Page last updated at 08:20 GMT, Wednesday, 17 June 2009 09:20 UK

Babes-in-freezer trial grips France

A verdict is due this week in "the babes in the freezer" case, in which a French mother is accused of murdering three of her children. BBC Paris correspondent Emma Jane Kirby reports on the mixture of horror and sympathy that the story has aroused.

When 41-year-old Veronique Courjault took the stand last week in the courtroom in Tours, she was described by all the newspapers here as looking "fragile", "sad" and "pale".

Veronique Courjault pictured in 2006
Veronique Courjault is described as an "exemplary mother" to her two sons

Naturally a heavy-set woman, she appeared to have lost a lot of weight in the three years she has spent in pre-trial detention. Some journalists commented on the desperate look she shot her husband Jean-Louis, who has promised to stand by her.

In almost every report there was a tone of pity - a far cry from the initial reactions of disgust and horror that met the original unveiling of her shocking story in the summer of 2006.

It came to light when Jean-Louis Courjault found the bodies of two babies in the freezer, at the family's home in the South Korean capital, Seoul. Mrs Courjault was on holiday in France at the time, and refused to go back.

In the run-up to her trial, it seems that every leading pregnancy expert in France has been interviewed by the media - and suddenly people here are no longer talking about premeditated murder, they are talking about an intriguing psychological condition called pregnancy denial.

In the flood of articles on the subject this week, it was a double-page spread in the left-leaning Liberation which really grabbed my attention.

The figures the paper gave were startling - every year in France, between 1,600 and 2,000 women apparently suffer from pregnancy denial, and at least 230 discover or admit they're pregnant only at the moment they give birth.

Surprisingly, most of the examples cited were not of teenage girls who had never had a baby - they were mainly mothers of at least two children who were all so mentally opposed to the thought of having another child that they didn't show a single physical symptom of their pregnancy.


Apart from a tiny weight gain of one or two kilos there were no visible changes to their bodies. Many of the women even continued to menstruate - the need to deny the pregnancy was so strong, explained doctors, that the mind controlled the body and suppressed all external manifestations of the pregnancy.

As far as I was concerned they were never children - it was a part of myself that I was killing.
Veronique Courjault

Veronique Courjault, who already has two teenage sons, and who is said by her family and colleagues to be "an exemplary mother", initially denied any connection to the bodies found in her freezer, but after DNA tests proved she and her husband were the natural parents, she admitted suffocating the two infants in South Korea in 2002 and 2003.

She also admitted killing and burning the body of a third baby she bore in France in 1999.

She explained to investigators she and her husband had agreed they did not want any more children and that during her three subsequent pregnancies, she had felt no connection with the babies growing inside her.

Jean-Louis Courjault in court
Jean-Louis Courjault says his wife needs help, not punishment

She managed to conceal her condition from her husband and all her family, including a sister-in-law who was a medical doctor.

"I could not feel them move inside me," she told psychiatrists, after admitting she'd given birth in the bath and had suffocated the infants. "As far as I was concerned they were never children. It was a part of myself, an extension of myself that I was killing."

In previous statements to the police, however, she also claimed: "I decided straight away not to keep the baby I was carrying."

Psychological stress

Jurors have to now decide whether Veronique Courjault was suffering from a psychological disorder, or whether she is guilty of premeditated murder.

It was neither a case of total denial, or even partial denial
Dr Fanny Puel-Metivier, prosecution witness

Her own lawyers insist hers is a classic case of pregnancy denial. Her husband, who has regularly and loyally visited his wife in prison - and who has himself been cleared of any involvement in the deaths - also believes she acted out of extreme psychological stress and needs help, not punishment.

Professor Israel Nisand, an obstetrician called to give evidence in her defence, has even suggested that the babies could have died during their birth, due to complications that can occur when a woman gives birth alone.

But in court on Tuesday, a psychiatrist called as a witness for the prosecution, Dr Fanny Puel-Metivier, was adamant that Veronique Courjault was completely aware of her pregnancies. "It was neither a case of total denial, or even partial denial," she insisted. "She knew she was pregnant and she told us she did."

With psychologists and medical experts so divided, the presiding judge, Georges Domergue has extended the trial by 24 hours to give "everyone the chance to express themselves and to put forward their arguments".

If the jurors decide on Thursday that Veronique Courjault is guilty of murder, she faces life in prison.

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