Court hears Joana’s horror story

20 October 2005
Portugal’s silent child victims

Algarve Resident

Portugal has been racked by soul-searching as two high profile cases involving child abuse and child murder again figure prominently in the national media, reports The Resident’s Gabriel Hershman

Court hears Joana’s horror story

... The case, which has shocked the nation with its account of incest, murder and desecration, took just three days to be tried. The Public Ministry has pressed for jail terms of 24 years for the defendants, who are charged with qualified murder, as well as desecrating and concealing a body.

Joana disappeared, presumed murdered, in the Algarve village of Figueira, near Portimão. She was last seen buying food from a nearby café on the evening of September 12 last year. Prosecutors charge that she came home to find her mother, 34-year-old Leonor Cipriano, and her uncle, 32-year-old João Cipriano, having sex. Fearful that Joana would relate the incident to her stepfather, they allege that the couple decided to kill her. The prosecution also said that the couple had repeatedly mistreated Joana, recounting that she was little more than a “servant” in her own household.

The court heard a catalogue of horrifying details, including an earlier video taped confession from Joana’s uncle in which he related the circumstances of his niece’s murder. This video testimony is now the subject of an appeal from the defence team who claim it should be excluded because the couple exercised their right to remain silent during the trial.

In the taped confession, João Cipriano said he and his sister hit Joana who then banged her head against a wall before collapsing, unconscious, onto the floor. João Cipriano claimed that he had wanted to call an ambulance but that his sister prevented him, telling him instead to go to Joana’s stepfather and inform him that she had disappeared.

Mother had appealed for daughter’s return

Her mother made subsequent public appeals for her daughter’s safe return, claiming that she had been kidnapped. But authorities began to suspect the couple after villagers noted their allegedly offhand reaction to Joana’s disappearance. Local shopkeeper Nídia Rochato remembered that Leonor neither cried nor seemed unduly concerned. When she commented on this to her, Leonor reportedly replied that she believed that her daughter was still alive.

The absence of a corpse delayed the arraignment process but the Public Ministry were able to indict the couple following statements from neighbours. Investigators also gathered forensic evidence at the house where Joana lived with her mother, stepfather and two brothers.

A total of 45 witnesses, mostly relatives and villagers, testified in court between Wednesday and Friday of last week. Four jurors (one man and three women) and three judges will decide the verdict. The opinions of the jurors – a 20-year-old student, a physiotherapist, a library employee and a waitress – will carry the same weight as the judges.

Joana’s uncle had contempt for human life

Leonor and João Cipriano, who have been held on remand for over a year, stood silently and without emotion as they heard prosecutor José Pinheiro outline his case. He described João Cipriano as a man who “has contempt for human life, psychopathic tendencies and difficulty in controlling impulses”. Pinheiro also castigated Joana’s mother for her “emotional instability, insensitivity and disregard for other people’s needs”. Only when Pinheiro announced that he was pressing for a 24-year jail term for both defendants did Leonor show emotion, sobbing uncontrollably.

Pinheiro explained why his team was pressing for such a long sentence. “The defendants’ guilt is heightened by their cold and calculating behaviour after their child’s death, as well as the devious manoeuvres they adopted to conceal the crime,” he said.

The trial included key testimony from Joana’s stepfather, António Leandro, who related that Leonor had confided to him that she had had a sexual relationship with her brother. He also told the court that during this conversation, which took place a few days after Joana’s disappearance, at judicial police headquarters, Leonor had admitted that she and her brother had killed the little girl.

A key element of the prosecution’s case rests on the fact that the couple dismembered the girl’s corpse. António Leandro, confronted with photographs of tools allegedly used by the couple, said he recognised a saw he had kept at home.

In the video taped confession, João Cipriano admitted that the body of the girl was dismembered and placed in a refrigerated trunk. A doctor involved in the case, Albino Santana dos Santos, conceded that body parts, matching the size of a girl of Joana’s height, could have been stuffed inside the trunk.

Defence team challenges evidence

Despite the evidence, João Grado, Leonor Cipriano’s lawyer, still pressed for her acquittal, describing the evidence as “miserable”. João Cipriano’s lawyer, Sara Rosado, reminded the court that Joana’s body had never been found and dismissed the prosecution’s version of events. “João Cipriano has an intelligence level considerably lower than the average. How is it possible that such a person could deceive everyone for so long?” she asked the court.

But prosecutors disagreed, describing the case as a “veritable horror story that proves that reality really does surpass fiction”. “Nobody can say that they wanted to kill her when they hit. But later when they persisted, they knew that she was going to die. Their guilt is absolute – the victim was a minor, the daughter and niece of the defendants,” they told the court. A verdict in the case is due on November 11.


Return to top of page Copyright © 2010 | Flash News Converted into Blogger Template by HackTutors