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Why some criminal cases cannot be solved in the cultural domain

Court cases that get out of hand are enacted again and again, according to PhD candidate Tessa de Zeeuw. De Zeeuw: ‘Even if the court comes to the correct judgement, from a legal point of view, the issues that appear in a case such as that of Lucia de Berk continue to "tease" society.’

Lucia de Berk

Something that inspired De Zeeuw’s research was the story of Lucia de Berk, a nurse who was convicted of the murder of several babies and elderly. Her being guilty of this appeared to be not evincible enough that she was eventually discharged.

Books, plays and finally a film were made about this case in 2014, when Lucia de Berk was already acquitted. ‘The latter also indicates that it is a case that continues to circulate in the public space, a case that continues to fascinate people, for which they continue to try to find forms in which they can express their feelings about this,’ De Zeeuw argues.

De Zeeuw believes that this case can be seen as a "cultural event". According to De Zeeuw, we can read cultural events like these to learn something about processes of meaning production and representation, just like literature. Ultimately, these kinds of cultural events tell us something about the conflicts that play a role in society.

Why are some criminal cases unsolvable (culturally)? - PhD candidate Tessa de Zeeuw

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Criminal cases as plays

According to the PhD student, a court case can be compared to the performance of a play, but then ‘in the shape of evidence and testimony.’ An event from outside the courtroom is represented and ‘told’ during the trial.

The people in a court case that are displayed all have a role, just like in a play. Legal cases have been public for centuries. The public is confronted with someone who may have violated the law and all kinds of questions come to mind. ‘This may, just as in Lucia de Berk's case, also be the moment when the audience stops listening to the person sitting in front of them, because they can be overtaken by uncontrollable anger,’ says De Zeeuw. Lucia de Berk was mentioned in the news with frightening names such as "Angel of death" and "Nurse death" and even her image was made "more witchy" by various court draftsmen. The perception of a person can become so strong at such a moment that nobody listens to his or her story anymore.

French infected blood affair

Another case that De Zeeuw examines is the French infected blood affair from 1984. This lawsuit involved 1200 haemophilia patients who became infected with HIV after treatment with blood products made by a company that, like the government, were aware of the potential contamination risks. This case also remained a major subject for a long time, because it was not clear who was ultimately guilty; there were many people involved - politicians, civil servants, doctors, scientists - all of whom had made mistakes, but no one had really intentionally and by his or her direct action, poisoned patients. This lawsuit can also be viewed as if it were a play, according to De Zeeuw. "But in this case," the deed "is missing, one of the most important dramatic categories in the court case," says De Zeeuw. And also this case was again and again performed as a play.

Bureaucracy, technocracy and technology

Systematic problems arise in the courtroom and society if not just one perpetrator, or even just one act, can be designated. According to De Zeeuw, this happens more often nowadays because technocratic and bureaucratic devices are making more and more decisions in society. In addition, perpetrators are increasingly being approached in the most technological way possible, De Zeeuw argues. For example, statistical analyzes of data are used to identify perpetrators, as was the case in Lucia de Berk's court case, and to predict what kind of people have the greatest chance of becoming "perpetrators".

‘This caused a kind of blind spot for her as a person in the De Berk case, which caused the case to get out of hand. As a result of this the opinions about whether or not she was guilty still vary widely’, De Zeeuw judges. ‘It is therefore important to properly map out what is possible with the law, what can be put forward and what cannot, and what the limits are of this form of representation.’

The Supreme Court of the Netherlands in The Hague

Text: Lieke Bakker
Video: Lieke Bakker, Tessa de Zeeuw
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