Airport shooting trial reveals vital role motive plays in German courts
Stars and Stripes
HEIDELBERG, Germany — What makes a killer tick?
Why would a young man take a gun to Frankfurt Airport and open fire on a group of U.S. airmen, killing two of them, injuring two more, firing repeatedly until his pistol jammed?
In the trial of Arid Uka, 21, the Kosovo Albanian immigrant who has confessed to the March 2 shootings, just as in all German murder trials, the reasons for the murder matter, far more than in the U.S. criminal justice system. Motive — the reason someone kills another — is a significant factor in what charge prosecutors file, as well as in judges’ sentencing decisions.
Is Uka fully responsible for the shooting spree prosecutors say was committed for cold, cruel “personal jihad”? Or might he have been deluded by the propaganda he watched on the Internet, as he later claimed when he told the court he’d been wrong, or suffer from mental disease or other circumstance that under German law would render him less culpable?
On Monday, one of Germany’s most prominent psychiatrists is expected to offer his insights on those questions.
In Germany’s criminal justice system — which seeks to understand motives as well as actions in determining guilt, and personal circumstances in determining responsibility — the testimony of Dr. Norbert Leygraf, director of forensic psychiatry at the University of Duisberg-Essen, is considered central to the case.
“It’s a big deal,” said Jens Joerg Hoffmann, Uka’s defense lawyer.
The importance of the psychiatric testimony is just one of the differences between U.S. and German murder trials.
Uka is charged with two counts of the most severe type of murder in Germany: “Mord,” which is similar to first-degree or aggravated murder in the U.S.
But what constitutes Mord, as opposed to the other, lesser type of intentional killing — “Totschlag” — has a lot to do with motive, legal experts say.
Mord requires base, or detestable, motives, including lust to kill, sexual gratification and greed, or to enable or cover up another crime.
“It’s always important why somebody does something. It also has an impact on sentencing,” said Michael Bohlander, a former German judge who is now a professor at Durham University Law School in England.
The way the killing was committed can also make it Mord if it was especially cruel or by treachery or stealth.
Mord carries a mandatory life sentence with parole eligibility after 15 years. Parole isn’t automatic. Judges can make a finding of “severe guilt” in Mord cases to direct that an offender should serve more than the minimum, although the parole court makes the final determination years later.
The penalty for Totschlag is generally five to 15 years, Bohlander said. The law allows for a life sentence for Totschlag if it comes close to fulfilling Mord elements, he said. “But in reality, this rarely, if ever, happens,” Bohlander said.
Last year in Germany, 217 people were convicted of Mord. More than twice that — 469 people — were convicted of Totschlag, according to the federal statistics office.
Murder of any kind is rare in Germany, and few of those are committed with guns. Last year, in a population of 81 million people, 478 were murdered, only 51 of those with guns, according to the Federal Office of Statistics.
By contrast, last year in the U.S., in a population of 312 million people, 12,996 were murdered, 8,775 of them with guns, according to the FBI.
Motive plays little role in determining murder charges in the U.S., other than in felony murder or hate crimes.
Many states, for first-degree murder charges, require only that the killing was intentional. Others require premeditation, but that premeditation may have been only seconds, according to experts.
Prosecutors need not prove any motive for a murder. Instead, they must prove that the defendant committed the crime purposely or knowingly.
Uka has confessed to shooting to death Senior Airman Nicholas Alden and Airman 1st Class Zachary Cuddeback. He is also charged with the attempted murder of two staff sergeants, Kristoffer Schneider and Trevor Brewer, who were injured, as well as Senior Airman Edgar Veguilla, at whom he fired before the gun jammed. Uka was heard to say “Allahu Akbar” (Arabic for “God is great”) in between shots, according to the airmen witnesses who testified in the trial.
Uka said in court his motive was to prevent U.S. servicemen from raping Afghan girls, adding that he had been misled by Internet propaganda and that he was sorry.
He was charged with two counts of Mord because of his motives and his methods, prosecutors said.
“It’s a very cruel motivation. It’s like his private jihad. This is no reason in the law,” said a prosecutor who asked to be identified only by his last name, Killmer.
“Maybe if they had had a fight or something,” it might have been Totschlag, he said. Instead, Uka “used an atmosphere of trust,” Killmer said, by conversing with one of the airmen and bumming a cigarette before suddenly opening fire.
“They couldn’t do anything to defend themselves or escape,” said prosecutor Gerwin Moldenhauer. “He killed them because they’re soldiers. He made them into an object.”
Legal experts agreed that the prosecutors had met Mord requirements.
Killing treacherously could be applied to the shooting of Alden and Cuddeback because both were unarmed.
“All this happened all of a sudden, and after the defendant had given the soldiers a false sense of security by asking for a cigarette and involving the soldier in a conversation,” wrote Sascha Ziemann and Diana Goldau, of the Institute of Criminal Law and Philosophy of Law at Frankfurt University, in a joint email. Base motives, which must be “both morally and socially contemptible,” they said, could be “killing American soldiers randomly and out of Islamist extremist motives.”
But the judges who run the trial — and will decide Uka’s degree of guilt and sentence him — could disagree.
“Of course, it’s possible for them to say it’s only Totschlag, from a theoretical point of view,” Killmer said. “From my personal point of view, it’s not probable.”
In 2004, a German named Arwin Meiwes, who killed and ate a victim he found on the Internet, was charged with Mord. It was an exceptionally grisly, high-profile case, and prosecutors said the motive was sexual gratification.
Meiwes was convicted of Tortschlag. However, judges were convinced that the victim had asked to be killed and eaten. Meiwes was sentenced to eight years in prison.
Prosecutors can file appeals in Germany, and they did so. In 2006, Meiwes was convicted of Mord and sentenced to life.
German trials also are expected to delve into each offender’s life circumstances to determine an appropriate, singular sentence, experts said. Not so in the U.S., where legislature-imposed sentencing schedules in many states geared toward deterrence leave judges little discretion, and sentences tend to be harsher.
German prison sentences “reflect disapproval on the one hand and enable atonement on the other hand,” according to Ziemann and Goldau. “Aspects of vengeance are excluded.”
Or, as Marcus Steffel, who represents the Alden and Cuddeback families at the trial, put it: “Everybody needs to have a chance to come out. They are human beings.”
Steffel said Leygraf’s report concluded that Uka has no mental disorders. He said he saw nothing in the report that would make Uka less culpable for his crimes.
“I see that he’s a young fellow, and I see his parents came from the former Yugoslavia,” Steffel said. “But what happened, happened. He had enough time to change his mind. He shot. These are the facts.”
Steffel estimated that Uka would serve what in Germany is a long sentence. “I think he’ll have to stay — it’s very difficult to guess — 18 to 20 years, maybe a little bit more.”