Welcome to chapter 18 of my novel Christobel. It’s forward again to 2015 and Chris’s story. He’s about to face, with some trepidation, modern-day liberal Germany’s justice . . .
I hope you are enjoying this read. If you would like to begin at the beginning and discover what brought my protagonist to his dire situation, please go to the post Angels in the family in the January 2017 archive and then read each successive post on from there (apart from the post Unwelcome to Britain? which is not strictly anything to do with the book).
Chris had to wait in detention for nearly six months, until March of the following year, for the case to come to trial. Gunther Braun visited a couple of times to keep him abreast of the tortuous and seemingly endless pre-trial preliminaries. Frieda hadn’t visited anymore and, apart from three determinedly encouraging (but opened and vetted) letters from Gran, he had been left to his dismal thoughts.
Monday the fourteenth dawned grey, matching his depressed spirits. Osnabrück crouched under a leaden sky that seemed unable to decide whether to deposit its rain or save it for release elsewhere, as he was handcuffed to an impassive prison officer and taken, wearing a hired suit, shirt and sober tie, out into the courtyard and handed into a prison van. As he was led into an individual cubicle he passed others, one already occupied by Hans and his guard. Andreas, Braun had informed him, had been granted bail, albeit it on a heavy financial surety, as he was deemed unlikely to abscond or not attend, so he would be able to arrive under his own steam. Andreas and Hans would be represented by their own defence lawyers.
And so the day of judgement, at least the first one of probably three, according to Braun, had arrived for them all.
He was led in through a rear entrance and taken to the oak-panelled courtroom number three, which was not, as in the British fashion, on a first floor with steps ascending to it from the holding cells below. So, he thought miserably, wondering why the hell he should be thinking so trivially, there would not be the clichéd command after sentencing so beloved of countless television courtroom dramas to ‘take him down,’ if the fates were against him and the panel of judges found him guilty,
Hans and his escort followed him as they were taken to their places in the dock. Andreas was already seated there and gave him a curt unsmiling nod as he took his place beside him. The strain was evident on his gaunt face too. He was visibly thinner. Chris looked nervously around the court. The observation gallery was well populated. Birgit was there, flanked by a young man: the son, Kurt, Chris imagined (he had yet to meet him) and Frieda, who looked pale and anxious like her mother. She noticed his arrival and sent a faint, indecipherable smile.
Several other people were close by, an outer constellation of various ages and genders, presumably the wider family, and sitting slightly apart from them another mixed group. One of them would be Hans’s partner, no doubt, and the others presumably his family. Others again, wearing more relaxed expressions, were probably news journalists and perhaps other interested parties. Chris had no idea whether the general public was allowed by right to witness the German forces of legal authority judging their fellow citizens.
An official called the courtroom to stand as the panel of red-robed judges, five of them, three professional and two lay, filed in and took their seats. There were four men and one woman, their ages ranging from middle-aged to elderly. Chris scanned their faces, hoping to find expressions of understanding, of empathy. But they were all carefully neutral. The presiding judge, Herr Berufsrichter Wolfe according to Bauer, a tall, sober-faced man with black hair escaping the rim of his hat and seated in the centre of the row of five judges, spoke, addressing each of them in turn, asking them to stand and confirm their names.
He continued gravely, ‘The state prosecutor will now outline the charges against you. It is your right under the German criminal code to remain silent, but you also have the option to challenge any points of those charges. Do you understand that?’
The defendants murmured that they did. Scrupulously fair, the judge addressed Chris specifically. ‘Please confirm that it is clear to you, Herr Benson, and that you do not require an interpreter.’
‘Chris cleared his throat nervously. ‘Yes, I do understand, and no, I do not think I need an interpreter, thank you.’ Perhaps impeccable politeness would be a good policy; certainly no belligerent denial of guilt.
The fleeting ghost of a smile seemed to flit across Wolfe’s face. ‘Very well. If there are any words you do not understand, they will be made clear for you. We will proceed. Herr Abrahamson; will you now please read the charges against the defendants.’
Braun had told Chris about Abrahamson too, and not very encouragingly. He was Jewish and had well-publicised views about assisted suicide and euthanasia. He was firmly against it, under any circumstances, doubtless because of his heritage, and would prosecute a spirited impassioned case for guilty verdicts to be brought. He rose; a corpulent, bespectacled silver-haired man, and directed his gaze towards them. There was no trace of warmth in his expression at all; only animosity.
He began. ‘Andreas Ernst; the charge against you is that on the sixteenth of October twenty-fourteen, you procured the death of Dieter Ernst. To effect his death, you conspired with two others: Hans Neumann and Christopher Benson.’
He moved his gaze onto Hans. ‘Hans Neumann, the charge against you is that you injected Herr Ernst with a fatal overdose of barbiturate, fully knowing the inevitable outcome of that action, and unlawfully killed him.’
Now he turned to Chris. ‘And Christopher Benson, the charge against you is that you stole the necessary drug from the Friedrich Schiller Klinikum for Hans Neumann to use to kill Herr Ernst. So for you, as well as conspiracy to murder there is an additional charge of recklessly and without authority stealing a potentially dangerous drug from a medical establishment.’
Abrahamson turned his attention to the presiding judge. ‘Herr Vortitzender; those are the Prosecution’s charges against the defendants in brief. In more detail: Andreas Ernst first approached Christopher Benson asking him to kill Dieter Ernst. To his credit, I will concede, Herr Benson refused that request. Andreas Ernst then approached Hans Neumann, asking him to do the deed and offering him a substantial sum, two thousand Euros, as a bribe to do so. Hans Neumann accepted this but was unable to acquire the necessary drug. So Andreas Ernst approached Herr Benson again, asking him to obtain the barbiturate. He agreed to do this, and passed it to Andreas Ernst, who in turn handed it to Hans Neumann who injected Dieter Ernst during his sleep on the night of the sixteenth of October last year.
‘Hans Neumann reported to the day-shift carer, Clara Winkler, when he came on duty the following morning that Herr Ernst had died in his sleep. Frau Winkler’s suspicions were aroused though and he reported the death to the police, who instituted an autopsy which revealed the presence of a high level of the barbiturate, which would not have been used to treat Herr Ernst’s illness normally.
‘The police then arrested and questioned Hans Neumann, who after initially denying any wrongdoing implicated Andreas Ernst and Christopher Benson in Dieter Ernst’s murder.’ The prosecutor cast a baleful stare at the accused before looking back to the presiding judge. ‘And that, Herr Vortizender, is the case for the prosecution.’
The court waited until Judge Wolfe looked up after completing his note taking. ‘Thank you, Herr Abrahamson. I will now take the response to the charge on behalf of Hans Neumann. Frau Keller, if you please?’
A defending lawyer, a small, stick-thin woman wearing heavy black spectacles, rose. ‘Thank you, Herr Vortizender. My client Hans Neumann does not deny that he injected Herr Ernst with barbiturate during his sleep. That is not the issue here. But it is our contention that he was motivated by feelings of compassion rather than thoughts of murder. Dieter Ernst was near the end of his life and as far as he was concerned, it was an unhappy, empty and miserable existence. He had made his feelings known to my client on more than one occasion. His condition had deteriorated to the extent that he was bed-bound, virtually paralysed due to extreme muscle wastage and having increasing breathing difficulties. The prognosis was that his ability to swallow would soon disappear too, giving him even greater distress, both physically and emotionally.
‘He was unable to exercise his human right to end his own life and so could only have done so with assistance. He had expressed a wish to die, both to my client, his other carers and his family many times. But they had all refused, inhibited by their ethical compasses. After all, a carer’s role is, by definition, one of easing suffering and distress as much as possible, not ending life.’
Frau Keller spent another thirty minutes making the case that Hans should not be convicted of murder but, rather, be regarded as assisting a dying man in executing his wishes. She did not dwell on the Euros that had changed hands. Chris, listening intently in morbid fascination, thought that was probably because it was the weakest part, the least defensible part, of his defence. Finally she said, ‘And that completes the defendant Hans Neumann’s response to the charges, Herr Vortizender.’ She glanced towards the dock, gifting her client a half smile, and sat down.
Judge Wolfe thanked her. He addressed the lawyer leading Andreas’s defence team. ‘Herr Seidel. Will you now please present the response of Andreas Ernst.’
Seidel could hardly have been more different from Frau Keller; he was tall, stocky, florid in the face and thickly blond of hair, it fading into grey above his ears. The law clearly gave him a very comfortable living. ‘Thank you, Herr Vortizender. My client also does not deny the charge against him. And like Herr Neumann, his action in this business – requesting assistance in carrying out his father’s clearly expressed wishes to end his life, was not motivated by a wish to kill, or rid the family of an increasingly burdensome member. No; his actions, I would contend, were also entirely altruistic.
‘I invite the court to imagine his situation. Of course, most of us here today will have experienced the death of a parent. That is a sad inevitability of life. But thankfully, few will be presented with the circumstance of a dying loved-one actually wishing to end their life, on their own terms and at a time of their choosing. And in addition to that terrible situation, being asked to actively help in the execution of the loved-one’s wishes. That is a huge moral decision to have to make: whether to put civilised qualms about taking life aside and assist the terminally ill or permanently disabled person in suicide, or to deny their plea for help and condemn them to more days, weeks, months, years even, of miserable existence and suffering.
‘If I personally were not a legal professional and constrained by practice of the laws of Germany, I confess that I too would find it an impossible, un-resolvable dilemma. But I do have that constraint. In a sense, I would have a somewhat brutal veto placed upon my choice in that hypothetical circumstance. However, Andreas Ernst is a layman. Of course he must obey the laws of the Republic in all clear and unambiguous cases, but it could be argued philosophically that assisted suicide is a moral grey area. And whatever our personal views or opinions on the issue might be, Herr Ernst chose in love to respect and facilitate his father’s wishes. In my view, he should not be condemned for that.’
The defending lawyer spoke for another forty minutes with the voluble eloquence of someone presumably being paid a generous private fee, quoting numerous cases of precedent and expounding at length on definitions of assisted dying and euthanasia. Finally he brought his spiel to what seemed a reluctant end. Chairman Wolfe, suppressing a sigh of relief, suggested adjournment for lunch to his colleagues, received prompt nods of agreement, and the court rose.
Chris and Hans were re-handcuffed to warders to be led away to holding cells. Chris looked anxiously towards the observation gallery. All the family members were staring back at the dock. Birgit still looked pale, drawn and anxious, but Frieda managed another tight-lipped smile when he caught her eye. Andreas was joined by his smiling lawyer and they left the court. They, doubtless, would have a pleasanter lunch together than Andreas’s fellow-conspirators.
Chris could not work up an appetite for his lunch, even though it was only a sandwich on a plastic plate, an apple and a paper beaker of lukewarm coffee. He took two lethargic bites from the sandwich, ignored the fruit and had two sips of the over-sweet drink. Then there was nothing to do but wait, staring at the cell door with his gloomy thoughts for company, for the afternoon session.
It would be Gunther Braun’s turn next, to argue his own case. Hans and Andreas’s – particularly Frieda’s father’s – lawyers seemed to have presented a compelling defence for their clients to the stony-faced panel of judges, although it was impossible to know whether they were impressed by the arguments. He hoped, miserably, that Braun would be as persuasive. After all, surely his hand in the affair was comparatively trivial, wasn’t it? He had neither procured the easing of Dieter into his peaceful release nor actually facilitated it. But he desperately wished now that he hadn’t allowed himself to become involved at all.
But then, if he’d refused, Frieda’s poor old Opa might well have struggled on for more bleak months of wretchedness. Or even, possibly, still be alive now, clinging empty-eyed to a meaningless, joyless residue of life that was just a sad echo of happier times; still pleading to be helped into an endless merciful night.
Time dragged, allowing far too much accommodation of bleak thoughts, until the warder returned to re-handcuff and take Chris back to the forbidding theatre of justice. It was almost a relief to escape the dreadful limbo and resume the proceedings. As he took his seat again he looked anxiously across to the observation gallery again, craving a look of sympathy from Frieda, and this time, her eyes blinking, bright and liquid, she did manage a brave, fuller smile.
Braun rose to begin his defence. ‘Herr Vortizender, in common with Herr Neumann and Herr Ernst, the issue as far as Christopher Benson is concerned is not his actual involvement in the demise of Dieter Ernst but his motivation. He does not deny his part in it. But we would contend that there is no proof that he in any way gained financially from it. He says that he felt extremely sorry for Herr Dieter Ernst, but also that he had previously refused Andreas Ernst’s request to take a more active role in helping his beloved father die. It could be said that obtaining and supplying the barbiturate was Christopher Benson’s moral compromise, if you will. Whether that is an acceptable compromise should in our view be judged in the context of the particular circumstances.
‘It might be argued that Dieter Ernst should have made his own arrangements for suicide if that was his wish – possibly travelling to Switzerland, Holland or Belgium to seek assistance without involving his family or carers – before he became so incapacitated that he physically could not hold a beaker of the drug and swallow it unaided. Be that as it may, the fact is he did not decide that he no longer wished to continue living until comparatively recently, until his quality of life became greatly, indeed intolerably, diminished. And so, by then, his only option left was to ask for direct practical assistance in doing so.
‘And so therefore, we contend that Christopher Benson’s perhaps foolish minor involvement was in an act of mercy, certainly not an act of callous, calculating patricide. That, Herr Vortizender, is essentially the defence’s response to the charge against Christopher Benson.’
Gunther Braun sat down.