Caroline Dickinson killergiven life sentence

14th June 2004, Comments 0 comments

RENNES, France, June 14 (AFP) - A 54 year-old Spanish drifter was given 30 years in jail by a French court Monday for the rape and murder of British schoolgirl Caroline Dickinson in a Brittany youth hostel eight years ago.

RENNES, France, June 14 (AFP) - A 54 year-old Spanish drifter was given 30 years in jail by a French court Monday for the rape and murder of British schoolgirl Caroline Dickinson in a Brittany youth hostel eight years ago.

Francisco Arce Montes, who was described in court as a serial offender with a string of convictions and arrests across Europe dating back to the early 1980s, was told he will not be eligible for parole for at least 20 years.

The verdict by the nine-member jury brought to a close one of France's most notorious murder cases. Dogged initially by accusations of incompetence, the investigation led eventually to major innovations in the conduct of French enquiries such as the use of mass DNA tests.

Caroline Dickinson was 13 when she was smothered to death with a cotton pad as she was sexually assaulted in the dormitory she shared with four school friends at the hostel at Pleine-Fougeres in July 1996. Police used semen found on her body to establish the genetic code of the attacker.

Arce Montes was not detected till 2001, when he was arrested for a sexual assault in a hostel in Miami. By chance an American customs officer on holiday in London read a newspaper article on the Dickinson case which mentioned his name as one of several suspects, and DNA tests proved the link.

In the week-long trial, Arce Montes admitted the facts in the case but denied intention to kill. Looking withdrawn and speaking in a dull monotone, he told the court that he had only wanted to touch Caroline, and had thought she was asleep when he left.

However the state prosecutor Francois-Rene Aubry said that though the crime may not have been premeditated, it was carried out deliberately and therefore constituted murder.

"It is a complex action. You have got to block the nose and mouth of someone who isn't far off adulthood. To maintain this gesture you have got to apply a certain force. You cannot do that without meaning to. You have to want to do it," he said Monday.

Defence lawyers argued that there was no sign of violence on Caroline's body, which showed Arce Montes was unaware of the harm he was causing. They asked for the crime to be reclassified as rape leading to death, which would have meant a shorter sentence.

"What caused the death was the action in which he put a hand on the victim's mouth to stop her screaming if she woke up. It was not an accident. It was a tragedy. But it was a death he did not mean to happen," defence lawyer Olivier Dersoir said.

Earlier Aubry described Arce Montes as a "sexual pervert," and said neither his troubled personality nor his consumption of alcohol and anti-depressants on the night of the crime amounted to an excuse. "He is entirely responsible for his actions," he said.

And he listed the series of sexual assaults attributed to Arce Montes from the mid-1980s, starting with three rapes in Germany, attacks in France and Spain, and ending with the assault in Florida that led to his arrest and extradition.

"What did he do with his life except wander around Europe, going from youth hostel to youth hostel in search of young girls of 13 years of age, looking for a few seconds of sexual satisfaction?" Aubry said.

Last week the court heard how on the night of the crime Arce Montes first broke into another Brittany youth hostel where he was caught in the act of abusing a girl, after which he allegedly drove to Pleine-Fougeres in a state of sexual excitement in search of a new victim.

Avidly followed by the British media, the investigation descended into chaos in the vital early weeks when a homeless man was wrongfully arrested and held for 17 days before being cleared by DNA evidence.

The publicity generated by the murder later contributed to important changes to the conduct of French criminal enquiries, such as the establishement of a nationwide DNA data base. In all more than 4,000 people, including all the male inhabitants of Pleine-Fougeres, submitted to DNA tets.

Speaking to the press after the verdict, Caroline's father John said: "The events of the last week have been for us a necessary but draining experience, as of course has the pursuit of justice for Caroline over the last eight years. We will now start the process of rebuilding our lives."


Subject: French news

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