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Trial and Error

by DoDo Sat May 19th, 2007 at 07:52:04 AM EST

The by far worst single case of common crime (apart from a few mafia showdowns) in post-'communist' Central Europe was the Massacre of Mór. At midday on 8 May 2002, bank robbers at the Erste Bank local office in Hungarian town Mór decided to leave no witnesses: they executed the security guard, then hunted down the four employees, and then the three customers one-by-one: altogether eight murders.

The perpetrators could leave the scene unnoticed. Strangely, without most of the money. Police set everything on finding the culprits of this unprecedented crime.

But they arrested the wrong guys.

Twice.

What follows is intended as a case study into the fallibility of law enforcement.


For scale: though from the media, films, and stories of mafia showdowns in the region, Westerners may carry a picture of all the former Eastern Bloc as a New Chicago; in truth, the rate of violent crime in Central Europe is still only catching up with Western Europe. Up until the Massacre of Mór, there has been one single death in a bank robbery in post-changes Hungary.

The first suspects

Police had a difficult job: the bank robbers left little usable evidence, and all witnesses were executed inside. On the other hand, one accomplice stood at the entrance door, pretending to be a security guard, and told arriving customers that the bank is temporarily closed. So phantom pictures were prepared:

Since such a crime must have been the work of 'experienced' hands, police was justified to look through the register of usual suspects. Within two hours, they put out a wanted notice for two: Róbert Farkas (below left) and Szilárd Horváth (right), two robbers from the same gang who were sentenced in earlier crimes but were hiding from justice.

Five days later, Horváth ended his two-year disappearance, turned himself in to police to begin his prison term for the prior sentence, but claimed he has nothing to do with the slaughter in Mór. However, one turned-away customer recognised him as the fake security guard.

But Horváth denied the crime steadfastly, there was news of an alibi held secret, and some started to argue against his guilt from another direction: profile. The arrested was a professional criminal, but without 'experience' in killing, not someone who would be capable of such cold-blooded serial murder.

Police stopped accusing Horváth three days later, but kept searching for Farkas. (He wasn't found to this day: he was probably killed long ago by a former accomplice in an unrelated crime.)

The second suspects

Then, two months later, came a big turnaround in the case: László Hajdú, a veteran of the famous/infamous French Légion étrangère was arrested for the crime, and a little later also an accomplice of him, Ede Kaiser. Police was said to have been on their trail for some time, but didn't tell the public so that the two feel themselves secure.

Now these two were real dangerous criminals. Both had a history of violent crime, together, they committed at least five armed robberies before.

The profile fitted, and Kaiser had no good alibi. He claimed that he was busy preparing the robbery of a money transport at the time, which he committed just five days after the massacre -- but there was no evidence that he took part in that attack, or even if he did, it could have been an alibi-getting action. His girlfriend's family claimed that he was with them at the time of the massacre, but they weren't believed. Hajdú, the suspect for actually firing the shots, was taped in his cell while talking about a Scorpio machine gun, and about "those heads, eight in number, shouldn't have reached for the telephone, or the button, but when it's 'give me the money!', then give the money!".

However, the weapon wasn't found, no DNA sample matched, and with both suspects refusing to confess the Massacre of Mór while admitting all other crimes, the case rested on the collection of extensive indirect evidence.

The two were put on trial in 2004. Under scrunity, the prosecution's case narrowed. Hajdú seemed to have a sound alibi: someone who wanted to purchase his house testified about a cell phone call in Budapest just at the time of the bank robbery -- but he was still a suspect for getting the guns. Focus shifted from Hajdú to Kaiser: his involvement seemed ever more certain.

The evidence that led to the two in the first place was the testimony of a second former accomplice of Kaiser (who, even while sent to prison for other robberies, received the c. €80,000 promised by police for a lead). He testified that Kaiser told him about plans to rob that bank in Mór two years earlier, and that Kaiser knew the place because he had a girlfriend there. This guy also said that before the massacre, Kaiser told that his money problems "will soon be resolved, but someone has to die for that"; and after the massacre in Mór, Kaiser turned up with lots of money, snorted cocaine, and talked about killing Hajdú.

Furthermore, four turned-away bank customers recognised Kaiser as the fake security guard.

Still, some problems remained. Some of the four witnesses originally didn't recognise the fake security guard in Kaiser -- but they changed their opinion later. Though the witnesses saw the fake security guard opening and closing the door multiple times, no fingerprints of Kaiser were found -- but he may have wiped them off. Kaiser's cell phone was used 80 km away in Budapest when the attack took place -- but he could have given it to his girlfriend.

At another level, the fake security guard doesn't make sense if a professional criminal like Kaiser truly doesn't plan to leave behind witnesses. Nor would such pros have left behind most of the money.

But under the weight of indirect evidence, Ede Kaiser was sentenced to life inprisonment, and that ruling became legally binding on second instance on 25 October 2005. The trial of his accomplice was at least ordered to be repeated.

A year later, Ede Kaiser's girlfriend, ex-girlfriend and the former's parents were indicted for bearing false witness, in claiming meetings with Kaiser as alibi. According to prosecution, the time of one alleged meeting was too close, the place too far from where Kaiser's cell phone was used on the day of the massacre.

Meanwhile, in Hajdú's retrial, one of the fledging conspiracy theories got airing: two witnesses from prison claimed that the massacre was in truth the work of the Russian maffia, whose true goal was to shoot apart the bank's server: to eliminate evidence of some money washing... but they had zero evidence.

The third suspects

In July 2003, a postman was murdered in Veszprém, which is near Mór. In the next two years, there were five more post robberies in the region. The robber was very circumspect, and changed his appearance (hair, clothes) each time, so investigation progressed slowly. According to profiling, the robber-murderer was a past member of some armed forces, and is a gun-lover rather than a classic 'professional' criminal.

Then in November last year, someone walking in the woods accidentally discovered an arms cache, and some empty cases. Testing in January revealed that one of the two guns the latter were fired from was used in the murder of the postman -- and the other in the Massacre of Mór!

Police still didn't think that the users of the guns were the same in both crimes, only that the post murderer's and Ede Kaiser's arms dealer was identical.

Then, in February, after receiving tips from the population and focusing on the city near where the arms cache was found, police managed to reduce their circle of likely perpetrators to one, and a certain László N. and his assumed accomplice Róbert W. was nabbed. The same night, N. confessed not only to the post robberies, but to taking part in the Mór action. He claimed that they were three: he was waiting in a car, W. was the fake security guard, and the murders were the work of the third, unidentified guy, who was such a madman that they were very afraid of him. He also showed where the long-sought guns are hidden: in his flat.

Róbert W., father of three, also confessed. He said that they were only two, and that László N. was the madman, who blackmailed and terrorised him, and N. was the killer. Later he admitted that he shot at the security guard. (From then on, the lie detector showed him to tell the truth.)

W. also claimed that the murders were unplanned -- that explains the unprofessional application of the fake security guard. The postman killer profile also explains why the Mór robbers were stupid enough to leave most of the money in the safes.

The confessing duo also told that after fleeing the scene, they were stopped by police for speeding, but then left to go...

Yesterday [Thursday the 17h], the arms dealer who sold the murder weapons was also arrested.

Morale of the story

I want to emphasize that this is not the case where one should apply stereotypes of weak 'Eastern' justice: this high-profile case employed the best and the brightest, including graduates of the FBI academy or German police academies, what's more American FBI instructors themselves from the first hour, and judges who presided over some of the most serious cases before.

This wasn't an obscure case, but one in full attention of the media. Yet it was a difficult case, with a trial under maximum security measures, that didn't allow any participant to play a celebrity. Nor was this a case (apart from a tangential issue, see next paragraph) one involving anti-Gypsy prejudices, or the protection of someone's interests, or a conspiracy.

What's more, the dogged search for evidence wasn't entirely unsuccessful: dozens of smaller criminals were netted in the process, and a number of previously unsolved crimes committed by Szilárd Horváth or Ede Kaiser were cleared up. (One ironic moment was that Róbert Farkas, Horváth's missing accomplice, was identified with 100% certainty by a witness of another armed robbery that involved shooting at a guard -- yet it turned out that this was an action by Kaiser's gang, with Kaiser admitting to have been the mis-identified shooter himself. Farkas was a rather dark-skinned Gypsy, Kaiser is pale white and probably of German descent.)

What the prosecution and police did, and what the jury didn't stop, was a fairly everyday mis-application of reason, one connected to what most people erroneously understand under 'proof'.

The thing is that you can 'prove' almost everything if you doggedly search for refinements to your hypothesis. In effect, you fit the theory around the evidence. In contrast, in science, the goal is (ideally) to test hypotheses by checking how well they predict new evidence, and to run rival hypotheses against each other.

Even scientists all too often fail at this (I guess some here would say: most or all of the time), so what to expect of policemen and lawyers.

Faith in the work of the justice system is supposed to be basic to liberal democracy, but I have a fundamental lack of it -- though I do believe that it is better than vigilante justice.

While many won't follow me there, it is at least worth to think about this hypothetical: what if Ede Kaiser had been sentenced, as local public opinion would have had it, or as he certainly would have in the USA, to death.

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I note I haven't written down half the complications of this case. There were a lot of secondary suspects, theories mixing the three duos of primary suspects, conspiracy theories, and lots of squabbling about individual evidence. There was one eyewitness, who lost family members in the slaughter, who first gave a positive identification for Horváth, then Kaiser, while his original description fitted Róbert W.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Thu May 17th, 2007 at 05:12:55 PM EST
Thanks.
The thing is that you can 'prove' almost everything if you doggedly search for refinements to your hypothesis. In effect, you fit the theory around the evidence. In contrast, in science, the goal is (ideally) to test hypotheses by checking how well they predict new evidence, and to run rival hypotheses against each other.
Maybe this is an argument for adversarial rather than inquisitorial justice.

Bush is a symptom, not the disease.
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu May 17th, 2007 at 06:44:58 PM EST
It is more against both. The adversarial system still involves only two parties trying to defeat each other, where one side doesn't have the onus to create a full hypothesis. (I could imagine an inquisitorial justice with multiple clashing hypotheses.) Also, the problem goes back further than what lawyers do at court: what the investigating bodies do before trial.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Thu May 17th, 2007 at 06:50:53 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Adversarial law tends to turn into legalism, theatre, grand-standing and - if there's a jury - (legal) jury-rigging.

Most people - and that includes most lawyers and judges, never mind the public - don't understand enough about scientific evidence to be able to assess it objectively. They also don't understand statistics. Tell someone there's a 100,000:1 chance of a DNA match, and they'll assume this is absolute proof of guilt, even though in a big city there will be 10-100 people equally likely to provide a match.

But I'm not sure you can apply the scientific method to law anyway. If you have a collection of evidence, it's hard to see how can you turn it into a hypothesis and then a firm prediction that will lead to a crime being solved.

Effectively a trial is a hypothesis - that a suspect is guilty. But it's not a prediction, except in the rather useless sense that you assume that if someone is imprisoned, a certain series of crimes will end.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Thu May 17th, 2007 at 08:57:29 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Can I possibly convince you to cross-post this to my site?  Like everything you write, it would be a fantastic addition.

The Crolian Progressive: as great an adventure as ever I heard of...
by Nonpartisan on Thu May 17th, 2007 at 11:35:56 PM EST
Kayser Soze is still running...

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes
by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Fri May 18th, 2007 at 10:18:59 AM EST
Dude, I thought you were Kayser Soze.
by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Fri May 18th, 2007 at 10:30:43 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Wondered who first makes the connection...

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Fri May 18th, 2007 at 12:49:41 PM EST
[ Parent ]
it is at least worth to think about what if Ede Kaiser had been sentenced, as public opinion would have had it, or as he certainly would have in the USA, to death.

It is not clear that he certainly would have been sentenced to death in the US. Location, judge, defence council all would come into play.

The following states do not have a death penalty: Alaska, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Dist. of Columbia

http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/state/

Part of what moved Canada towards abolition was a series of high-profile convictions for murder that were overturned. A common component of the cases was the police were convinced they had the killer, and where necessary created a case to fit.


aspiring to genteel poverty

by edwin (eeeeeeee222222rrrrreeeeeaaaaadddddd@@@@yyyyaaaaaaa) on Fri May 18th, 2007 at 11:45:38 AM EST
but the feds can still try and execute people on federal chartges from those states. the practice has been increasing since bush took office, and was part of some of the recent us attorney firings, IIRC.
by wu ming on Sun May 20th, 2007 at 05:18:17 AM EST
[ Parent ]
While many won't follow me there, it is at least worth to think about what if Ede Kaiser had been sentenced, as public opinion would have had it, or as he certainly would have in the USA, to death.

Which is the fundamental reason you just can't have capital punishment.

Peak oil is not an energy crisis. It is a liquid fuel crisis.
by Starvid on Fri May 18th, 2007 at 02:38:31 PM EST
That was a very interesting read.

Thanks.

"When the abyss stares at me, it wets its pants." Brian Hopkins

by EricC on Sat May 19th, 2007 at 12:40:31 PM EST


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