Rough justice and shattered lives


An extraordinary story of paedophilia, shoddy investigation and false prosecutions in the French town of Outreau has implications for the entire French justice system, writes Lara Marlowe, in Paris

For France, judge Fabrice Burgaud's seven-hour hearing on Wednesday was the culmination of what Libération newspaper called "the most spectacular judiciary soap opera in modern history". Never before has an investigating magistrate been summoned by a parliamentary commission of inquiry to explain himself before representatives of the French people. Seven of the 13 men and women who were sent to prison on the basis of the 34-year-old Burgaud's shoddy investigation - and eventually acquitted - asked permission to see their tormentor tormented. They arrived for the hearing like stars at Cannes, in swarms of photographers.

When the Outreau affair collapsed in December, President Jacques Chirac called it "an unprecedented judiciary disaster". Francois Mourmand, one of 18 adults arrested on the basis of Burgaud's files, committed suicide in prison. Alain Marécaux, a court bailiff who was also convicted of belonging to the mythical paedophile ring, has attempted suicide three times, once since he was acquitted in December. When Marécaux's mother died of grief while he was in prison, he was taken to her funeral in handcuffs. Franck and Sandrine Lavier, also acquitted in December, have not yet regained custody of their children.

Across France, the broken lives of the Outreau 13 have become legend. Little matter that 64 other judges, from the local prosecutor up to the ministry of justice, signed off on Burgaud's work; he is the scapegoat, the man who seized upon the ravings of an abusive mother named Myriam Badaoui Delay in Outreau, a working-class suburb of Boulogne-sur-Mer, to send 13 innocent people to prison for an aggregate of 20 years.

"Today, people see justice through the prism of the Outreau trial," the right-wing deputy Jean-Yves Hugon said. "The French are afraid of the justice system." The commission will deliver its conclusions in June. Its chairman, socialist deputy André Vallini, made a chilling calculation when the commission was created in December: "Of 60,000 people incarcerated today in French prisons, 20,000 are in preventive detention, and 2,000 will probably be found innocent - little Outreau affairs that no one will ever talk about."

Napoleon Bonaparte, who created the position of investigating magistrate, said French judges were the most powerful men in the country: they can summon anyone at will, and send them to prison the same day. Following judge Burgaud's hearing, the former justice minister Robert Badinter remarked on "the difference between the solitude of a young man and the immensity of the powers he holds." The contrast between the zealous judge who interrogated suspects and the pale, frightened man who this week claimed he had worked "honestly, without taking sides" was total. "In Boulogne, everyone snapped to attention before him," said Alain Marécaux, the bailiff who spent 23 months in preventive detention. "I thought he was tall and strong then; today he looks very small."

"Judge Burgaud is completely different today," said Christian Godard, the baker who spent 83 days in preventive detention, then endured a 9-week trial before his acquittal. "Now he's a little boy who must answer questions. He's no longer sure of himself. Maybe it's because he's no longer asking the questions." Le Monde called Burgaud "the image of blind justice" and "an automaton". One deputy observed that he'd have been better suited to a career as a tax inspector. Although Burgaud began by expressing understanding for the suffering of those falsely accused, he mechanically quoted the penal code to justify his own actions. Around 11pm, when a deputy asked how Burgaud felt about the lives he had broken, the judge stammered: "It is tragic. I . . . I don't know . . . [ silence] . . . what more to say."

When the Outreau case started in 2001, memories of the Belgian child rapist and killer Marc Doutroux were still fresh. The prosecutor of Boulogne, Gerald Lesigne, who testified to the commission on Thursday, said there was only one explanation for the miscarriage of justice: "The myth of paedophilia, which had one root in a little reality, since the Delay children were mistreated by their parents . . . There was a culture of believing everything children said was true." The four Delay boys were routinely sodomised by their violent, alcoholic parents, and another couple, who are also serving long prison terms. But allegations of abuse by 14 other children in Outreau were never substantiated. Children in the housing project invented stories of a farm in Belgium where they were taken to perform sex acts with animals. When police drove them the 40 miles to Belgium, the children claimed to recognise a farm; it was inhabited by normal people, with no knowledge of a paedophile ring.

Child witnesses implicated a man they called "Dany le grand" (tall Dany), so Burgaud arrested two men who lived nearby, called Daniel Legrand, father and son. From prison, Daniel Legrand fils wrote to French television, claiming to have witnessed the murder of a little Belgian girl, whom he alleged was buried in the garden outside the Tour du Renard apartment building where most of the defendants lived. "I started lying without warning my lawyer," Legrand told the commission last month. "I thought: 'I'll give them what they want to hear, and maybe I'll get out of prison'." Myriam Delay, Burgaud's mythomaniac main source, immediately confirmed Legrand's fabrication about the Belgian girl. Police dug up the garden outside the apartment building, but found nothing. Belgian police wrote a report saying allegations of an international paedophile ring had "dead-ended", that "the children are recounting nonsense" and "the mother [ Delay] confirms everything, so it's impossible to trust what she says."

Burgaud persisted in ignoring mounting evidence that his sources were lying. Instead of accepting Jeannine Couvelard's invitation to meet her son Jean-Marc, who has learning disabilities and who, a doctor's report noted, is "unable to dress or undress alone, or to cut his own food", Burgaud issued a warrant for Jean-Marc's arrest, on suspicion of rape. To shore up his case, Burgaud relied on the reports of so-called experts. Two psychiatrists and two psychologists failed to detect Myriam Delay's lying streak, he noted at his hearing. From Delay's drawing of a house with a red roof, one "expert" concluded she was a child abuser. "If you pay cleaning women's wages, you get cleaning women's analyses," the "expert" explained.

"There were doubts practically from the beginning," Burgaud admitted on Wednesday. "One of the children . . . said he'd been raped by the priest . . . he gave dates and places, and it didn't check out . . . This boy admitted it was false . . ." Yet Dominique Wiel, a priest and the Delays' next-door neighbour, was not acquitted until December 2005, more than three years after Burgaud moved to Paris and a promotion to the anti-terrorist section (which he has since lost). Perhaps he committed "errors of appreciation" in building his case against the Outreau suspects, Burgaud admits now. "Who doesn't?" he asked. "All the more so because an investigating magistrate is alone. At the time, no one told me I was on the wrong track."

The commission of inquiry is expected to recommend a wide-ranging reform of the French justice system. The Napoleonic tradition of the investigating magistrate may be scrapped, or judges may be assigned in teams. In future, a judge's "intimate conviction" of a suspect's guilt will not be sufficient. France is likely to move towards the Anglo-Saxon criterion of "beyond the shadow of doubt".

Sex, lies and incriminations:the shadow of doubt

February 2001 Myriam and Thierry Delay are arrested in the northern French town of Outreau after their four sons tell social workers they have been raped by their parents and others over five years. Myriam Delay and sons incriminate dozens of others in an alleged paedophile ring. Seven Delay neighbours are arrested in the spring of 2001.

November 2001 Six more suspects - known as "the notables" are arrested, including a priest and a court bailiff.

2002-2004 Little movement on the case while 17 suspects languish in preventive detention. Francois Mourmand, who lived on the same floor as the Delays, commits suicide in prison.

May 2004 At their trial in St Omer, Myriam Delay clears 13 of the accused, then re-accuses them.

July 2004 Ten convictions, seven acquittals.

December 2005 Six more acquittals on appeal. President Jacques Chirac writes individually to the 13 acquitted persons, apologising for "an unprecedented judiciary disaster". Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin meets the Outreau 13. The National Assembly establishes a commission of inquiry to investigate "the dysfunction of justice in the Outreau affair and the means to avoid a reoccurrence".

February 8, 2006 Judge Fabrice Burgaud, whose investigation led to the arrests and trials, is questioned in a seven-hour session at the National Assembly.

More than five million French people watch the live television broadcast