Two intrepid journalists embarked on an investigation into the unjust conviction of a Czech man, only to uncover a deeply flawed justice system.
In 2012, Czech journalist Magdalena Sodomkova found herself on the receiving end of a text message that would change her life. Little did she know, the message came from an Indonesian prison inmate desperately proclaiming his innocence. Unbeknownst to her, this seemingly ordinary message would lead to a journalistic investigation that would shake the Czech police and judiciary and inspire a critically acclaimed film.
The man who sent the text message to the journalist is named Tomas Toman. In 2009, a Czech court sentenced Toman to 12 and a half years in prison for killing a man during a heated altercation at a club in Holesovice, a district within Prague, the bustling capital of the Czech Republic.
Despite fleeing his home country, Toman’s luck eventually ran out when he was apprehended in Indonesia and then incarcerated there. Toman does not claim to be without fault. Prior to that incident, he had been involved in a brawl, which resulted in him being placed on probation at the time of the fatal confrontation. Nevertheless, Toman vehemently denied being the cause of the man’s demise.
Sodomkova took it upon herself to delve deeper into this case.
Her investigation swiftly uncovered a plethora of issues. Startling testimonies from two key witnesses, alleging that Toman viciously hit his opponent with a statue, were given due consideration in court. However, it has come to light that those witnesses did not testify in court, raising questions about the veracity of their claims. On the other hand, the doctor responsible for conducting the victim’s autopsy has unequivocally dismissed any possibility of the beating being the cause of death. Yet, his opinion was omitted from the official record.
Eventually, the opinion of Jiri Straus, a forensic expert, sealed Toman’s fate. Straus, renowned in the field of Czech crime science, was the former vice rector of the local Police Academy and the country’s leading expert in forensic biomechanics. Through his groundbreaking experiments, he delivered evidence in countless criminal cases, cementing his reputation as an invaluable asset to the justice system. Notably, Straus played a pivotal role in unraveling the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of Jan Masaryk, the interwar foreign minister of Czechoslovakia. Masaryk’s lifeless body was discovered in his pajamas within the courtyard of the former foreign ministry building.
Straus’ work has garnered widespread acclaim, earning him the moniker of “police Einstein” among his peers.
However, upon closer investigation, journalists uncovered a troubling pattern surrounding his work. In 2013, a group of 13 biomechanics experts renowned in the field of criminology disputed Straus’ assessments in a staggering six cases, raising serious doubts about the credibility of his findings and leaving the validity of Toman’s sentencing hanging in the balance.
Biomechanics experts argued that Straus’ “calculations,” which were used by courts to send many people to prison, blatantly disregarded both mathematical and physical laws. The Constitutional Court in Prague has already overturned verdicts in at least two cases, casting doubt on the credibility of Straus’ opinions.
Toman’s story seemed to be another such case. After being imprisoned for two and a half years in Indonesia, Toman was repatriated in 2014 and then incarcerated in a Czech prison. However, two years later, the Constitutional Court in Prague recognized the violation of Toman’s right to a fair trial. The case was sent back to the Municipal Court in Prague, which had initially sentenced him to 12.5 years in prison, for further review.
“But something crazy happened,” Sodomkova said. Petr Hovorka, the judge who had denied a retrial three years earlier, delivered a decision that baffled the audience: Toman was set free as Hovorka ordered the case to be reopened. The policemen in the room swiftly removed Toman’s handcuffs, allowing him to walk away. Toman, lacking proper clothing for his journey back home, had his friends present in court that day lend him some clothes so he could avoid unwanted attention while traveling on the tram back home. Reflecting on that day, Sodomkova recalls, “he [Toman] only had his prison attire, but one of his friends gave him his own trousers.”
As the lawsuit resumed, in March 2017 Toman was sentenced to three and a half years in prison for his involvement in attempted bodily harm in a verdict delivered by the Municipal Court in Prague, a ruling later upheld by the Czech Supreme Court. However, as Toman had already served his sentence in pretrial detention and in the Indonesian prison, he was finally free at long last.
But Toman’s case was only a fraction of an unsettling truth. During the Supreme Court hearing on Toman’s case, Judge Jiri Lnenicka already acknowledged that his initial verdict was a judicial mistake. However, there was more to it. As the two journalists delved deeper into the intricacies of the murder, it became clear that what they were dealing with was not an isolated erroneous sentence, but rather a series of systemic failures within the Czech judiciary.
In 2017, Czech Radio and the Endowment Fund for Independent Journalism (NFNZ), a group of local businessmen supporting independent journalism, agreed to fund Sodomkova and Brit Jensen, a Danish journalist affiliated with Czech Radio, to produce a documentary chronicling the entire saga.
The Mathematics of Crime project was born.
A Bleak Reality
In light of the evidence presented during Toman’s trial, Sodomkova and Jensen embarked on a thorough investigation of the efficacy of the Czech judiciary system in protecting the innocent and penalizing the guilty. Their discoveries were extremely alarming. The investigation uncovered a far-reaching web of incompetence and ineptitude plaguing multiple Czech authorities. It exposed a disconcerting reality where court decisions are influenced by biases rather than a diligent pursuit of the truth. Furthermore, it became evident that all parties involved, including the police, prosecutors, and judges, are fervently striving to obtain incriminating evidence against whoever happens to be the initial suspect instead of working on finding the real criminals.
First, the police played a significant role in shaping the criminal investigation as they consistently sought Straus’ input. This was partly due to his past connections. Many officers were once his students at the police academy. Straus was dismissed from his long-standing position as a teacher at the academy once news about the wrong opinion in the Toman’s case broke, but no members of the police force chose to step down amidst the controversy.
Eventually, it was discovered that the death of the man who fought with Toman was potentially caused by a falling statue. However, Straus had delivered his opinion that Toman instead provoked the man’s death without even seeing the statue, relying solely on information provided by the club’s owner and the statue’s author, both of whom were ultimately proven incorrect.
Secondly, the judge, instead of seeking the truth, failed to inquire about the validity of the evidence against Toman that led to his indictment. Furthermore, Toman’s court-appointed lawyer, who happened to be acquainted with the judges, demonstrated clear complicity with the prosecutors through his performance in court.
The Municipal Court in Prague also bears responsibility for the botched trial as it failed to remove Straus from the roster of expert witnesses, thereby granting him a monopoly on biomechanics expertise within the court for more than 20 years. “Just imagine how many cases he has handled [before],” Sodomokova said.
Finally, the justice ministry made no effort to compel the various bodies under its subordination to thoroughly investigate the matter, thus tacitly allowing the wrongful indictment of an innocent man.
The investigation has unearthed an alarming reality: the justice system, in its entirety, has proven to be a glaring failure, consistently targeting innocent individuals while allowing criminals to roam freely.
However, amidst this gripping narrative, there was one key institution whose response to the investigation has left many astounded: the media.
How Music Changes Through the Years
Throughout Toman’s saga, the response of the Czech media was rather disappointing. Journalists from various outlets continuously labeled Toman as a “murderer” although the initial official accusation was “bodily injury resulting in death.” They unquestioningly published videos related to the case provided by the police without taking the time to verify their accuracy.
But the most shocking reaction came from the very media outlet that commissioned the journalistic investigation into the case. When Sodomkova and Jensen concluded their work on the case in late 2018, the public radio, until then known for its acclaimed programming and reputation for impartiality, made the unexpected decision not to air the podcast recounting the story.
Three reasons were cited for the decision to withhold the podcast: first, the radio station said that the incriminated expert, Straus, was denied the opportunity to respond; secondly, rules regarding surreptitious recording were violated; and lastly, the podcast did not align with the radio channel’s predetermined schedule. Additionally, Czech Radio director Rene Zavoral launched an attack on Sodomkova and Jensen, accusing them of unethical conduct and even fraud, according to Sodomkova.
A panel of independent experts was called upon to evaluate the justifications provided by the radio station for not broadcasting the program. The experts swiftly debunked those claims as nonsense. Meanwhile, the podcast itself won a prestigious award.
But soon, a possible explanation for the decision of Czech Radio emerged. First of all, it was revealed that Straus himself was working for the radio station. For an extended period, he was a main guest in The History of Czech Crime program that was aired by the public radio. Adding to the intrigue, it was discovered that Veronika Krestanova, the partner of a high-ranking editor at Czech Radio, held a prominent position as a vice president at the Municipal Court in Prague. Despite the editor’s clear conflict of interest, Czech Radio didn’t take any action to address the issue. Meanwhile, Krestanova was promoted to the role of a constitutional judge, a powerful position in the Czech judiciary.
Undoubtedly Czech Radio was an unsuitable platform for The Mathematics of Crime.
But as the investigation was also financed by the Czech endowment NFNZ, Sodomkova and Jensen were legally able to publish their work elsewhere. However, with the funding for the project dying out, the journalists had limited options for sharing their findings. The production of the podcast already cost them approximately €19,000, with equal contributions from Czech Radio and NFNZ.
“We were in serious trouble with money because the podcast was getting bigger and bigger, and we had no support from the radio,” Sodomkova said. Coincidentally, during this period, her residence fell victim to a burglary, with all of her technical equipment, including her laptop and recorder, stolen. “That was devastating for me as a freelancer,” she said.
Eventually, the journalists launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise funds for the dissemination of their work. They used both online platforms and physical distribution to place stickers bearing the phrase “Mathematics of Crime” in the city’s metro stations, trains, and cafes. The campaign was successful, generating the necessary funds to compensate all individuals involved in the production of the podcast. Additionally, a brand-new website was established to serve as the official host of the podcast.
After a lengthy battle with the authorities, Sodomkova and Jensen were finally able to bring the truth to light. The documentary about the case achieved a major success, surpassing 500,000 downloads, which is a triumph in the media world for a nation with a population of some 10 million. What was once concealed by powerful people in influential positions and overlooked by numerous journalists has now been unveiled for everyone to see. Sodomkova and Jensen have finally found solace in the gratification their hard work has brought forth.
Yet, there was more to come. The Mathematics of Crime podcast, which was later adapted into a book by Sodomkova, caught the attention of renowned Slovak actor and director Peter Bebjak. He used it as inspiration to produce a television series that caught the eye of none other than TV Nova, the largest television station in the country.
The series has garnered significant attention due to its inspiration from a true event. It altered the names of certain characters, although it retains those of key figures such as Sodomkova, Jensen, and Toman. The series made its debut on Voyo, often hailed as the Czech equivalent of Netflix, on July 28, 2023. Thanks to extensive advertising across the Czech Republic, including eye-catching billboards, and a cast of renowned actors, among them Lucie Stepankova, a celebrated Czech actress who portrays Sodomkova, the three-part series has captivated audiences.
“We, including the actors, director, and producer, are all invited for interviews,” said Sodomkova in August 2023 during the broadcast of the series. “After many years, we are finally receiving good recognition.” More importantly, Sodomkova said, the series has drawn attention to the vital issue of justice in Czechia.
However, moving beyond the immense popularity generated by the film, what have been the consequences of nearly ten years of investigations?
The System Always Wins
In retrospect, the most notable accomplishment of the investigation appears to be Toman’s exoneration following the court’s acknowledgement of a wrongful conviction. However, Toman also played an active role in securing his own freedom. Due to his dire financial situation, he was unable to afford legal representation, which prompted him to dedicate himself to studying law while incarcerated to be able to draft a constitutional complaint on his own accord. Eventually, the state recognized another error it made in Toman’s trial, realizing he had served a total of six years, above the 3.5-year sentence imposed for the offense of bodily harm, and provided financial compensation to him.
The investigation has also played an important role in helping more people appreciate journalism. It sparked a fresh discussion on the role of journalism in society and has brought about changes in certain media outlets.
One such example is TV Nova, which had previously presented a biased narrative of the Toman’s case in its news programs during the trial, as did most of the media in the country. Toman even contemplated taking legal action against the station at the time but lacked the financial means to do so. The decision by TV Nova to ultimately invest a substantial amount of money in producing a movie that portrays the true story speaks volumes. “I see this as an extraordinary act of self-reflection,” Sodomkova said.
Other media organizations, notably the Czech public media, have failed to critically evaluate their coverage of the case to this day. All high-ranking managers including the director Zavoral are still in their jobs or pursuing jobs in other media. On the other hand, the station’s documentary department and investigative unit were shut down when Czech Radio stopped airing such programs.
But the most significant issue that persists is the justice system. Despite the investigation causing upheaval within various public institutions, little progress has been made. A critical debate surrounding the use of expert witnesses has arisen, resulting in the appointment of new experts and breaking Straus’ monopolistic hold on the subject. Toman has been freed and received compensation.
However, there are numerous other unresolved cases, and there seems to be a reluctance to reopen them. Furthermore, there has been no apparent distress among public servants within the justice system, and there is no evidence to suggest that the system has stopped failing in dispensing justice. On the contrary, the ongoing investigation continues to present challenges for journalists.
Jensen, who had been grappling with intense pressure from Czech Radio’s management, has been terminated from her position. After spending a decade in Czechia, she made the decision to return to her homeland of Denmark during the summer of 2023. “Despite an intensive work search, for three years I could not find any stable job in Czech media,” Jensen said. “It was unbearable.” Now, she has a job as investigative journalist and audio documentary maker for a Danish podcast.
In the aftermath of the television series broadcast, renewed legal challenges have surfaced against the investigation again. Strapped for funds, Sodomkova and Jensen have eventually opted to put the documentary behind a paywall. Viewers now need to shell out €9 to gain access to it, while those unable to afford it can still enjoy the podcast free of charge, which many people do.
The funds generated from the paywall are saved in a legal fund to ensure that the journalists of Mathematics of Crime are equipped to handle potential lawsuits. It is not only Straus who threatened the journalists with lawsuits, but also the lawyers of Czech radio who forbade Sodomkova and Jensen from publicly talking about censorship, even asking them at some point to pay for the music used in the documentary’s soundtrack.
Meanwhile, Sodomkova diligently focuses on her work, juggling her responsibilities as a fixer for foreign media while also pursuing various book projects.
“I almost gave up this job, which I dearly love, because it is not earning me money and is only bringing pressure, legal threats, and headaches,” Sodomkova said. “But sometimes I go to schools to talk about the podcast. Once, I even held a joint lecture with a teacher, explaining to students how to ‘investigate’. When you later learn that some of the students got inspired by the lecture and went on to study journalism, it makes you feel satisfied. However insecure the future of journalism is, somebody will do it.”
Photos: Courtesy TV Nova Voyo, Magdalena Sodomkova personal collection