Lithuania: Drunk-drive child killer awaits court ruling over fair trial complaint

Tomorrow, an ex-traffic cop, who killed three 10 year old children whilst drunk-driving, will find out if judges back his human rights challenge against Lithuania.

The European Court of Human Rights’ judgement in the case Paulikas v. Lithuania (no. 57435/09) will be delivered on 24 January.

The applicant, Saulius Paulikas, is a Lithuanian national who was born in 1980 and lives in Skuodas (Lithuania). Paulikas worked as a traffic police officer, and the case concerns his conviction for drunk driving.

On the afternoon of 7 November 2007, three ten-year-old children were killed after being hit by a car in the village of Aleksandrija in the Skuodas region. The following morning, Paulikas turned himself in to police and confessed that he had been driving the car.

The accident attracted considerable media coverage, which linked it to allegations of there being an endemic problem of drunk police officers causing traffic accidents. The Police Commissioner General, the Minister of the Interior and several politicians made statements about the accident and the wider issue.

On 12 November 2007 the Police Commissioner General and the Minister of the Interior resigned. On the same day, after accepting their resignations, the President of Lithuania issued an official statement, referring to the events directly, and linking them to wider problems in the police force.

Paulikas was charged with a breach of road traffic regulations while being under the influence of alcohol which resulted in the death of other persons, and with a failure to provide assistance to persons in a life-threatening situation. He admitted that he had been driving the car but denied that he had been drunk or that he had exceeded the speed limit, claiming that the accident had been caused by the weather and the reckless actions of some of the children.

The significant media coverage continued throughout the trial, including articles in a number of publications referring to Paulikas as “a killer of children” and witnesses testifying for the defence as “defenders of the killer of children.”

The Klaipėda District Court found Paulikas guilty on both counts, holding that he had been under the influence of alcohol, driving at twice the speed limit, and that he had immediately fled the scene after the accident. He was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment, and ordered to pay a total of 3,000,000 Lithuanian Litai in damages to the families of the three children.

Paulikas appealed the conviction and sentence, claiming that his trial had been unfair due to the public statements made by state officials and the media campaign against him. He also complained that he had been given a stricter punishment because he had been a police officer.

The Klaipėda Regional Court rejected his complaint of an unfair trial but did reduce his sentence to nine years’ imprisonment, and the damages to 900,000 litai. Paulikas lodged a cassation appeal, but the Supreme Court dismissed this on 8 May 2009.

Relying on Article 6 § 1 (right to a fair hearing) and Article 6 § 2 (presumption of innocence), Paulikas complains that he did not receive a fair trial because of the media reports and public comments by State officials; in particular, because these breached his right to the presumption of innocence.

Relying on Article 14 (prohibition of discrimination) read in conjunction with Article 6, he complains that his role as a police officer was unfairly taken into consideration by the domestic courts when determining his guilt and sentence.

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