French Trial for 2011 Hit-and-run in Tel Aviv Halted After Defense Lawyer Assaulted

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Friends and relatives of Lee Zitouni outside the courthouse in Paris, November 27, 2014.Credit: AFP

The trial of two French nationals who ran down and killed a Israeli woman in Tel Aviv and then fled to France opened on Thursday in Paris, but was adjourned a few hours later after an unknown man punched one of the defense attorneys in the face.

 “Regis Meliodon was attacked in the men’s room. He will be taken to the hospital and the trial will resume on Wednesday,” said the presiding judge

Lee Zeitouni's parents arrive at the Paris courthouse, November 27, 2014.Credit: AFP

The death of Lee Zeitouni, 25, who was crossing a street in a pedestrian zone in September 2011 when she was hit by the speeding SUV, has inflamed public opinion in Israel.

Lee Zeitouni, killed in a hit-and-run accident in Tel Aviv.Credit: Reproduction

The incident spurred a diplomatic row between Israel and France, which would not extradite the two men to Israel to face trial there because France does not extradite its nationals.

The driver, Eric Robic, 40, who had left a nightclub just before the incident, is being tried on charges of aggravated involuntary homicide and non-assistance to a person in need.

He risks 10 years in prison and a 150,000 euros fine(118,807 pounds). The passenger, Claude Khayet, 35, is charged with non-assistance to a person in need. He could be sentenced to up to 5 years in prison and a 75,000 euros fine.

"He was a coward. He's there to explain himself and ask for pardon," Khayet's lawyer, Regis Meliodon, told Reuters.

The two men boarded a flight a few hours afterwards to France, where they have acknowledged the facts, but deny going through a red light.

Robic and Khayat are currently in jail pending a separate French investigation into organised fraud and money-laundering.

Robic, who was convicted in April in another fraud case, has six other convictions on his record, including for driving under the influence.

The seconds following the accident

For over five hours, before the punch, the presiding judge, prosecutor and Zeitouni family lawyer retraced with the accused the events of that night and morning: their visits to a restaurant and bars where the driver drank whiskey and vodka, the accident and their escape to France, while a group of over sixty people supporting the family listened quietly.

Two aggravating circumstances were at the heart of the questioning: the speed in which the car was traveling and whether they burned the red light at the crossing.

The accused admitted they were driving even faster than they had testified before.

“I said I was driving at 80 to 100 kilometers per hour, but it could have been 110. When you’re driving that fast, 80 km or 110 is the same,” said Eric Robic, but denied burning a red light, although witnesses had testified they did.

“I’m 90% certain I didn’t burn the light,” said Robic. “The light was green,” added Khayat.

The driver gave a gruesome description of the seconds following the accident, “I knew I hit someone when I felt the hit, heard the loud noise and then when I looked at the rear view mirror, I saw a body flying in the air.” The shock was so strong, that Lee Zeitouni’s body was found on the other side of the road. Earlier in the trial, the presiding judge enumerated all the traumas the young woman’s body had suffered. “I didn’t see her before the accident. I even thought I hit an elderly woman at first” added Robic.

The two told the court they stopped about 300 meters from the accident, because Khayat thought they were dragging a body underneath the vehicle.

“Why didn’t you go back to the accident site?”

“I didn’t want to take all the blame,” said Khayat.

“I was scared to see the body and I saw other vehicles stop. What could I have done for her then?” added Robic.

Lawyer Gilles William Goldnadel tried to prove that Eric Robic had promised money to Claude Khayat if he would take the blame and say he was driving the car. But they denied.

“I did give him money to cover his debts, but it wasn’t an arrangement,” said Robic.

When Claude Khayat said he wasn’t an irresponsible driver, the presiding judge read out a list of sentenced he’s had for bad driving and his criminal record.

“Have you learned nothing from this accident?” asked the judge.

A French couple who has lost its own daughter said they hoped the trial will change French law.

“They call this involuntary manslaughter, but these people, they know they’re endangering lives when they speed, burn red lights and drive drunk and drugged,” Said Stephane Landais.

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