When my seventeen year old son was mugged this year, coming home on a late weekend tram, he lost his iPod along with his Beats headset. I felt sympathetic, but not shocked, that he had been shaken down, even though we live in a quiet village on the outskirts of Geneva.
The city has been experiencing a crime wave—at least by the standards of the Swiss countryside—with about 700 house break-ins a month. Unemployment for youths under 25 in nearby France, about a mile from our house, is now more than 25%, but more than double that for illegal immigrants, for whom house burglaries in Geneva are one of the few growth industries.
Nor is it unusual to hear that a teenager has had something stolen or been roughed up. In my son’s case he wasn’t badly hurt; he took some punches to the head. Most of his wounds were to his childhood sense of security.
He reported the incident to the police, who picked him up at the tram crime scene, drove around looking for the muggers, and dropped him back at home. A few days later he filed a more substantial report with a detective, who promised to look at the security tapes on the tram. We expected the matter to end there.
Under the sway of late-night television, I was for staking out the tram on weekend nights, a proposal my wife dismissed as worthy only of Charles Bronson (Yeah? Well, what if the cops can't handle this?). My wife rolled her eyes.
A few weeks later, however, the Geneva police called to say that they not only had apprehended the muggers—all local Swiss, not Lyonnais gangsters—but had gone to the house of one of them and found a stash of loot, including my son’s iPod and his Beats.
Equally incredible, that night two detectives came to our house close to midnight and returned the robbed goods. The detectives explained to my son that he had the option to press charges against the three, and give testimony in court, which he agreed to do, and that he could claim damages from the incident.
We showed up at the appointed hour and were led into a wood-paneled, sparely furnished courtroom, locally called “Le Tribunal des Mineurs.” The only police officers were sitting outside in a waiting room, next to one of the defendant’s parents.
As if called to the principal’s office, the three attackers were seated on small chairs directly in front of the judge, who sat alone behind a long desk. They looked like other teenagers I see on the street — jeans, sneakers, varsity jackets, and vacant expressions — but without iPhones. Behind the defendants sat three lawyers, testament that the muggers came from some means.
Dressed casually, without robes or a necktie, the judge began by asking my son what happened. In Swiss cases, the judge hears the witnesses and dictates a summary to a court reporter. There was no jury.
My son went over how these three kids, about sixteen- or seventeen-years-old, had sat behind him on a bus, and followed after him when he changed to a tram. When they were the only ones left on the street car, they asked him for a cigarette (he said he didn’t smoke).
When the tram reached the end of the line, my son chose to sit tight in the bright lights under the surveillance cameras, rather than to make a run for the doors. He'd been unable attract the attention of the driver. When he finally decided to make a break, the gang of three surrounded him, shoved him back into his seat, hit him with their fists, and made off with his gear.
The judge asked my son what he did next, and he said, “I called 117” (the police). The judge responded quickly, “But how?” My son described how, when the kids sat down behind him on the empty train, he managed to slip his phone and wallet into his underwear. The judge almost whistled when he said, “Bravo.”
Then he questioned the attackers professionally, sternly, and, often, incredulously. He asked them if the testimony was true, and they said it was. He asked if they wanted to “say anything to the victim.” From their three mouths came stuttered, awkward apologies.
The judge ended the court session by asking the three muggers what they would do if they saw their victim on the street (my son chuckled when one said he would “shake his hand”). The three were forced to go on the record, before a judge, that they would do him no additional harm if they met by chance.
The court reporter printed out the transcript, my son signed three copies, and the judge explained that because it was a juvenile court the sentencing would not be made public.
As juveniles, the three will not be sentenced to jail, but to a court program dealing with youthful offenders. I can imagine them attending anger-management classes, unless they were part of some larger, more violent crime syndicate, although I doubt that is the case. The pros don’t roll their victims under security cameras and stash the loot in bedrooms decorated with soccer posters.
When the judge excused us, he walked over to my son, and said, “It took courage for you to come here today.” He shook his hand.
I felt as if it were 1935 and I was listening to a justice of the peace lecture three kids about delinquent behavior. He wasn’t looking to send them up the river, but he spoke for a society that does not condone personal violence, especially in public places against strangers. I sensed the three got his message. At least, they were forced to hear it.
In the annals of crime, this mugging means nothing, except to those involved. The prosecution did nothing to reduce the wave of house burglaries; those are the work of gangs operating out of Lyon and elsewhere in France. But the Geneva judge treated this matter as if he had the fate of several lives in his hands, and, in my view, he handled those lives with professionalism and care.
Matthew Stevenson, a contributing editor of Harper's Magazine, is the author of Remembering the Twentieth Century Limited, a collection of historical travel essays. His next book is Whistle-Stopping America.
Flickr Photo by Alain Rouiller- rouilleralain — a street in a village near Geneva.