How hanging kills people
Hans-Ludwig Kröber, 68, is the best-known German criminal psychiatrist. He grew up in the diaconal facility in Bethel in Bielefeld, where his parents worked as psychiatrists, between psychotically ill and seizure patients. To this day, Kröber researches the psychosocial background of violent and sexual crimes and creates crime prognoses for criminals.
Mr. Kröber, you've been in the business for more than 30 years and are probably Germany's best-known criminal psychiatrist. When a killer is released everyone asks, will he do it again? How often does it happen that a life convicted person kills a second time?
We do not know it. There are no state statistics on relapse. A figure of three percent haunts the German expert scene, but it has not been proven. Sometimes you can also find the distinctive indication of zero to three percent. In the 1980s there was a certain accumulation of cases in Berlin. Back then, the courts were often very benevolent and underestimated the dangerousness of some perpetrators. I then examined them later for discharge and had the feeling: three percent? I already know them all by myself.
You thought the number had to be higher?
Yes, much higher. So I started collecting and every year there were four or five cases. It has now become a book on 45 such cases. In the meantime, you have also recorded all offenders who were in Tegel JVA in 2014 because they were sentenced to life. This was mainly the work of a doctoral student, Anna Trofimova, who was just accepted. We know very little specifically about prisoners with life imprisonment either.
Who sits in Tegel for life?
In our total coverage we have exactly 100 men and five women.
Is this ratio typical?
Women are currently around ten percent of the convictions for murder nationwide. There are also female serial killers like the Charité nursewho had committed five complete patient killings and attempted three. In Berlin, the oldest was 70 years old and had committed her act at the age of 51. The youngest was 46 and had committed her deed at 36. Since a woman had not been convicted of murder in Berlin for eight and a half years, I did not have the legally convicted woman at the time Mother of a horse host included in the consideration.
Why do women kill?
Nothing glorious can be said about them. In no Berlin case was a bad, violent partner killed, but instead caught, for example, the unpleasant landlord living in the same house or the old lady cared for and stolen from by the perpetrator. It was almost always about financial motives, the victims were consistently older or weaker people. In the case of the nurse, killing itself seems to have been something satisfying, grandiosity, executing power over others. And in the case of the horse landlady, the mother wanted her own son to have a golden future with a large riding stables.
Do women kill differently than men?
Women prefer to choose styles that appear to have died naturally. As an old person you die, and if you want to help out, suffocation is an effective means. If the doctor comes and issues a death certificate, that can be fine. Forensic doctors can sing arias of what doctors sometimes attest to be natural death. In one case the knife was even stuck in the back because the doctor hadn't even turned the body over. Some criminologists fear that the unrecognized murder cases make up a considerable proportion of old and sick victims.
And what kind of men are in Tegel?
The age of the inmates ranged from 28 to 75 years. 70 percent of the perpetrators were Germans, eleven percent Turks, seven percent Vietnamese, the remaining perpetrators came from Lebanon, Nicaragua, Poland, Romania, Ukraine, Afghanistan, Albania and Bulgaria. In total, we have ten convicts out of 100 life sentences who have previously committed homicide. Ten percent - that's an impressive relapse rate! But you have to apply those ten to all homicides, including manslaughter and attempts, and then we're probably back to three percent.
Why do men kill?
There are homicides for predominantly rational motives: to steal prey, materially or sexually. And there are motives for killing from predominantly emotional motives: out of fear, self-defense, anger, irritability, baseness, revenge ... The Berlin convicts were clearly dominated by motives related to money and power. So classic criminal motives up to gang wars such as the murders of the Vietnamese, where one group of cigarette dealers practically wiped out another.
So it’s more professional than private for men?
If you make your living with drugs, prostitution or weapons, if you want to drive around in a Lamborghini at the age of 24, you have to make sure that nobody takes your wealth away from you. In the 90s there were gangs of Serb thieves operating in Berlin, who came from a notorious Belgrade district. They weren't afraid of anything, except betraying the police. A young, handsome and intelligent Serb shot an alleged traitor - in front of two women and a gang member. It was a business-like, two-shot execution. During the trial, the witnesses disappeared or couldn't remember anything. The man was acquitted and returned to Belgrade, where he was presumably celebrated.
Greed for profit also occurs in the best families.
Yes, for example, an ambitious senior doctor from southern Germany once sprayed dirty water from cleaning buckets into infusions with which his competitor successfully treated seriously ill patients. He killed patients to ruin his study. He took his own life in custody.
Were there any other surprises?
Overall, the men's collective is much more criminal than I expected. The constellation of the citizen with no criminal record, with no criminal record, who is in dire straits and finally rises to the fatal decision to kill a person, for romantic reasons or for financial distress, hardly occurs.
Have you had different experiences in your everyday life as an appraiser?
No, murder and manslaughter are mostly relationship acts is a myth.
Do you share the thesis that anyone can become a murderer?
Anyone who decides to resolve a conflict by force and lose everything usually does not come from stable circumstances. An American social researcher has found that the majority of adults around the world had serious murder fantasies, women as well as men. In the case of women, they were primarily directed against a rival in matters of love, in the case of men more often against rivals in the work area. Fortunately, the gap between death wishes and killing is huge in an orderly social system. One would have too much to lose, at least here in Germany.
Is that the only reason?
Since early childhood, at least in private life, we have been convinced: You shouldn't kill. Even killing animals, drowning a kitten is bad. The deliberate killing of a person is a sacrilege, a mortal sin. We have very high inhibitions. Accordingly, it is very rare. Anyone who kills with their own hands knows that they are crossing one final immovable frontier. He is committing social suicide.
Are there murderers who only confess to you during the assessment?
Sometimes it happens that people want to talk because they feel that they are being taken seriously in the conversation and the act is stressful for them.
What kind of situations are these?
It's dramatic for both because the accused is trying to face the truth. For the first time he stands by what he has done. It is also a touching moment for the psychiatrist because he realizes what one can do. That he is ready to deal with it. The confession is a first indication that someone has certain qualities. In criminal proceedings, before the man starts to speak, I first draw attention to the fact that I have no duty of confidentiality.
Some people kill for ideological or racial reasons.
Among the convicts in Berlin there are several men who represent or have represented right-wing extremist positions. But sits in Tegel at the moment probably not one who has murdered because of his or her racist or ideological motivation - apart from the terrorist Johannes Weinrich, the right hand man of the terrorist Carlos. Weinrich was convicted in 2000 for the 1983 attack on the Maison de France cultural center.
What does it do to a person when he kills?
Roughly speaking, there are three types: There are perpetrators who have imagined their act to be very arousing, but then experience it as catastrophic. Blackjacks who puke themselves during the act, who vomit after the act. Unfortunately, they are in the minority. Then there are those who found it comparatively easy and might do it more often if the risk of getting caught wasn't so high. And there are those who find it fascinating. Because they felt strong, great, and really manly.
Is that the majority?
I guess that's around 20 percent. But to this day it is one of the carefully guarded secrets of the courtroom that many defendants regret their act, but actually remember it as a grandiose, positive experience. Nobody admits this in the process in order not to be considered a beast.
Can you think of an example from Berlin?
A criminal told me that it was a good introduction to the organized scene if you lured another criminal, here a Russian, into a trap and executed them; you have a completely different standing. There are men who kill just for fun.
Are there murderers in Tegel JVA who are too dangerous to ever be released?
I only know a few really well. In Bavaria I got to know some people who, despite old age, have remained physically and mentally fit, narcissistic and egocentric personalities who show no sense of guilt and just seem to be waiting to show everyone again. But when they're outside, they likely have other things to worry about.
You retired in 2017. But you still travel across the country to talk to murderers, to write reports and books ...
I've always been interested in killing, murderers and manslaughters, in the context of forensic psychiatry they are the ultimate for me. These are the people who really do commit the ultimate crime. Pedophiles are boring.
What do you find fascinating?
Life and death, deadly violence that breaks into the lives of others and changes everything from one moment to the next. That worried me even as a child. I was born five and a half years after the end of the war, when people were still very much influenced by the war experience, including my mother.
So did you make that a job?
I can usually approach murderers with great safety and look at them, which has a frightening effect. The contact helps to understand that these are people who have committed a homicide in a certain situation in a certain phase of their life. But you don't come into the world as a murderer and go into the pit as a murderer. There is no biological category of being a killer.
Are you sometimes scared when you are sitting with a murderer?
Usually this is completely safe because the offenders have absolutely no reason to harm me. So far there have only been a handful of situations that not only seemed dangerous to me, but probably were. These were criminal prognostic assessments, for example, whether an outcome can be justified.
There was a high school student who killed his teacher with many knife wounds in front of the class in Meißen. He had done a lot of strength training in juvenile prison and looked like a single muscle pack. He really wanted to have an exit to an external therapist. When it became clear that I did not support this, the situation overturned and he threatened me. We sat at the end of a deserted hallway on Friday afternoon, he between me and the steel door. Talking, I finally got to the visitor button and pressed, and after a tense wait a servant came and let me out. I learned from it.
Is murder subject to a zeitgeist?
In Berlin in particular, significant changes in dealing with delinquents can be observed over the course of 40 years. The post-war generation of judges is portrayed as quite strict and not very sensitive to the psychological life of the perpetrators. Back then there were many severe punishments in Berlin. In the 1970s and 1980s, the West Berlin judiciary developed a pronounced liberality in its island life. There was a great willingness to take psychosocial stress factors into account in the judgment and to punish them mildly.
You came to Berlin in 1996. What was so fashionable there?
At that time, some lawyers in Moabit were used to being accommodated by experts and found it scandalous that I was not prepared to negotiate the result of the appraisal on the phone before the start of the process. I have held someone criminally responsible more often than was the custom here at the time. A group of Berlin defense lawyers boycotted me as an appraiser for two years.
Do you remember a particularly blatant case from the 1970s or 1980s?
Several, some of them can also be found in my book. Like that of a young man who stabbed his rival 20 times, that's usually enough for a death and a half. Then he cut up the body and thrown it into the sewer. But because the head could not be found, the court came to the conclusion that it could not be ruled out that he did not die of the stab wounds, but that he hit his head fatally during the fight. So, according to the verdict, the man only tried to kill with the knife. He came to the open department after two and a half years. Years later, he was on trial again for the murder of his ex-wife's new partner.
There was something like this more than once in Berlin. Like the man who in 1989 stabbed a drinking companion five times in the back with a survival knife and was acquitted for self-defense. It was his second homicide. After his third manslaughter, he pleaded for self-defense again - but now in vain.
What drove the judges to make such judgments?
Since 1968 there has been a legitimate desire among criminal lawyers to get away from the Wilhelmine approach to prisoners: dare more democracy, dare more openness, also give offenders a chance. That was much better than before, but there was also a lot of naivety that led to fatal consequences. Back then, rehabilitation was the central motto. Unfortunately, that thought has passed away.
Why doesn't anyone care anymore?
Allegedly, the population only wants one thing: security. Since the end of the 90s we have had a security-oriented generation of judges, not only in Berlin, who think very objectively, very legally. Many judges don't want to take risks. Today it is much more difficult to get people out of prison or the measure after their imprisonment has expired.
When in doubt, are the judge and the prison director too strict now?
It's all about safety now. And in the penal system and the penal system, the experts often look for the last remaining risk like the truffle pigs. You lose sight of what kind of resources these people have. With a 79-year-old prisoner who is multimorbid, disabled and suffers from diabetes, I really have to fight to get him out. As if this old man would attack and rape a woman in the street!
You used to be considered the tough dog. And today are the lawyers asking you for help?
I am the specialist for the ultra-long-term residents, old and imprisoned for more than 15, 20, 25 years. The solution is often simple: assisted living, aftercare, protection against loneliness.
How many of the long-term convicts could live in freedom without being a threat?
In the psychiatric penal system, where mentally disturbed offenders are accommodated, a particularly large number of people sit excessively long because the penal system has no time limit. In my opinion, around 25 percent of people are locked away there for far too long.
Since when has the longest-serving prisoner been sitting in Tegel JVA?
I dont know. A few years ago I had to appraise the age president at the time, who had already been in Tegel for 35 years. The man had not applied for release from prison for 20 years, a small, weakly gifted, poorly spoken man, harmless in his everyday behavior, who had strangled a child in Wedding in a tenement house in Wedding at the age of 22.When after 15 years he helped a girl to repair her bicycle after an outing, he is said to have tampered with the child's underwear. After that he was in a closed prison for another 20 years, never causing any problems, everyone had forgotten him.
And then you came ...
Then the administration of justice issued an appraisal order. The appraisal was difficult because it was difficult for him to speak, he had lost his life. When I said at some point that nothing more should happen outside, this man suddenly got tears in his eyes and he said: "Yes, what do you think, what I've been thinking for years?" That was such a touching scene that has I was blown away at the moment because suddenly this person stepped out from under this burial and it became clear how he still suffers from this act 35 years later and how important it is to him that he never do something like that again.
What has become of him?
He found shelter in West Germany on a kind of farm for the homeless in Bethel. So he bought a moped and wrote me letters to tell me how things were going. He did it really well.
Homicides have been falling significantly in Germany for the last 20 years.
In 1996 about 4400 cases were reported, since 2012 about 3000 cases per year. This also includes the attempted acts. The clearance rate is 95 percent. The number of convictions is much lower and has recently remained fairly constant. In 2017, a total of 509 accused, 35 of whom were women, were convicted of manslaughter, 114 adults, of whom 13 were women, and 13 under juvenile criminal law for murder.
Did you gain any insight into the relapse rate in your book?
Less than ten percent of long-term offenders commit minor offenses again after imprisonment. New serious crimes are extremely rare. It is very likely that the homicide recidivism rate is in the low single digits.
So were you wrong then?
Yes, it is very likely no more than three percent that kill a second time.
Who did you write the book for?
First for me. I've always found it amazing that someone who kills and is punished, so knows that he pays extra for someone like that to kill again. You have to keep thinking about why people kill, even the first time. Writing helps you think. Every single case can teach something.
Is there something that all killers have in common?
70 to 80 percent grew up in unstable, violent families in which children can only survive if they behave strictly selfishly and often develop a lone fighter lifestyle. I have an infinite number of home children among my test subjects.
Reading your cases takes a sturdy stomach: people are dismembered, tortured, raped ...
I do it as dryly as possible, but the actual occurrence of the crime is important in order to understand what murder is, what perpetrators and victims experience. You should read the book in portions, you can leave out a few cases. In one case I issued a consumption warning because that was too much for me.
When you read the cases, one thing stands out: alcohol. Again and again he is a factor. In socialization, in action, in relapse ...
Alcohol is the only drug that plays a major role in violence - more than any other drug combined. Because alcohol aggressively disinhibits, the willingness to strike grows, and self-respect is washed away.
What if there was no more alcohol from tomorrow?
So in Mecklenburg the prisons would be empty. But seriously: the problem does not only exist in the north.
Has anyone ever found out about your endeavors who then killed again?
Not that I know.
Do you still have one of your reports today because you would have decided differently later?
I check my reports every time I find out about new criminal offenses and discuss this with colleagues. So far I'm at peace with myself.
How has your view of people changed over the past 30 years?
You become familiar with these fates and with the phenomenon that the person sitting across from you is often a very small, helpless light who is now subject to this enormous power of the state. Sometimes I ask my clients if anyone out there knows they exist. Some don't have a single person in the world. I used to be very strict, wanted to expose and refute every single lie. I still would like to, but I can better understand human error today. As a moral chief judge, it is not my place to despise the inmate.
But you still like to deal with your colleagues ...
Wherever the judiciary makes botch, it occasionally gets verbally in the shin, it doesn't even notice ...
... and so do the psychologists in the prisons.
Because with increasing age I am more and more intolerant and desperate about the extent of thick-skinned and lack of empathy, especially of people who are called to therapeutic tasks. Too many operate in a bureaucratic manner as scouts of danger and solely as agents of public security efforts. Time and again I experience that clinic employees execute their own educational ideas on patients and consider this to be behavioral therapy. They constantly show the patient his weaknesses. The aim is to make a good patient out of him with punishments and resignations.
Is there anything you can do about it?
There are clinics and prisons, outside of Berlin, where I give up all hope that they will do something good with their inmates. These inmates must help themselves and be lucky. Or be relocated to a good facility - thank God there are quite a few of them now.
Is there a lowest common denominator among recidivists?
When I put all the cases together, I realized that the situational and the random play a much bigger role in people's biographies than we can capture with forensic risk models. Life - it can give you presents, but it can also go with a sledge.
Then any prognosis before a dismissal is just reading the coffee grounds?
No, it makes well-founded statements of probability. Anyone who brings many risk factors with them and still has a criminal plan of action is at greater risk of relapsing.
Which properties increase the risk?
If the offender was very young at the first capital offense and was sentenced under juvenile law - that is, a maximum of ten years. In the juvenile prison, young murderers immediately enjoy a high status, even in relation to servants. They enjoy respect and receive criminal offers. Not exactly an advantage for rehabilitation. Back in freedom, normal paths to success are usually closed to the young men.
Who is still at risk?
The brutal loners, homeless rambos who know that their lives have failed, who basically don't care about most things and who rise above others at the lowest level. There is also a psychiatric suspicion that men who have once enjoyed the triumph of killing carry a persistent danger.
And the disappointed lovers?
The majority of the homicide cases had a problem with women; that was not the case with the perpetrators with only one murder. On the one hand, women are very important to them, they cannot do without. On the other hand, women are despised, but even more often feared; they don't get along with women and their nature. You can hardly call them lovers.
How can we better protect ourselves from violence and murder?
Many millions have been put into the therapeutic expansion of preventive detention. Better accommodation is good, the therapeutic oversupply is nonsensical. The belief in the treatability of crime has assumed illusory proportions. The success rates of crime therapy for mentally healthy offenders are poor. The knowledge that traces of DNA can be used to convict any sex offender has certainly prevented more rape.
So there is no prevention?
The most important prevention is a visible, clear and effective occurrence of state representation of violence. Potential perpetrators must be intimidated by guaranteeing them a speedy capture and punishment.
Are there people who can be fired with a clear conscience?
Enough. Especially since the women. In 30 years I have not found a single case in which a woman has killed a second time after being punished.
Hans-Ludwig Kröber grew up between mentally ill and seizure patients in the diaconal facility in Bethel in Bielefeld, where his parents worked as psychiatrists. He studied medicine in Münster and was involved in the KBW, a Maoist left splinter group, in the mid-1970s. After defending an unauthorized election campaign against police officers, he was convicted of resistance. He completed his habilitation in Heidelberg. In 1996 Kröber came to Berlin and was director of forensic psychiatry at the Charité until his retirement in 2016.
To this day, Kröber researches the psychosocial background of violent and sexual crimes and creates crime prognoses for criminals. He appeared as a psychiatric expert in many sensational criminal proceedings: in 2010 he examined the mother who let her seven-year-old daughter Jessica starve to death in a Hamburg skyscraper. In Berlin he examined the dermatologist accused of multiple murders and also the defendants in the La Belle trial. Kröber was also involved in the Gustl Mollath case. In the Peggy murder case, he came to the conclusion that the revoked confession is probably based on actual experience. Ulvi K. was convicted of murder in 2004, but acquitted after a retrial in 2014 - and a renewed assessment by Kröber - because the police might have suggested the confession to him. At the beginning of January, supporters of Ulvi K. announced that they had sued the psychiatrist for 350,000 euros in damages. As long as Kröber does not know the application, he does not want to comment on it.
On Thursday (February 14th) the new book by Hans-Ludwig Kröber will be published: “Murder in Relapse - 45 Case Stories About Killing”, Medizinisch Wissenschaftliche Verlagsgesellschaft, 19.95 euros.
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