Talked Into Murder: ECtHR Appeal in Case of Intellectually Disabled Man

The Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights (HFHR) has filed an application to the European Court of Human Rights regarding the case of P.M., a Polish man with an intellectual disability who was sentenced to 25 years in prison for a double murder.
The case could set a legal precedent in Poland because of the issues it addresses related to the treatment of people with disabilities who face criminal charges.

Perpetrator by accident

Polish law enforcement authorities showed an interest in P.M. by accident. During an informal conversation with police officers, he confessed to having committed a murder. Despite this, he was first interviewed as a witness, and only later as a suspect.

It was at this stage that he was instructed about his rights, including the right to refuse to testify. Although a defense attorney was designated quite quickly (after five days), P.M.'s first conversation with his attorney took place three months after he was detained.

"This poses a serious question about the system of free legal aid," Marcin Wolny, a lawyer for HFHR, says.

In this case, however, the question raising the most doubt is whether court records are genuine and accurately record P.M.'s statements. It is questionable because the records are full of compound sentences, sophisticated vocabulary and metaphors – expressions that the man doesn’t use in everyday life owing to his intellectual disabled. Moreover, documents don’t draw a distinction between questions asked by police officers and answers of the suspect.

What's more, no information provided solely by P.M. has been corroborated by collected evidence. According to court experts, the pieces of evidence collected at the crime scene (e.g., a bloody fingerprint) did not belong to P.M. Testimonies by police officers suggest that they persuaded P.M. that they had a lot of evidence against him. They also indicated that the man "after a probable sequence of events presented to him, confirmed his involvement."

Questions of fairness

"This case should lead to questions about the thoroughness of legal authorities in interviewing persons with intellectual disabilities," says Wolny. "In our opinion, as law enforcement knew the suspect might have been a person with an intellectual disability, the investigating authorities should have provided the suspect with access to a defense attorney and ensured the recording of procedures he participated in. Since they did not do so, a question arises about the fairness of the proceedings in P.M.'s case."

The situation persuaded the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights to submit, on P.M.’s behalf, an individual application to the European Court of Human Rights. The application alleges that Poland violated Article 6 (2) and Article 6 (3)(c) of the European Convention on Human Rights, which covers the prohibition of self-incrimination and the right to access to legal aid. These shortcomings have resulted in unfair proceedings.