that only one pair of boots was found in the house. Furthermore, the prosector described as "suspicious" the fact that, at the time of arrest, the Burkas had washed their clothes and hung them out to dry. During the investigation, police disregarded the fact that they discovered a red hair in victim's hand when they found the body and that the Burkas both have black hair.

On 2 April 2002, having been found guilty, the two men were sentenced to 15 and 13 years imprisonment. They began serving the sentences on 16 March 1999.

After lawyers engaged by the ERRC – Dr. László Zeke and Dr. Péter Margitics – appealed the decision, the case went to the Szeged Judicial Court in September 2003. This tribunal quashed the lower court judgment and ordered a retrial. In March 2005, in the repeated procedure, the two men were ordered released from custody but were placed under house arrest. They had, by that time, already spent exactly 2100 days in a penitentiary. In the meantime, other witnesses came forward who testified to their innocence. Witnesses also fingered another man, Mr. L.T., who reportedly stated that he was the actual perpetrator and had carried out the deed because he thought the victim had stolen some construction tools from him.

On 9 July 2005, on the basis of extensive argumentation indicating that the Burkas had been wrongly convicted, the Hajdú-Bihar County Court acquitted the two men. The prosecutor has appealed the decision and, therefore, the judgment is not yet legally binding. The proceedings confirm that racial animus continues to play a significant role in the Hungarian criminal justice system.

Dr. László Zeke represented Ferenc Burka Sr. and Dr. Péter Margitics, supported by the ERRC, represented Ferenc Burka Jr. For more information on the case, please contact ERRC Legal Monitor Dr. Rita Izsák at +36-1-413-2200 (rita.izsak@errc.org).

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