Welcome to chapter 24 of my humanistic and unapologetically Europhile novel Christobel. In 2015, things are coming to a fateful judicial conclusion for Chris and his fellow-accused . . .
If you would like to begin reading Christobel from the beginning, please go to the post Angels in the family in the January 2017 archive (it’s the last of the entries there) and then read each successive post on from there, apart from Unwelcome to Britain? which is not a chapter post.
Chris had spent another sleepless night. The trial was almost over. It was nearly crunch-time, just a final van ride through the grey March Osnabrück morning to the courthouse where he would be judged: guilty as charged or free. He didn’t feel optimistic about it. Gunther Braun had counselled against it so as not to raise his hopes. Better to expect the worst and hopefully be relieved when it didn’t happen, he had said.
A heavy black pall hung over him. A pall of what? Foreboding? Fear, probably; anxiety and dread certainly. He felt physically sick. How had things come to this?
He regretted what he’d done now. Hindsight is a wonderful thing but it had seemed right at the time, it really had. Perhaps he had been naive but there had seemed to be clear moral justification; assisting in the relieving of suffering, both physical and mental, of a desperate old man. Well, justified or not, he couldn’t go back in time and do things differently. Not now.
Frieda was there again, with Birgit, both of them still looking pale and anxious. And Andreas and Hans of course, also wearing grim expressions. For a last time the court was asked to rise as the procession of red-gowned judges entered. They sat, followed by the court, and an expectant silence fell. Vortizender Wolfe cleared his throat, looked around the gathering and then down at his papers.
‘I, Berufsrichter Conrad Wolfe, hereby state that the panel of judges has reached its verdict in the trials of Hans Neumann, Andreas Ernst and Christopher Mark Benson on this the sixteenth of March, twenty-fifteen.’
He paused, the statutory declaration delivered. Glanced at the nervously-waiting trio in the dock. Resumed. ‘This has been a case as much about morality and philosophy and how society views the question of assisted suicide, or euthanasia, as about applying the law as it presently stands with regard to those matters. This court cannot anticipate possible changes in law, only apply those which currently exist. But in view of the fact that all three defendants have admitted their roles in the death of Herr Dieter Ernst, and bearing in mind the moral and philosophical questions thrown up, there is some scope for individual mitigation to a greater or lesser extent.
‘We have heard the words “compassion” and “sympathy” and “empathy”, even “altruism” used a lot over the course of this trial. And we are persuaded that it was not a matter of any of the accused conspiring as they did out of motives of hate or with any other nefarious intent. Although it should be said that in the cases of Hans Neumann and Andreas Ernst, money was a factor. But we are content that the various motivations of the defendants for ending a life do seem to have been born out of sympathy.
‘We have also heard the opposite moral case made that it is contrary to all Christian principles to end a life, no matter how strong a mercy motive there might be. And that embarking on a road of legalising assisted suicide might be the beginning of a slippery slope. Whether that is happening in some of our fellow-European countries or those American states which pracise it is very much a matter of conjecture. Furthermore, Germany, with its dark Nazi past, should particularly, more so than many other European countries, avoid at all costs a slide into legalised, state-authorised killing.
‘Of course, involving religious attitudes in law can sometimes produce a moral minefield, given that considerations of personal, subjective belief enter the equation, as with abortion, for example. But whatever the sociological or religious implications, or whatever might be the case in the future, I repeat: we can only apply the law as it stands today.
‘So we have come to a view that balances the law’s duty to punish wrongdoing – and each of the defendants has admitted to that – with due allowance for the compassion which seems to have driven their various involvements in the technically unlawful killing of Herr Dieter Ernst.
‘I will now pronounce sentence. Hans Neumann: please stand.’
Hans got to his feet, pale-faced. Gripped the rail in front of him. Closed his eyes. Waited.
Wolfe continued. ‘Hans Neumann; of the three defendants here today, your crime is in some respects the most serious. It was your hand which, as you are not a qualified doctor, somewhat recklessly executed the actual deed which caused the death of Herr Dieter Ernst. Furthermore, you did so having been persuaded to, at least to some extent, by the bribe of two thousand Euros. One has to wonder if you would still have done the deed had there been no money involved. You did break the law and the ethical codes of the health care profession. But set against that, we are satisfied that you did feel genuine sympathy for your client in his parlous state, had refused to assist him to die at his first asking and finally only practised euthanasia because he had repeatedly asked, indeed pleaded, for it.
‘Therefore, the court rules that you will go to prison for five years, with the time spent on remand deducted from your term. Do you wish to make a final statement?’
Hans shook his head dumbly.
‘Very well. You may sit down. Andreas Ernst; please stand.’
Andreas stood, eyeing the judge uneasily.
‘Andreas Ernst; the court acknowledges that your part in the death of your father Herr Dieter Ernst was not practical. Neither was it assisting it. But you did organise it, and facilitate it by offering Hans Neumann a substantial bribe to tempt him to agree to take the necessary practical steps. Therefore, technically and legally, you are guilty of conspiracy to patricide. However, the court noted your very moving final statement and is assured that what you did was motivated entirely by love of your father and a strong wish to both end his suffering and obey his request to be helped to die, even though, as he was no longer able to die by his own hand in any meaningful sense, that would have to mean resorting to euthanasia.
‘We also acknowledge the considerable mental strain you must have been under, seeing your father unhappy and suffering, and knowing that by refusing to accede to his desperate pleas for help you were prolonging his desperate state. And of course we recognise your pain at the prospect of losing a loved parent. To quite a large extent you were in a very difficult situation.
‘Therefore, the court finds you guilty of the technical offence of patricide and awards a sentence of three years’ imprisonment, but in recognition of the strong mitigating circumstances suspends the sentence for two years. You are free to go. Is there anything you wish to say?’
Andreas exhaled a palpable sigh of relief. ‘No, thank you Herr Vortizender. Other than to thank the court for its fairness, kindness and understanding. Thank you.’
Wolfe stifled a smile. ‘You may sit down, Herr Ernst.’ He moved his gaze to Chris. ‘Christopher Benson; please stand.’
Chris rose; his heart in his mouth. He flicked a look towards Frieda. She was staring, transfixed, her mouth open. Beside her, Birgit was wiping away tears of relief.
‘Christopher Benson. Your part in this affair was possibly the most minor, as you neither instigated nor executed the death of Herr Dieter Ernst. But it was unlawful on two counts: stealing potentially dangerous drugs from your employer for an inappropriate use and conniving in an unlawful killing. Furthermore, you abused the hospitality of this country in allowing you to reside and work here.
‘However, we are satisfied that in your case too your actions were motivated by sympathy and compassion, after also initially refusing to help Herr Dieter Ernst die, rather than any nefarious desires. We therefore recognise certain mitigations and sentence you to two years’ imprisonment, reduced by the time you have already spent in prison on remand. Whether you will be able to resume your previous type of employment after you have served your term is for your employer to decide, not this court. Is there anything you wish to say?’
Chris was dumbstruck. Light-headed with shock. Two years! Well, eighteen months, really. Encouraged in pessimism by Bauer, he had expected far more than that. He felt irrational tears pricking. Felt almost faint with gratitude to the court for its leniency. He managed to stutter, ‘Er, no, thank you. Erm; just that I am very sorry. Thank you . . .’
Wolfe suppressed a smile again. ‘Very well. You may sit down, Herr Benson.
Chris sat in the holding cell waiting for the transport back to prison, trying to order his churning thoughts. The immediate emotion was relief, after quite imagining in a pessimistic glass-half-empty sort of way a harsher sentence. The relief was displaced by rueful feelings shading to a sharper regret. This wasn’t what he’d hoped for or expected when he became a nurse. And certainly not when he’d met Frieda on Facebook all those months ago and found the exhilarating prospect of happiness with her and a new life in Europe. Then there were still darker thoughts. Was this the end of the dream? Well, yes, obviously it was for the next eighteen months, at least. But what after that? Would there still be Frieda? Or the job? Would the Klinikum employ him again, having acquired the sort of criminal record no nurse should have? But then, with no Frieda there would be no point in remaining in Germany, anyway.
And he might be deported at the end of his term, a convicted criminal, an undesirable, for that matter. So what if that happened, supposing that she were still around? Would she move to England to be with him? Or would it be an ignominious return alone, jobless, with a stain on his CV, to a soul-destroying job in a warehouse or call centre or some such? It was a gloomy prospect. And all because he’d weakened and agreed to participate in Andreas’s plan to help poor old Dieter! But no; that wasn’t fair. The scheme had been hatched for the most compassionate of reasons, whatever that prosecutor had said. The mistake was more down to Hans’s really; if he hadn’t unthinkingly told an untruth that was easily disprovable and the police had become involved, thanks to the spiteful Clara, Dieter could have been quietly laid to rest and the family could have grieved without any of this happening.
If only . . .
His gloomy thoughts were interrupted by the cell door opening to admit Gunther Bauer. There was no seating other than a hard bench attached to the wall so the lawyer sat down beside Chris. He smiled. ‘Well, that is it. All over. Justice has been done. How do you feel?’
Chris smiled wryly. ‘Oh, okay, I suppose. Yes, glad it’s all over. You were wrong about the sentence though, weren’t you? It was less than you warned me of.’
Bauer grinned too. ‘No, not really. It was about what I expected. It was pretty fair, in the circumstances. You could not really have been completely acquitted, the law being what it is. And I was being deliberately pessimistic in my forecast just so as not to raise your hopes.’
‘Well, thanks for that, anyway!’
Bauer ignored that. ‘And besides, you probably won’t even serve the eighteen months; you could well be released after a year if you are a model prisoner, which I am sure you will be.’
‘Really? It’s like that in Britain too, I think. People sometimes serve only part of the term. And yes, I certainly will be a good boy. You can bet your life!’
The lawyer smiled again. ‘Good. Well there you are then.’
‘There is one thing though. Would I be deported back to England afterwards, do you think?’
‘No; that is not very likely. It is not as if you have been convicted of a crime involving violence which would make you a possible ongoing danger to the public. You would not be considered persona non grata.’
Chris breathed a sigh of relief. ‘Oh, well that’s something. Although I don’t suppose I’d be able to resume my job at the Klinikum.’
‘Well, I really could not comment on that. It would be entirely up to them, whether they would employ a convicted criminal. They might take a lenient view. You would just have to wait and see.’
Chris had settled reasonably well into the routine of prison life. He had had nearly six months’ practice at it, after all. The main difference was the change of faces around him. Before, waiting on remand to go to trial, he had been locked up with other men also with their lives on hold in pre-trial limbo. But now all his companions were convicted criminals: men paying their dues to society for all manner of misdemeanour. There were murderers, rapists, thieves, embezzlers, men of violence. They represented the whole gamut of inhumanity to fellow man, woman – and sometimes, he was finding to his horror, children.
He was quickly learning which people to avoid: the serious, often serial offenders, the ones who looked at him with dead emotionless eyes, almost daring him to say a word out of place or disrespect them in some way. He had no wish to befriend any of those; not the slightest. He had no particular wish to befriend any prisoners really; found himself wanting to say – but biting his lip – that he was different from them; he hadn’t knowingly committed a crime for base reasons. Not at all. He was in a different category completely. Except that he wasn’t as far as the prison authorities were concerned. In their eyes he was just another prisoner doing time for a somewhat tenuous link to murder. Yes, it was murder after all, technically speaking. Not manslaughter as a result of loss of control or violence, or reckless driving, or anything like that.
But at least Hans was there too, doing his four and a half years (or less than three, hopefully, with remission) on the same wing as he, so they could, and did, gravitate to each other. Have a normal friendship with another non-criminal person. Although Hans was taking it harder, with the prospect of his longer term stretching ahead and his heavier burden of regret for his actions. But Hans had Chris to unburden to, of course; that was something, anyway. The two young men, united in a common consequence of their actions, had formed a steadfast bond.
Three weeks after the beginning of his term, Chris sat in the visitors’ room. It was the large communal one now, as he was no longer on remand and what he said to visitors was no longer subject to censorship. He had had a letter from Frieda, handwritten in a sometimes wavering hand betraying sometimes wavering emotional control, saying how relieved she was at the comparative lightness of his sentence and apologising for her coldness, which had been due as much as anything to simply not knowing what was going on; what he had done. How when his involvement had became clear, because Andreas hadn’t been held in custody and incommunicado before the trial, she had felt confused, angry about her father’s motives in arranging the euthanasia.
But she had gradually come to realise that he, and Chris, had acted for the best as they saw it in a dreadful, difficult situation. She wanted to visit; wanted to tell him how she felt about everything, even if the meeting were somewhat inhibited, constrained by its surroundings. Of course he had written back, also hugely relieved, to say that yes, of course, please do visit, at the next scheduled visiting time. He was desperate to see her. Desperate.
It would begin at three o’clock and last for a full, time-precious hour. He had entered the room at the earliest opportunity, ridiculously early really, as soon as its door was unlocked and a warder took up his supervisory position. If she was early, he didn’t want to waste a minute. And at two minutes to the hour there she was, the first visitor, coming hesitantly through the visitors’ door, scanning the room and spotting him sitting at a table in the corner, raising a hand and grinning, causing his heart to somersault.
She approached. He wasn’t sure whether embracing and kissing visitors was allowed but risked it anyway, standing, putting hands on her biceps and tentatively planting his lips on hers, feeling her willing response. They sat across the table from each other, eyes locked, holding both hands, in silence. He broke it. ‘Hi Frie. How are you?’
She smiled, blinked a bit. ‘Hello sweetheart. I am good. Are you?’
‘Yes, fine. Am now, anyway. Now you’ve come. It’s wonderful to see you. Wunderbar.
‘Ja, wunderbar. The same here. Oh, Chris, it is so good to see you!’ Frieda rummaged in her shoulder bag. ‘I have brought you a few things. Look. Some books. You must get very bored I suppose. And some chocolate. I know you like it. Am I allowed to give you that?’
Chris grinned. ‘Yes, I suppose so. Although it might have to be screened. But I shouldn’t think you’ve hidden a file in it, have you?’
She looked puzzled. ‘Sorry?’
‘It’s a corny English joke. Smuggling a file into prison so the inmate can file through the bars on the window and escape. Usually using knotted bed sheets.’
‘Oh, that sort of file. I thought you meant . . . Ha ha; very funny. You Brits have a strange sense of humour!’
‘Yes, so foreigners always tell us. But seriously, thanks very much. I’ll share some of it with Hans. And the books. It might cheer him up a bit. Do you mind?’
‘No, of course not. Poor Hans. He has had the heaviest punishment. And Vater the lightest, although it has cost him a lot of money in legal fees.’
‘Yes, I suppose it has. I suppose that as he was found guilty, he has to pay his defence lawyer, at least.’
‘That is right. And some other costs too, I think. Oh, that reminds me. He asked me to tell you that you will have some too, but not to worry about it. He will pay them. And Hans’s. He feels very bad that he dragged you two into all this, just because he felt so sorry for Opa and wanted to help him . . . you know.’
‘Oh, really, Frie? I hadn’t thought of that. That’s good of him.’
‘Well, he thinks it’s the least he can do. Poor Vater too. Apart from everything else, this awful business has been very expensive for him.’
‘And poor you too, of course, getting embroiled in my family’s affairs.’
He smiled wryly. ‘Yes, well, I could have said no and kept firmly out of it, but I felt as sorry for your granddad and wanted to help him as much as anyone else. I’m a soft touch.’
‘Yes, you are. I am not quite sure what that expression means, but I think I do from the context. And it is why I love you.’
‘Oh Frie; really? Do you?’
‘Well I’ll keep that thought in my head when I go to bed tonight.’
‘Yes, you do that, my sweet Chris. I will think of you too. I will be counting off the days until you are back with me. It won’t be too long.’
The room was filling up with prisoners and visitors. The tables next to theirs were occupied now, impinging on their privacy. It was becoming difficult to make themselves heard above the cacophony of conversations all around.
He squeezed her hands tightly, as if hanging on for grim death. Spoke louder. ‘No, I suppose it won’t. It just feels like that at the moment. And you will wait for me? Promise?’
Frieda detached one of her hands and cupped the side of his face. ‘You do not have to ask, my silly boy. Of course I will!’