Chapter 22 of Christobel, back in present-day Germany. The trial of Chris and his fellow-defendents is in full swing. He has no idea what the outcome, the verdict, will be, but he isn’t optimistic . . .
If you would like to begin at the beginning, please go to the post Angels in the family in the January 2017 archive and then read each succeding post on from there, except Unwelcome to Britain?, which isn’t a chapter post.
After another listless toying with his lunch, Chris was taken back to court for the afternoon session. Andreas and Hans looked no happier than him either. Herr Vortizender resumed the proceedings. ‘We will now hear a witness for the defence of Hans Neumann. I call Frieda Ernst.’
Chris was jolted out of his lethargy. Frie!
She made her way to the witness stand, not meeting his eye, and nervously regarded the judges. Swore the non-religious oath. Confirmed her name. Wolfe began. ‘And you are the granddaughter of Herr Dieter Ernst?’
‘Yes, I am.’
‘Would you please describe your grandfather’s state of mind during’ – Wolfe paused as if mentally calculating a significant or reasonable period – ‘shall we say, the last three months?’
‘He was becoming increasingly depressed. He said more than once that he felt he had nothing left to live for.’
‘You say “increasingly?”’
‘Yes, definitely. He had steadily become more unhappy as his condition worsened and especially after my grandmother died in February last year.’
‘I see. And – forgive me if this is distressing – depressed to the point where he expressed a wish to die?’
Frieda bit her lower lip, which had begun to tremble. ‘Yes.’
‘On one occasion, or more than that?’
‘More than that.’
‘How many times?’
Frieda paused, furrowing her brow, trying to recollect. ‘Oh, four times at least. He had left it and gone beyond the stage where he could have done it himself. He could not have travelled to Switzerland or The Netherlands or somewhere like that without assistance and no one in the family was prepared to travel with him to help him. Perhaps, while my grandmother was still alive he had not had such desperate thoughts. He first asked me if I would give him an injection or something in July, round about then, but I refused. Apart from my ethical feelings, I was not qualified to do it of course. Administer drugs, I mean. Giving injections is not part of my job and I would not have known the proper dosage and would have been afraid of, er, bungling it . . .’ She trailed off, blushing, aware of perhaps having said too much.
‘Quite so. And were all the requests for help to die made to yourself?’
‘No. The second time he asked my father. I know that because my father told me. But he was even less qualified to do it than me, and refused too.’
‘I see. And what happened the time after that?’
‘Well, my Grandfather tried asking his care staff: Hans and Clara and Heidi, but they also all refused. I know that because Hans told me.’
‘And Hans Neumann definitely declined to do it?’
‘Well, yes. That’s what he told me.’
‘You said there were more than three times, Frau Ernst’ Wolfe reminded her.
‘Erm, there was one other time, very near . . . the end of his life.’ Frieda hesitated. The recalling was painful.
‘Please go on,’ the judge urged gently.
‘It was the last time I saw him. It was not really a direct request that time. More, a general plea for . . . release, I think. He was even more depressed. He said that he thought it pointless carrying on. And he was certainly in a very poor physical state. He had lost all use of his limbs and was bedridden, and his breathing was very difficult. He was on oxygen. Chris – Christopher – and I, and Hans, tried to make him as comfortable as we could, but he said if he were a pet, we would call a vet to send him to sleep. I said a human life was much more valuable than a pet’s or something like that, but he asked why he couldn’t just be helped to slip away. I said that we could not do that; it was a human rights issue, and he said, what about his human right, his free will, to choose the time and manner of his passing himself.
‘It was a really difficult situation for me: I did not know how to answer him. Soon after that we left. But he must have spoken to my father and asked him again, because he – my father – asked Christopher if he would do it.’
‘How do you know that?’
Frieda cast an anxious glance at Andreas. ‘Because I was present at the time. My father telephoned us at our apartment that last time we saw my grandfather, after we got home, and asked Christopher to give him an injection. He thought that he would know the right sort of drug to use. But he refused to do it too.’
‘And were you aware that your father had then a few days later approached Hans Neumann, offering him money to give the injections, which he had agreed to do, and that he had then persuaded Christopher Benson to steal and provide the necessary drugs?’
Frieda flushed. ‘No! I was not! I knew nothing about it.’
‘How would you have felt about it if you had known?’
‘Um, I would have been appalled, at the time . . .’
‘At the time? Have you changed your view?’
She was flustered now. ‘Well, not about the, er, irregularity of stealing the drugs. That is a serious matter.’ She stole a glance at Chris. ‘And so is the tempting of Hans with money. But about the general principle of helping people to die if they wish to: yes I have, a little. I can see now that it is a complex issue, now that I have had personal experience of the situation – have had a loved one die in those circumstances, I mean.’
‘How do you see it as complex?’
‘Well, because there are moral considerations and also ones of possible exploitation of the vulnerable, but I have come to think that my grandfather was right. That he had the ultimate human right to end his life when it became unbearable for him, and if he could not physically do it himself, it was reasonable to ask help in doing so.’
‘But it went beyond “helping”, did it not? It was active homicide in the eyes of the law as it is presently understood.’
Frieda bowed her head, abashed. ‘Yes, I suppose so, technically speaking. But it was the only way my grandfather could have been helped, and it was a completely peaceful and painless end for him, I think. Like simply passing away in his sleep. I now think we were being a little cruel to him in refusing to help at first. We were selfishly putting our own moral and emotional feelings ahead of his. It was an act of kindness and . . . mercy.’ Her voice trailed away to a whisper.
The courtroom fell silent. Two of the judges bowed their heads too, in apparent empathy, seemingly touched by Frieda’s words.
The spell was broken by Judge Wolfe. ‘Thank you, Frau Ernst,’ he said gently. ‘You may stand down’. He looked at his notes. ‘We will now hear the final Prosecution summing up. If you please, Herr Abrahamson.’
Abrahamson got to his feet. ‘Thank you Herr Vortizender. Yes, we have just heard a somewhat heartfelt testimony by the witness for the defence. I will concede that. But I would remind the court that we are trying the defendants not on the basis of personal and therefore subjective and variable moral opinion, but on that of a higher moral authority: God. The Good Book tells us that life, all life, whether at its inception or nearing its end, and no matter how imperfect it’s bodily form, is sacred. I am completely at one with Christian colleagues on this matter. It is a simple matter of theological teaching, whatever our faith.
‘There may be a groundswell of popular opinion in the country at the moment in favour of so-called “mercy killing”, but in some matters the wisdom of legislators must transcend the populistic view; the guidance of the highest moral court, our Creator, must prevail. After all, as a civilised country, we no longer execute, some would say judicially kill, murderers, no matter how heinous their crimes. But if it were left to public opinion on that matter, we might still be doing so.
‘Society – and our German society in particular, given our dark Nazi past, must be forever vigilant against an insidious slide towards euthanasia. If other countries, like some of our neighbours, choose that course, it is up to them. But here in Germany, for obvious historical reasons, our moral compass must be, and must be seen to be, completely impeccable. The weakest and most vulnerable members of our society must be protected against any possibility that they might be, so to speak, disposed of, sanctioned by a dubious legal permission, because they are in any way a burden. Or of course for nefarious reasons like family members hoping to gain financially from the early death of a loved one, although I do not suggest that is the case with regard to Andreas Ernst or Christopher Benson
‘There is also the “slippery slope” argument. The history of social development tends to be in the direction of increased liberalism and enlightenment, and in many cases I would wholeheartedly agree with that. Such as in the example I cited a little while ago of capital punishment, and attitudes to the punishment of criminality generally; and social attitudes on race or sexual orientation too. But to lump those unquestionably desirable examples of progress in social attitudes together with issues of sanctity of life is a false equivalence.
‘So what might be seen by its proponents as a small, carefully controlled liberalisation of the law on euthanasia could very easily creep towards a much wider legal permissiveness.
‘But that is not really the issue being judged here today. The bench is charged with judging not only a moral crime but a legally-defined one too, according to the current criminal code; whether or not the Bundestag changes legislation on this matter in the near future is irrelevant. We can only apply law as it presently exists; not anticipate the law of the future.
‘Therefore, to reiterate, the Prosecution’s case is that Hans Neumann, tempted by the bribe offered him by Andreas Ernst, did knowingly cause the death of Dieter Ernst. We might quibble about precise semantics: murder or euthanasia, and there is the sentimental view that if it was done “humanely” it was no different from a situation where Herr Ernst had died without awareness in his sleep; but the fact remains that Neumann took Herr Ernst’s life.
‘And we also contend that Andreas Ernst, as an intelligent man and a journalist, was perfectly aware that euthanasia is illegal in Germany but still chose to effect his father’s death by persuading, with bribery, Hans Neumann to do the actual deed. Therefore, he is equally complicit in Herr Ernst’s death.
‘And further, we contend that Christopher Benson was complicit and guilty too. He may have had no financial motivation, but equally he did not have the possible mitigation of being a loving family member distressed by Herr Dieter Ernst’s unfortunate situation. The fact is that he recklessly stole drugs from his employer, the Friedrich Schiller Klinikum to facilitate the euthanasia. And furthermore, he abused his status as a guest worker in Germany after only a few months in our country. That is a serious betrayal of trust.’
‘And so I respectfully request that the bench finds all three defendants: Hans Neumann, Andreas Ernst and Christopher Mark Benson, guilty of performing, procuring or aiding a reckless and illegal medical procedure, as none of them are doctors; and of the greater crime of euthanasia.’
With that, his lengthy oration complete and to barely-concealed sighs of relief from two of the judges, Abrahamson sat down. Vortizender Wolfe said, ‘Can we now have the closing statements for the defence. Frau Keller, if you please.’
Hannah Keller stood. With less verbosity than Abrahamson, she summed up the defence case for Hans. Again she skirted deftly around the weak point: his having accepted money to do the deed. She spoke of his admission of the charge against him but his sympathy for Dieter in his distress; how he had only agreed to do what he did because his client had asked, indeed pleaded, to be helped in his release. Of how he had later been further pressurised and tempted into it by Andreas Ernst. Asserted that he would never for a moment have hastened Dieter’s end otherwise. Maintained that he was a well thought of, conscientious carer who had perhaps crossed an ethical line in a moment of somewhat misplaced compassion, but he had done it for the best of reasons.
She was followed by Seidel for Andreas. His speech was longer, matching in length but making the philosophical counter-arguments to Abrahamson’s. Whilst conceding that his client was possibly wrong to persuade Hans to act illegally with a tempting bag of gold, he reiterated his points about ultimate freedom of choice over one’s own body; one’s own life. He again discussed distinctions between passively assisting suicide – handing over a lethal draught for self-administration – and actively doing so, contending that the difference became academic when the patient had expressly and desperately requested help but was unable to die by his own hand. Fixing each judge in turn with an unblinking stare, holding their gaze, he spoke of meaningful quality of life as opposed to enforced prolongation of a miserable existence.
Becoming theatrically emotive, leaving pauses between points for absorbing and reflection, he again asked them to imagine themselves in the invidious position of Andreas Ernst when faced with a suffering parent who in his mental anguish had asked help to pass peacefully away. Did they, as civilised, compassionate, empathetic people, have the right to insist he deny his loved one that release? Did society have the right to condemn a fellow human being to extended unnecessary misery in the name of religious mores which were followed by some people, of faith, but not everyone, and not the dying person in question?
He put it to them that whilst Germany did, obviously, have to be permanently mindful of and learn from its dark past, and that whilst taking a life in any circumstance without the victim’s consent was clearly murder or, if unintended, manslaughter, sedating a suffering, willing person to sleep and then causing their heart to stop beating was quite another matter. It was indeed an act of mercy. It was a good death.
Seidel finished and passed his gaze down the row of judges again, lingering on each face, engaging each conscience, before quietly taking his seat.
The court was silent again, digesting Seidel’s words. Then Judge Wolfe spoke, inviting closing remarks from Gunther Braun. He was as brief as Keller had been. Perhaps he felt that his colleague had spoken with sufficient eloquence and persuasive humanity for all the defendants. He said again that Chris’s action, although illegal, had been relatively marginal; he had not actively participated in the assisted suicide – he too avoided the word euthanasia – of Dieter Ernst. He expressed his client’s regret at contravening, for altruistic motives, German law and said he felt deep contrition. He pleaded with the judges to recognize the moral dilemma that Chris too had faced, and invited them to show understanding and leniency. And then, leaving them with that thought to ponder, he sat down.
The presiding judge looked across to Hans, Andreas and Chris. ‘Do any of the defendants wish to make a closing statement? Herr Neumann?’
Hans mutely shook his head.
‘No. Er, thank you.’ Chris mumbled. He had understood nearly all of what the Prosecutor and defence council had said and any unfamiliar words had been explained by context. But he couldn’t think of any words of mitigation or defence. Just ‘I’m sorry.’
Andreas spoke, firmly, almost defiantly. ‘Yes, Herr Vortizender. I would like to make a statement, please.’
‘Very well. Please come to the witness stand.’
Andreas crossed the chamber to the stand; stood waiting.
‘There is no need to swear an oath. What did you wish to say?’
‘Thank you, Herr Vortizender. Well; just this. Firstly, I wish to apologize to my fellow-defendants for involving them in this business. It was unfair of me, although it seemed at the time that it was the only thing I could do. I would like to say that I feel their motives were entirely honourable and motivated only by altruism and kindness. Even Herr Neumann’s, although there was a fee involved.’
Andreas hesitated. Wolfe said, ‘Is that all?’
‘Er, no. I would like to say something about the actual circumstances of my father’s death. Give my public testimony of it.’
‘Very well. Please proceed.’
Andreas drew a deep breath. ‘Thank you. I visited my father on the morning of October the sixteenth, last year. He was extremely distressed. Weeping, in fact. He had previously asked my help in dying, as the court has heard, and also asked both his carers, my daughter and Christopher Benson for assistance, but had been unsuccessful. But he was now desperate, and it was pitiful to see. I doubted whether Clara Winkler or the other carer, Heidi, would participate in assisting my father to die but thought that Hans Neumann might possibly be persuaded. So, out of earshot of her – Clara; she was on duty – I told my father that I would try to arrange something.
‘I left him and returned home, and telephoned Hans. I thought he might respond to the offering of a fee to give my father a lethal injection and, desperate to find help, offered him two thousand Euros. At first he declined again, but after more attempts to persuade him, he agreed to do it, although he did not know what the procedure for helping a person die like that was. I spent some time on the internet trying to find out what it was and discovered the appropriate dose of sedative to administer to induce coma and the dosage of muscle relaxant to stop the heart.
‘Then in the afternoon I telephoned Christopher Benson at the Friedrich Schiller Klinikum and asked whether he could obtain those drugs. At first he was reluctant, like Hans, but I told him what a wretched and desperate state my father was in and he finally agreed. An hour later he phoned to say that he had them and I went to the hospital to see him, and he discretely passed them to me. Then I had to wait for Hans to come on duty at midnight. I drove to my father’s house. My father was still awake and still in a parlous state.
‘I told him that I had the drugs and asked if he still wanted Hans to inject them. He said yes; he cried and pleaded with Hans to do so.’
Andreas paused, clamped his mouth shut and swallowed, bowing his head, his eyes misting. He struggled for control for a few seconds, then resumed. ‘Sorry. I sat with him and held his hand, and wiped away his tears and told him how much we all loved him, and thanked him for having been a wonderful father, and such an inspiration and guiding light in our lives. He smiled and looked briefly serene and happy, and thanked the family and I for being such a joy to him. We sat like that for a few minutes, with nothing more to say, and then he said, “I’m ready, Andreas, goodbye,” and closed his eyes.
‘I said “Goodbye Vater” and kissed his poor pale forehead, and Hans injected the sedative, and we waited for a few moments. Then Hans checked that he was fully unconscious, and asked me if he should inject the other drug, and I said yes, and he did so. It was over in a few moments. The pain had left his face. Hans checked for a pulse and found none, so we concluded that he was now at rest. He was gone painlessly into his merciful night; he was at peace.’
Andreas paused again; fumbled in a pocket for a handkerchief to staunch the tears that were now falling freely. Chris looked across to Frieda and Birgit. They were both weeping too, clinging to each other. Andreas blew his nose and resumed again. ‘I regret involving Christopher and Hans in this terrible business, and that they will now possibly have to pay a heavy price. I would be quite prepared to take all the blame upon myself. But I do not apologise for speeding my father’s end; for bringing him blessed release from his physical prostration and mental anguish. I am ready to pay the appropriate penalty, whatever it might be.’