November 10, 2023
November 10, 2023
System failure in the justice system was one of the reasons for the murder of Julie Van Espen in 2019. Her parents therefore consider the government partly responsible for her death and are starting a lawsuit.
23-year-old Julie Van Espen was found dead four years ago after disappearing on her way to visit a friend. The student cycled along the Albert Canal on May 4, 2019, where she was pulled from her bicycle, raped and murdered.
The social outrage after the murder was immense when it turned out that the perpetrator Steve Bakelmans had previously been convicted of rape. Yet he walked around freely due to the slow functioning of the justice system.
Bakelmans had been convicted of the violent rape of an ex-partner two years before the murder. The judge gave him a prison sentence of four years. It was the second time that the court convicted Bakelmans of rape. In 2004 he was given 30 months in a sexual offense case.
Bakelmans appealed the verdict and was released pending the trial. This is how it was possible that Bakelmans still committed murder on May 4, 2019.
If the file had been given the right priority and Bakelmans had been arrested, he would not have been able to walk around freely that day.
The Supreme Court of Justice (HRJ), the body that monitors the functioning of the court, ruled that mistakes were made in the Bakelmans file. It took far too long for the case to be heard on appeal. The criminal chamber that was supposed to hear Bakelmans’ appeal was closed due to a shortage of judges. In an investigation report, the HRJ described the long processing time at the Antwerp Court of Appeal as a ‘dysfunction’.
“Errors by the judiciary led to the perpetrator walking around freely on the street that day,” says lawyer Stijn Verbist, who acts on behalf of the Van Espen family. ‘Despite his sentence of four years in prison, Bakelmans was not taken into custody because there was no risk of flight. It later turned out that there was a detention card that indicated a risk of flight. But that was missing from the judge’s file.’
Verbist sees the government’s responsibility in the mistakes. ‘Justice has been neglected for years. As a result, there was a shortage of staff and there was insufficient investment in digitalization and management,” he says. ‘The family is convinced that Julie would still be alive without the system failure of the justice system. If the file had been given the right priority and Bakelmans had been arrested, he would not have been able to walk around freely that day.’
Van Espen’s relatives are now using the HRJ report to sue the state for Julie’s murder. They do this now because government liability expires after five years. So the term was about to expire. The family mainly wants an apology and is currently demanding a symbolic euro in damages.
Even after the arrest of Marc Dutroux, the government promised that everything would change. But we see the same mistakes happening over and over again.
Verbist: ‘The family has had to deal with a great trauma. Not only Julie’s death, but also the assize process took its toll. But the decision to hold the state liable has already been made earlier.’
The family is also setting up a foundation, Mission Julie/Mission Justice. He must keep a constant finger on the pulse of the judiciary. The conclusions of the HRJ’s investigation led to a series of new laws and a better organization of the court of appeal. “But the family sees too little progress,” says Verbist. ‘It’s too slow. Even after the arrest of Marc Dutroux, the government promised that everything would change. But we see the same mistakes happening over and over again. There must be lasting change in the justice system.’
Bakelmans was sentenced by the Assize Court in 2021 to life in prison and an additional 15 years in prison. He will only be eligible for parole for the first time after 20 years.
Groen wants to expand disciplinary law for magistrates
Groen and Ecolo want to extend the period for initiating disciplinary proceedings against a magistrate to one year after the facts, instead of six months. MPs Stefaan Van Hecke (Green) and Claire Hugon (Ecolo) have submitted a bill about this.
The proposal comes in response to the Steve Bakelmans case, who murdered 23-year-old student Julie Van Espen in May 2019. The Supreme Court of Justice found errors in Bakelmans’ file, which led to the man being at large at the time of the murder. When the errors came to light, the deadline for initiating disciplinary proceedings against the magistrate involved had already expired.
Erik Van Espen, Julie’s father, therefore previously advocated a thorough review of disciplinary law. “A disciplinary sanction is a last resort,” says his lawyer Stijn Verbist. ‘We do not have a repressive agenda. But there needs to be a better evaluation system, with support, workload measurement and clear objectives from the justice system.’
Van Hecke’s proposal also aims to make it possible to initiate disciplinary proceedings after one year about facts that are already known. “If new information emerges, this should not be an obstacle to starting disciplinary proceedings,” says Van Hecke. The bill was discussed for the first time in Parliament on Wednesday morning. The vote will take place later.