The project was born in France thanks to a radio chronicle that fell on the right ears. Several years ago, the criminal lawyer Sylvain Cormier hears on the air the existence of The Innocence Project in the United States. Founded in 1992 by lawyers Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, the association intends to carry out a titanic task by re-examining the files of those who have been definitively sentenced. The objective: to prove their innocence when they request it. A course of combattan since it is necessary to reread files generally of criminal order, and therefore to extension. For a long time, Sylvain Cormier was surprised to have never seen such an initiative budding in France. However, in terms of miscarriages of justice, the country is not left out. Evidenced by the first episode of the ninth season of the program In Olivier’s eyes, broadcast on January 10 on France 2, which gave the floor to several victims. Also, it is typically for this kind of story that our lawyer from Lyon decided one day to contact several of his counterparts linked to the project across the Atlantic: Robert Schehrbased in Arizona, and Greg HampikianIdaho.
From this exchange rich in advice, the Innocence France Program was born in 2013. The team is plural and brings together different expertise: alongside the lawyers are notably a retired police officer and law students, ready to go through the criminal files to detect the slightest flaw. The work is laborious, but important. “We teach students to manage with that, everything is prefaced and each situation has a standard letter,” says Sylvain Cormier. After the paperwork and a questionnaire sent to the prisoner to clarify their situation, it is above all a question of exchange. “We ask for information and we correspond with them. It’s important and the Americans have warned me about this: this whole period of discussion gives the person the impression that their file is taken care of and gives them hope. »
A prisoner-initiated review
Maître Cormier notes “great”, “legitimate” and above all “vital” impatience among these prisoners. It is difficult to answer them quickly when we know that a criminal file sometimes takes several months to be read and that there is a cruel lack of means and staff to speed up the delays. According to Sylvain Cormier, the association dealt with processing a dozen files in 2021. The year 2022 opens with the reopening of that of Father Lefort, this priest and doctor from Boulogne-Billancourt condemned in 2005 for rape of minors. Twice, he had asked for a review of his trial, without success. Program Innocence France intends to re-examine, at its request, its file to find new elements likely to be presented to justice.
If they are deemed admissible, they will lead to a review procedure. An approach made possible by Sylvain Cormier who had been heard by the National Assembly in 2013 in order to authorize a person condemned definitively to make a request for an investigation rather than waiting for justice to rework his own judgments. The lawyer had taken the example of the famous Marc Machin, wrongly accused in 2001 of the murder of a jogger on the Neuilly bridge, then cleared in 2012 after spending six and a half years behind bars. He then explained that the police had forced him to confess to the crime during his interrogation.
The man is now one of the eleven recognized victims of French justice, alongside Patrick Dils, who was the most publicized case. For Sylvain Cormier, the examination of these miscarriages of justice will have enabled him to have a better overview of the cases he deals with and to “better understand why the French system does not work”.
In 2014, Alain Tourret, deputy of Calvados and lawyer by profession, had initiated a bill, validated by Parliament, to facilitate the revisions of the trials, far too complex to obtain. At the time, the elected official recalled that only ten trials had been reviewed in the country since 1945, unlike Germany, which has more flexible legislation on the subject, which dealt with five per year. The elected official wanted to recall in his report that justice is not infallible. He confided in 2014 in the columns of Figaro “Justice must be able to question itself and thus regain the confidence of the French. We must avoid at all costs that an innocent person is in prison. »