Chapter 20 of my novel Christobel, set back in 2015 with day two of Chris’s trial. His prospects still seem bleak . . .
If you would like to begin reading from the beginning, please go to the post Angels in the family in the January 2017 archive and read each successive post from there, except Unwelcome to Britain?, which isn’t a chapter post.
Day two of the trial. Gunther Braun had told Chris that it would be devoted to witness questioning – first, witnesses for the prosecution and then, if time allowed it, ones for the defendants. Chris wondered morosely who there could be who would be prepared to testify to his, Andreas’s or Hans’ good characters, given that it would possibly come down to that, as they were all admitting the charges and the prosecution case seemed cut and dried.
Frieda was there again, sitting with her family, as he was led into the dock and sat down. Andreas, also already there, gave him a small rueful smile. Frieda looked across and gifted a smile too. It seemed slightly warmer than previous ones. Or was he imagining that? Hans, who had taken his seat before him, stared ahead, grim-faced, but then his crime was probably the greatest in the eyes of the law. An official called the court to rise and the panel of judges filed in. After a few preliminaries presiding judge Wolfe said, ‘We will now hear witness testimonies for the prosecution please, Herr Abrahamson.’
The prosecutor rose. ‘Thank you, Herr Vortizender. I first call Clara Winkler.’
A young woman, stocky, blonde-plaited and rosy-cheeked, entered the courtroom and took her position on the witness stand. Wolfe said, ‘Do you confirm that you are Clara Winkler?’
The woman nodded and spoke, nervously. ‘Yes, I do.’
‘Thank you. Now do you wish to swear a religious oath, a non-religious oath or make an equivalent non-sworn affirmation?’
Clara Winkler looked mildly shocked. ‘Er, oh, a religious one, of course!’
‘Very well. Please raise your right hand. Do you swear by God the Almighty and Omniscient that, to the best of your knowledge, you will tell the pure truth and not conceal anything?’
Clara Winkler said, blushing, her cheeks even more roseate, ‘I swear, so help me God.’
Wolfe smiled kindly. ‘Thank you. Now, you are a care-professional, employed by the same social care company as Hans Neumann; is that correct?’
‘Yes, I am. Yes.’
‘And you and he were both employed caring for Herr Dieter Ernst?’
‘Yes, we were.’
‘And you were working with Hans Neumann in the execution of those duties on the seventeenth of October, two thousand and fourteen?’
‘Yes, that is correct.’
‘So would you tell the court please what happened regarding Herr Dieter Ernst on that date?’
Clara Winkler paused, frowning, as if marshalling her recollections and composure. Took a deep breath. ‘Yes. I arrived at the house at nine in the morning to begin the day shift.’
‘You were taking over from Hans Neumann, who had been working the previous night shift. Is that correct?’
‘Well, as soon as I got through the door, Hans told me that Herr Ernst was dead. That he had found him dead half an hour previously.’
‘He definitely said that; that Herr Ernst had died then?’
‘And what was his demeanour?’
‘What was Hans Neumann’s behaviour like? How did he seem?’
‘Well, he seemed distressed.’
‘Aren’t carers like yourselves accustomed to dealing with death though?’
‘Yes, we are, and although it’s never nice, we put our feelings aside and get on with things, doing what has to be done. But he seemed unusually upset.’
‘Did that seem odd to you?’
‘Well, not immediately.’
‘Right; we will come to that. So what did you do next?’
‘The procedure with a death is that we call the client’s physician as soon as possible, so that a death certificate can be issued. We have their name and contact number in the file.’
‘Your colleague had not already done that?’
‘No, he said he had not. Well, it was fairly early in the day and I suppose he felt there was no point in calling a doctor out as it wasn’t an emergency. And as I said, Hans was very upset.’
‘So what happened next? Did you call the doctor?’
‘Yes. Hans went home and I called him. Then I waited for him to arrive. It was over an hour before he came, because he said he had some patients to see first.’
‘What about informing the next of kin? I presume you had done that?’
‘Yes, I rang Frau Ernst and she said that she would tell her husband and the other members of the family.’
‘And what led you to suspect that things were not as they should have been?’
‘Well, I was not thinking that. At least not at first. When the doctor came I told him that the client had died about two hours previously, because Hans said it was at about eight-thirty. The doctor was surprised; he thought that death must have happened longer ago than that, because rigor mortis was fairly well established. He said it was in the entire face and neck and had already spread to the shoulders and upper arms. And also, he said, there was pronounced livor mortis; the undersides of the body and limbs were quite discoloured, which I think means the blood settling to the lowest points because it isn’t being pumped around the body anymore.’
‘Quite so,’ the judge interjected. ‘I think we may be having expert witness testimony which confirms that. So what finally decided you to contact the police?’
‘Well it was thinking about that later while I was waiting for the undertaker to come to collect the body: that actually Herr Ernst had died sometime during the night. If he had done so, why would Hans not have contacted the family as soon as it happened? It seemed almost as though there was no need for him to, because it had somehow been arranged, been expected, and they wouldn’t have needed to be informed. And also, I remembered that the client had asked all of us, Hans, Heidi and myself, to help him die. I just thought it a little odd, so then I reported it to the police.’
‘So you suspected there might have been some sort of conspiracy?’
‘No, not that exactly. It just seemed a bit strange.’
‘Mm. And so then the Kriminalpolizei attended at Herr Ernst’s house and you gave them the testimony you have repeated to this court?’
‘Yes, they came quite quickly, before the undertaker. They looked at the body and they asked where Han’s lived, and I gave them his phone number.’
‘I see. Thank you. Lawyers for the defence; do you have any questions of the witness?’
Both Braun and Seidel representing Andreas shook their heads but Keller for Hans got to her feet. ‘Frau Winkler; how would you describe your relationship with Hans Neumann?’
She looked puzzled. ‘I am sorry; how do you mean?’
‘Did you like him?’
‘Er, yes. We got along fine together.’
‘Well that is not the story my client tells. According to him, there was bad feeling between you two because of your attitude to his sexuality.’
Clara Winkler blushed again. ‘Well, that was nothing to do with me. It was his own business. It did not affect our working together.’
Hannah Keller smiled. ‘And there is no reason why it should, of course. But I would suggest that you disliked, disapproved of Hans Neumann, and also that you hold very firm pro-life views, and that was why you reported your concerns to the police. You wanted to get him into trouble.’
The presiding judge interrupted again. ‘Frau Keller, the witness’s opinion of the defendant and his sexual orientation, and his personal values-system, really are an irrelevance. They do not alter the facts of the case at all, as I am sure you well know. We are here to establish whether Hans Neumann murdered Dieter Ernst for personal financial gain or assisted his dying for altruistic reasons. I direct that this line of questioning be removed from the record.’
‘My apologies, Herr Vortizender,’ Keller said, somewhat resignedly, and sat down.
The judge thanked and dismissed Clara Winkler and, scowling at Hans, she left the courtroom.
The prosecutor rose again. ‘Herr Vortizender, I now call Kriminalkommisar Müller.’
Müller took the stand and took the oath. The presiding judge resumed. ‘You are Kriminalkommisar Franz Müller of Osnabrück police?’
‘And you investigated the suspicious death of Herr Dieter Ernst?’
‘Yes, I and my team did.’
‘Please take us through the events of the seventeenth of October, twenty-fourteen.’
Müller took a notebook from his pocket and cleared his throat. ‘At eleven-oh-six that morning, we received a call from Frau Clara Winkler, reporting a suspicious death. I spoke to her myself. She said that the doctor who had attended to certify death had given an estimated time of death at some variance with her colleague Hans Neumann’s reported time.
‘I sent one of my officers, Kriminalmeister Schumann, and two uniformed officers to the address, where he took a statement from Frau Winkler and inspected the deceased. Schumann observed that there was evidence of both rigor mortis and livor mortis, both well-established, suggesting that death had occurred longer ago than the defendant’s reported time.
‘He reported back to me, and having ascertained the defendant’s contact number, we telephoned and then visited him. I asked him to explain why he had reported the death as having occurred later in the morning than seemed plausible, and at first he said that he had made a mistake in his timing because of the stress of the death. When I put it to him that the likely time of death was possibly around midnight or one o’clock, and asked why he hadn’t reported it to the next of kin then, he became very evasive. I then arrested him and we took him to headquarters for further questioning.
‘We provided him with a preliminary lawyer, who advised him to remain silent. We then detained him in custody and applied for consent for an urgent autopsy on the deceased. That autopsy showed the presence of a high dose of barbiturate and another drug in his blood, sufficient to cause death. We then interviewed him again and he confessed to having injected the drugs at around one-thirty in the morning, whilst Herr Ernst was sleeping. He said that he had done so in the presence of and with the permission of Herr Andreas Ernst, the son of the deceased. And also at the deceased’s request.
‘We then arrested and questioned Andreas Ernst, who was also evasive at first but then admitted that he had asked Hans Neumann to administer the drug. He also said that the deceased had requested that this be done, and that he and Neumann were carrying out his wishes in a spirit of compassion.
‘I asked Andreas Ernst how the drug had been obtained and after some pressing on the point he admitted it had been taken from the Friedrich Schiller Klinikum by his daughter’s boyfriend Christopher Benson, who worked there as a nurse. I then arrested Herr Benson, who after initially exercising his right to silence admitted that he had done so and given it to Andreas Ernst, who passed it to Hans Neumann for administering.
‘In a later interview I asked Andreas Ernst why Christopher Benson hadn’t administered the injection. He said that he had asked him to but Herr Benson had refused, and then he had persuaded Hans Neumann to do it instead. I asked whether he had paid him a fee for doing this, and he denied doing so. But an examination of his bank account showed a transfer of a sum of two thousand Euros to Hans Neumann’s personal account.
‘As a result of all these findings, I applied to the regional investigating judge for the indictment of Hans Neumann, Andreas Ernst and Christopher Benson of complicity in the murder of Dieter Ernst.’
Müller finished speaking. Judge Wolfe said, ‘Does that conclude your evidence. Herr Kriminalkommisar?’
‘Thank you. Are there any questions from defence lawyers?’
All three shook their heads. Abrahamson rose again. ‘Herr Vortizender, I now call Doktor Klaus Differing.’
The court waited as a white-haired, grey-stubbled, elderly man, gaunt-framed in a tweed suit, took the witness stand. He elected to make the non-sworn affirmation and took a notebook from his inside jacket pocket. Judge Wolfe began. ‘Herr Doktor Differing, did you perform an autopsy on the body of the late Dieter Ernst on the evening of the seventeenth of October, twenty-fourteen?’
‘And what were your findings?’
‘Apart from the normal post-mortem indications, the body was in an advanced state of muscular and neurological degeneration due to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.’
‘Could you express that in layman’s terms, please?’
‘Yes, of course. My apologies. Effectively, severe muscle wasting and atrophy caused by a motor neurone disease.’
‘Would the person have been in a high degree of distress or discomfort, in your opinion?’
Differing smiled sadly. ‘Oh yes; most certainly. In the latter stages of the disease, in addition to total paralysis, breathing and even eventually swallowing would become difficult and then fail. It would be a miserable state to be in.’
‘I see. And did you detect any other unusual indications?’
‘Yes. Haematological tests showed high levels of the sedative sodium thiopental and also the muscle relaxant pancuronium.’
‘And are these drugs that are routinely used in palliative management of motor neurone disease?’
‘Well, no. Not at all. The sedative used in high dosage would rapidly induce coma – sometimes it is used medically for just that purpose when necessary – and a high dosage of muscle relaxant stops the heart, which of course is fatal unless artificial circulation temporarily replaces it – such as during major surgery.’
‘Yes; obviously. So, used together, these two drugs could have a clear application for euthanasia?’
Differing bridled visibly. ‘Well, if you must use that term, yes,’ he retorted.
‘Please respect the court, Herr Doktor,’ Judge Wolfe said sternly. ‘That is the issue we are trying here.’
Differing bowed his head. ‘My apologies.’
‘Where you able to establish a probable time of death?’ Wolfe asked.
‘Yes, I was, give or take an hour or so.’ The pathologist consulted his notebook, turning the pages unhurriedly as the judge and court waited patiently. ‘I saw the deceased at seven in the evening and the degree of bodily degeneration suggested a period of mortality of sixteen to eighteen hours. That would place the time of death between one and two o’clock the previous night.’
‘I see. Thank you, Herr Doktor.’ Wolfe turned to the lawyers. ‘Do the representatives of any of the defendants wish to question the witness?’
Andreas’s man was on his feet immediately.
‘I take it, Herr Doktor, that using these two drugs would be a completely distress-free means of effecting death?’
‘Oh, yes. Absolutely. It would be entirely humane. It would be like falling asleep, or going under anaesthesia, and simply never waking up. It would certainly be something I would choose for myself if I had a really distressing terminal condition.’
‘Yes, well we aren’t asking your opinion on the matter, Herr Doktor, with respect,’ Wolfe commented drily. ‘Now, are those all the questions of this witness?’ He looked questioningly at the defendants’ team and received a trinity of nods. ‘Very well. The court will adjourn for lunch.