Palfreeman Trial in Bulgaria - Justice Impossible?
On a busy street corner in Sofia three years ago the lives of two families from Bulgaria and Australia were devastated after the murder of a young man. Can the court instill a sense of justice? By Milena Hristova
"You can hardly find pictures of Andrei, where he is not smiling," says Gabriela and her eyes fill with tears as she recollects the great times he and her best friend had together.
The happy and promising life of 20-year-old law student Andrei Monov was cut short brutally in the early hours of December 28, 2007 after he was fatally stabbed by young Australian Jock Palfreeman in a street brawl in the center of Bulgarian capital, Sofia. Another man, Antoan Zahariev, was wounded.
Palfreeman was convicted in December 2009 to twenty years in jail, a sentence that he and his parents appealed, slamming it as "hideous perversion of justice". The Australian argues that he intervened only to go to the aid of two Roma gypsies being beaten by the group of boys, part of which Andrei was.
More than a year later Gabriela is anxiously waiting the verdict of the appeals court, which is expected to be delivered within a month. Without the least trace of hesitation she sides with the parents of Andrei, who have launched an appeal of their own, demanding that Jock gets the heaviest sentence in Bulgaria – life without parole.
"He has to stay in jail for life. He is dangerous and he is going to do that again," says Gabriela.
"Jock stabbed Andrei in the back. You don't do that if you act in self-defence," agrees Nikola, who studied with Andrei at one of the most prestigious schools in Sofia.
Ever since the tragic incident Andrei's friends and family have been shying away from the media, barraged by what they have described as "the media performances" of the murderer and the one-sided coverage of the Australian media, who prefer to picture Jock as nothing but a victim of a judicial farce.
Following Wednesday's final hearing the family of the 24-year-old Australian says he is feeling both more optimistic and nervous about the outcome of the appeal process.
"We are optimistic that this court will consider the evidence in a different way. But paradoxically Jock is also more nervous. He feels this is his last chance to get a just verdict," Dr Simon Palfreeman, father of the defendant and a key member of his legal defence team, said outside the courtroom.
Asked whether he will continue to tenaciously defend his son in the Bulgarian legal system, Simon Palfreeman said he is ready to take the case to the Supreme Court of Cassation if the appeal verdict is not in his son's favour.
"A young man lost his life, but I want my son's life back. He deserves to have it back on the evidence that has been presented to the court."
The evidence however has been challenged by both sides.
Jock's appeal is built upon the discrepancies between the initial statements of the witnesses and the trial evidence, a faux pas, which he attributes to their efforts to cover up the initial clash with the Roma. He also wants his original murder conviction overturned on the grounds that the legal process was deeply flawed.
"Evidence confirms that Jock's motive was just to be a good Samaritan," Simon Palfreeman said as he presented his final deposition, the culmination of three years' work.
According to him the original court decision and the whole trial and case has been flawed and wrong, marred by procedural lapses, discrepancies in evidence and intentional oversights. He harshly criticized the police for failing to secure the crime scene, get CCTV footage and call in front of the judges all the important witnesses.
Dr Palfreeman pointed out that an independent witness has confirmed his son pulled out the knife only after he saw a group of men beating an unidentified Roma person for up to 40 seconds.
"Jock's version of events has been consistent throughout. But his fair trial has been significantly affected," the Newcastle pathologist said, giving an indication that the case may end up at the European Court for Human Rights.
In response to accusations by the victim's parents that Jock Palfreeman has shown no repentance, his father said he had "many sleepless nights" after he learned a man had died and has expressed sincere sorrow, but his apologies were rejected.
Small wonder. Andrei's family, friends and the prosecution see the case as a clear-cut crime and Jock as a cold blood, wanton murderer, who stabbed a promising and gentle young man unprovoked.
"This case is not about a Bulgarian being killed by an Australian. It is about one man taking the life of another," says Nikola.
"I can't say what his motivation has been. You should ask him," Gabriela fumes.
The deadly clash occurred while Jock was on holidays from his service with the British army and his physical fitness and superiority over the Bulgarian boys have often been cited by the prosecution as it built its case.
But it is the initial physical clash with the two unidentified Roma that is the major area of contention in the trial. The prosecution and Andrei's friends question the very existence of the Roma and cite the knife as the most incriminating evidence that Jock's intention was to kill.
The father of the 24-year-old Australian man has defended, though half-heartedly, his son by saying it is not illegal and not uncommon for people to carry knives in Bulgaria.
"Well, you should see the knife – it is huge and scary. This is not a knife you cut your bread with, but kill," says Gabriela and recollects how at one of the court hearings Jock even offered his services when the opening of the knife proved to be a difficult task for the lawyer.
"Palfreeman did not show, not even once, that he repents what he has done," she adds, echoing the words of Andrei's father, famous Bulgarian psychologist Hristo Monov.
That impression was just confirmed last Wednesday.
Jock made no comment as he entered the court flanked by a dozen prison police guards, but delivered an impassioned statement inside, though obviously nervous, angry and at times contemptuous.
"My motivation was to defend and protect. I never thought someone would die," the Former St Ignatius' Riverview College student told the court room.
"I wish the court could have seen the eyes of the attacking men," said Jock Palfreeman. "They attacked me like a pack of wolves. Several of them were throwing cement slabs at me and then running back for more, while others continued. It was a rolling, continuous attack."
Turning to the mother of the murdered Andrei, Jock conceded she is right that everybody has a family and the loss of a family member is a heavy blow.
"But why didn't they think of the families of the Roma and my family when they tried to smash my skull with concrete pavements?," an agitated Palfreeman asked.
He ridiculed the witnesses from the group for changing their testimonies and the report, which contains the first instance court's motives for his sentence, saying it does not make sense even in Bulgarian.
"I've not found a single person who can read and understand the report of the court."
The court is now facing an uphill battle – it has to deliver a just verdict despite the unclarities and discrepancies in the trial, shed its image of being ineffective, corrupt and prejudiced especially when the defendant is a foreigner.
Local lawyers have ruled out the possibility of Jock getting acquitted or sentenced to life without parole, killing the hopes for justice of both families on both sides of the world.
It was just one block from the courtroom, on a busy street corner in Sofia three years ago, that the lives of these families were devastated. The one of them will never get their son back, but will do all they can so that the memory of their son and this tragic night never fades.
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