In Kassel the court has spoken, and its words are a stern warning to us all: do not kill and eat people (unless you are prepared to give up eight and a half years of freedom for the privilege).
Yes, the trial of Armin Meiwes, the ‘Rotenburg cannibal’, has come to its end, and I suppose nobody will be very happy at the outcome. The prosecution had demanded a verdict of ‘guilty of murder’, which brings a sentence of life imprisonment (on paper; in reality, a minimum of 15 years before eligibility for release can be considered). The defence by contrast asked for a finding of ‘killing on request’, which bears a tariff of six months to five years. In the event, the court pronounced Meiwes guilty of manslaughter and sentenced him to 8½ years.
With the most obsequious respect to their lordships, this result strikes me as muddle-headed and contemptible. There were some odd things about this case, and they seem to have inspired the court to seek out a via media (as many had predicted they would). But it is worth recalling the words of that eminent Texan philosopher whose name escapes me for the moment: there ain’t nothing in the middle of the road but white stripes and dead armadillos.
It would not, perhaps, go amiss at this point quickly to review the relevant provisions of the Criminal Code. Section 211 declares a murderer to be one who ‘kills a person … out of lust for killing, for the gratification of the sex drive, … or in a brutal manner….’ I’ve left out the bits that don’t seem at first blush to apply to Meiwes’s act, but I do think we can squeeze that act into one or more of the categories cited.
Killing on request, ? 216 Crim. C., is one of those bad laws made by hard cases. It is designed to express public disapprobation of euthanasia while recognising that there are cases where treating the perp as a murderer (with its minimum 15 year tariff) seems grossly inappropriate. Now, you are probably saying to yourself about now, ‘Surely though this wasn’t meant to cover asking to be eaten.’ But if the text of the law is unambiguous on its face, we cannot look past it to enquire what the legislator was thinking. And in this case the text provides a mild sentence for one who ‘is moved to kill by the express and sincere request of the victim.’ The legislator was thinking of mercy killings, but if Meiwes’s action fit the description in the statute, then that is the act of which he may be found guilty, and what the legislator might having been thinking matters damn-all. But the evidence makes perfectly clear that this is not the case. Yes, Meiwes’s dinner companion earnestly sought to serve as dinner. But his request was not needed to move Meiwes to kill him. Meiwes had long and actively sought his meal; the meal’s express and sincere requests were important to him only insofar as he sought a consenting victim, and the consent of the victim does not excuse homicide.
The court took a middle path, finding Meiwes guilty of manslaughter (? 212 Crim. C.). Now, this is not quite as egregiously perverse as it might seem to readers from the Anglo-American tradition. At common law (and in its codified modern descendants) manslaughter has a positive element: it is killing in the heat of the moment (traditionally, in ‘chance medley’) after adequate provocation. The German concept of manslaughter (Totschlag), by contrast, is defined negatively: any killing (that is illegal and without valid defence) that is not murder. Even so, manslaughter looks a false call in this case. Manslaughter German-style requires that none of the elements of murder be present and, as I discussed above, it is hard to see how this could be true here. I believe the judges allowed themselves to be troubled by the unusual fact of the victim’s consent. They shouldn’t have let this trouble them; their judgement is, IMO, wrong as to both fact and law. I imagine the prosecution will appeal (and, in the German system, there may be appeal as to both factual and legal matters).
Note that this is all my first impression, without benefit of having read the opinion. Still, it’s hard to imagine how the judges’ reasoning put on paper would seem any less convoluted and mistaken.
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Though I have hard words for the court in this case, I suppose I should tip my hat to the German media. This was a sensational case to be sure, yet there has been little media sensationalism over it. (Without having seen it, I’d bet there was a fair bit of racy reporting in the Bild-Zeitung, but I refer here to media intended for people who aren’t illiterate.) I was in the USA when OJ Simpson allegedly killed his wife and her companion, and during his trial. All American media, it seemed, swiftly made the transition to ‘all OJ, all the time’ format. My agents in America inform me that something similar is going on right now, concerning the trial of a man in California alleged to have murdered his pregnant wife. The German media are to be commended for viewing news as something other than grand-guignol entertainment.