A Lapland tour guide jailed for killing his girlfriend will get a new day in court, when his appeal against a murder conviction starts this week in Rovaniemi.
Czech national Karel Frybl and his Scottish girlfriend Rebecca Johnson were working at a remote husky ranch in Enontekiö in December 2016 when the murder took place.
Frybl, who used the name Radek Kovac during their relationship, confessed to killing Johnson at a trial in Lapland District Court last year. The former soldier says he blacked out during the attack which left then 26-year-old Johnson with more than 30 stab wounds to her head, chest, back, abdomen and thigh.
Defence lawyers lodged an appeal against the murder conviction, which carries a mandatory life sentence.
“The juridical question here is if the defendant is guilty of manslaughter or murder. The defendant has pleaded guilty of manslaughter but denies the murder” says Frybl’s lawyer Katri Mäkinen.
Under Finnish law, Frybl’s original conviction and the new appeal hinge on whether Rebecca Johnson’s killing reached the criminal threshold for murder, requiring some degree of premeditation, or for the death to have been particularly brutal.
At the original trial, Frybl’s lawyer Katri Mäkinen argued that the killing was not sufficiently brutal or prolonged to qualify as a murder. The judges disagreed.
Appeal court procedures
After the conviction handed down earlier this year, Frybl had the right to an appeal.
“At the court of appeals the court consists of a panel of judges” explains Minna Kimpimäki, a criminal law professor at the University of Lapland.
“Usually a leave for continued consideration is needed and a case is not heard if the court of appeal does not grant it. However, defendant does not need this kind of leave if the punishment given in the case is more than eight months of imprisonment” Professor Kimpimäki tells News Now Finland.
Just like at the original trial, witnesses will be heard again in person; although there is an option to give testimony over the phone as one Enontekiö police officer did during the first court case.
“If the appeal court is considering the evidence, they have to listen to the witnesses personally, they cannot just read the papers, they can’t just listen to the tapes or read transcripts” says Johannes Ahola, a Rovaniemi lawyer not connected with the case.
“It’s somehow heavy, but that’s how the process is now. This means probably that all the people who were heard in the district court in the murder case will be heard in the appeal court again” he says.
Frybl’s lawer Katri Mäkinen confirms that her team doesn’t plan to introduce any new evidence during the appeal.
Horrific killing shocked Lapland and Scotland
When Rebecca Johnson was killed, it sparked a huge manhunt for Karel Frybl across one of Europe’s most remote wilderness areas.
Local police chased Frybl on snowmobiles, and the Border Guard closed the frontier with Sweden as they searched for him in a helicopter. He was found a few kilometers away with the couples’ huskies, with his shirt off and suffering from exposure as the temperature plunged to -30°C.
Rebecca’s death was front page news in her native Scotland, and covered extensively in the media there. It sent shockwaves through the tight-knit Lapland community.
The couple had come to Enontekiö just a few months before to work as tour guides giving husky sled rides to tourists, employed by a UK-based travel company.
At the original trial, the court heard that the couple argued in the days before Johnson’s death.
There were claims of physical and verbal abuse on both sides, but on the morning of Johnson’s murder she phoned a coworker at the tour company’s local office and finally admitted she was in an abusive relationship.
Rebecca Johnson claimed Frybl had kicked her in the stomach, and that she wanted their employer to remove him from the Enontekiö home they shared with one other colleague.
During that phone call, the colleague heard Johnson scream three times, and the phone went dead.
The only other person at the remote husky farm was another guide, Joe Pickles. He was just a few meters outside the couples’ cabin, and testified that he also heard Rebecca scream three time” I ran to the cabin and pulled open the door” Pickles told the court in August 2017, crying as he struggled to give his evidence.
Pickles says when he opened the door of the cabin he saw Frybl standing over Johnson who was slumped in a pool of blood but still alive. He made eye contact with the injured woman, a moment that Pickles says he recalled night after night following the attack.
“I said ‘Radek stop, stop’. Becky said ‘Joe, call an ambulance he’s stabbed me'”.
Pickles went back outside to phone emergency services, and in that call, played to the court, he says he feared for his life and thought Frybl would try to kill him too. After a short while, Pickles went back inside to check on Rebecca.
“When I returned to the cabin and saw Becky, the injuries looked worse than when I first saw her” he testified.
“I couldn’t see the damage to her body, but from what I could see, she had been cut like this” – he made a slashing motion with his hand across his face – “she was gone at this point. I touched her, and I realised she was gone”.
After sending Frybl for psychiatric tests, and several months of deliberations, the judges found him guilty of murder.
In their legal ruling, the judges said they agreed with the psychiatrist’s conclusions and that Frybl had been in full control of his actions when he killed Rebecca.
They cited his attempts to flee the scene of the crime and evade capture, as well as several self-inflicted shallow cuts to his own body that he tried to blame on Rebecca, as evidence of his clear-headed thinking in the hours after the attack.
The court described the blitz stabbing attack as “brutal and cruel”.
“Numerous knife wounds showed determination, perseverance, and cold-bloodedness” said the judges.
“The knife wounds have, with certainty, caused the victim great pain and horror” the verdict said.
Rebecca Johnson’s family is expected to travel to Rovaniemi for the appeal court hearing.
A verdict could come in November but legal experts say it’s not common for a murder conviction to be overturned in cases like this.
“I would say it’s rather rare. You cannot say about a specific case, but you have to read the decision from the district court, and consider whether the evidence is clear or not. In this case the evidence is clear” local lawyer Johannes Ahola tells News Now Finland.
“In my opinion I recall there was not much to think about this legal consideration because the killing was done in such a way it was quite clear for the district court that it was murder, legally. In this specific case it is very probable that nothing will change at the appeal court” he adds.