A parachute is an unlikely murder weapon. It is designed to save lives, not extinguish them. But it was Els Van Doren’s parachute that killed her on November 18, 2006 when both the main and back up parachutes failed to open causing her to collide with the earth at 120 miles per hour. The 38 year-old mother of two was an experienced skydiver and knew the risks of the sport-risks that included serious injury and death. While the laws of man regulate the activity of skydiving, it is the laws of physics that dictate the consequences of decisions made by its participants; some of those decisions are made in the sky in a split second, others are made on the ground after much deliberation. Els Van Doren did not make the decision that caused her death; rather, another skydiver made the decision for her. According to the police and prosecutors, it was Els Clottermans that sabotaged Van Doren’s parachute.
On October 20, 2010, Clottermans was sentenced to thirty years in prison after a Belgium jury found her guilty of the murder of Van Doren. It is unlikely that an American jury would have ever heard the evidence against Clottermans-much less convicted her. Clottermans, a 26 year-old schoolteacher, was a friend of the victim and initially escaped attention. She became a suspect when she attempted suicide shortly before making a second statement to the police. According to the prosecutors, both women were romantically involved with Marcel Somers; he shared his bed on Friday nights with Clottermans and on Saturdays with Van Doren. A week before the murder, Van Doren interrupted the Friday night routine and showed up at Somers’ apartment. Clottermans was consumed with jealousy when Sommers jilted her that evening and took revenge by cutting the straps of the main and reserve parachutes.
The prosecution was able to establish that Clottermans had the motive, means and opportunity to kill Van Doren. Clottermans steadfastly maintained her innocence and there was no forensic evidence that linked her to the crime. The jury also heard testimony from a court-appointed psychiatrist that Clottermans was a narcissistic psychopath and pathological liar-a diagnosis no American jury would have been allowed to consider in determining her guilt. Based on this evidence, the jury accepted the prosecution’s case and found Clottermans guilty.
Clottermans’ case underscores the differences between two separate systems of criminal justice used in the civilized world: inquisitorial and adversarial. The judicial system of Belgium, like most of its European neighbors, is based on the Napoleonic Code. The Code Napoleon provides for an inquisitorial system of criminal justice where the court plays an active role in investigating the facts. The investigating judge has a duty of impartiality and is charged with looking for evidence of innocence as well as guilt. The origins of this system date back to the French Revolution and were a vast improvement over the system that predated it. Prior to the Revolution, the laws of France consisted mainly of local customs complicated by various exemptions, privileges and special charters granted by the king or feudal lords.
The criminal justice system in the United States is an adversarial system where the judge acts as an impartial referee between the prosecution and defense. This legal system was also borne of a revolution and provided the accused rights not enjoyed under British rule. Both systems, inquisitorial and adversarial, are designed to search for the truth and attempt to balance the rights of the state in enforcing its laws against those of the accused. However, in the United States, that balance is skewed in favor of the accused reflecting the fact that at the time of the revolution, almost one quarter of the population were convicts sentenced to deportation to colonial America.
In the vast majority of cases, both systems will yield the same results; most of the time the guilty are convicted and the innocent acquitted. No system is perfect, however, and mistakes are sometimes made. If such a mistake was made in Clottermans’ case, it will be the task of the Belgium appellate courts to correct.
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