French Protesters Want Closure—and Justice—for the Killing of Sarah Halimi

What does it say about France that its justice system can’t protect the elderly in their own homes?

On April 14, France’s highest court ruled that Kobili Traoré, a 27-year-old Malian immigrant, would not be tried for the 2017 murder of Sarah Halimi, his 65-year-old Jewish neighbor. Nobody disputes the facts of the case; indeed, Traoré has admitted to the killing, in which he beat Halimi, a retired doctor and teacher, and threw her from her third-floor balcony. Neighbors testified to hearing “Sarah Halimi’s ‘bestial’ cries while Kobili Traoré beat her savagely, cried out ‘Allahu akbar,’ ‘shut your mouth,’ and ‘you sheitan!’ (devil or Satan).” 

Traoré, “a petty delinquent … and an occasional drug user and dealer with 22 convictions on his rap sheet,” has been in a psychiatric institution since Halimi’s death. During that time, the court heard from seven experts—an unusually large number—about whether Traoré’s “delirium” was a one-time psychotic episode or heralded a mental illness. The answer to that single question determined whether he could stand trial, under French law. And after hearing extensive evidence, the judge decided against having a trial. 

On a call, Marc Weitzmann, a French journalist and the author of Hate: The Rising Tide of Anti-Semitism in France (and What It Means for Us), highlighted some facts of the case that cut against the mental illness defense. Traoré said he was triggered by seeing a menorah in Halimi’s home, but the judge took nine months to agree antisemitism was a factor. Traoré’s psychotic episode included believing his stepfather was poisoning his blood and his family’s Haitian maid was doing voodoo on him, yet no ethno-psychiatrist was called. And finally, there’s the matter of psychiatric expert Paul Bensussan’s testimony, which has fueled countless media stories about France’s excusing murder post-marijuana use. It’s Bensussan who posited that the Halimi murder signaled the early stages of mental illness, because “the psychotic episode started two days prior [to the murder], and the smoking of joints didn’t change [Traoré’s] state of mind. It helped to intensify it but didn’t create it.” Bensussan now wonders if he was mistaken, because “Traoré’s condition right now doesn’t match the prospect of a coming schizophrenia.” And if Bensussan erred, that mistake is already having major repercussions.

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