Following the killing of a 19-year-old girl by a convicted murderer who was under home surveillance, Swiss newspapers on Thursday said the use of electronic tags for criminals needed to be re-examined.
“It is rare to see the judicial authorities admit a mistake,” began the editorial in Geneva’s Le Temps, under the headline, “the tragic admission”.
On Wednesday, Jean-François Meylan, canton Vaud’s top judge, spoke of a “wrong decision” at the beginning of a chain of events which led to the death of Marie, from Payerne in canton Vaud.
She went missing on Monday evening and her body was found in a wood in canton Fribourg in the early hours of Wednesday. It is still unclear how the murderer met his victim.
“With the death of Marie, [Meylan] had no choice but to publicly acknowledge an inadequate decision,” the paper said.
The 36-year-old offender, who has confessed to the murder and who led police to the body, has been serving a 20-year sentence for kidnapping and murdering his former girlfriend when he was 22.
Having completed two-thirds of his sentence, in the summer of 2012 he was eligible to apply to have the rest of his term commuted if he met a number of conditions. His request was refused, but in August 2012 he was allowed to finish his term at home, under surveillance.
Le Temps said that while the decision to move offenders from prison to house arrest was not in itself open to criticism – the paper said all specialists agreed that it is important to release offenders into society progressively – “more reprehensible was the fact that warning signs weren’t picked up on which ought to have made the authorities more cautious and consider temporary imprisonment”.
In November 2012, while under surveillance, the man reportedly made death threats against two work colleagues and left pornographic comments on an internet site that was accessible to minors.
He was sent back to prison, but he appealed and in January of this year was put under house arrest again. On March 26, a judge annulled the decision to lock the man up definitively, partly because a psychiatric report had judged in the man’s favour.
“Today, one has to admit that this decision was wrong,” said Jean-François Meylan on Wednesday. “But judges are only human.”
Le Temps acknowledged that the system had its limits and inevitable failures – “but the public is finding it increasingly difficult to accept such tragedies”.
“Scandal of justice”
“Marie could still be alive!” was the front page headline in the tabloid Blick, which talked of a “scandal of justice”.
“Once again the attempt to monitor a sex offender with electronic tags has failed. When will the authorities abandon this careless experiment?”
Questions were also raised at a press conference on Wednesday. “We need an explanation, at the least, for how a [convicted] sexual predator is found in a forest,” said Jacqueline de Quattro, minister for justice and police for canton Vaud.
Swiss federal law authorises cantons to use the electronic tags in a limited way: they function in an authorised area, and authorities check that the person is within that area.
They are not equipped with a GPS. The man in question was tracked mainly thanks to information provided early on in the investigation, including the licence plate number of his car.
Since 1999, cantons have been able to use ankle tags instead of keeping convicts behind bars. In the trial cantons – Bern, Solothurn, Ticino, Vaud, Geneva, Basel City and Basel Country – up to 400 people a year are monitored like this.
Lack of studies
“Electronic tags give a false sense of security,” warned the Tages-Anzeiger in Zurich, quoting Benjamin Brägger, a penal expert.
“The system can at best be used as a pedagogic management and control tool.”
A spokesman for the federal justice ministry said such the ankle tag system was only used on people who weren’t considered to pose a danger to the public, but Brägger wasn’t convinced.
“If convicts are no longer dangerous, they don’t need electronic tags,” he said.
Criminologist Martin Killias said electronic tags showed positive results for people handed short sentences but admitted there were no studies on their efficiency at the end of long sentences.