Is Alex W. Schizophrenic? Last-Minute Twist Could Delay Verdict in Dresden Murder Trial

It seemed inevitable that Alex W., a Russian-German on trial in Dresden for the murder of a pregnant Egyptian woman, would receive the most severe sentence possible. But now a last-minute piece of evidence has cast doubt on whether he can be considered responsible for his acts.

By in Dresden


The defendant had already heard himself described unfavorably during the course of his trial. But even he could hardly have been prepared for the unusually scathing words the senior prosecutor used in preliminary remarks to his closing argument.

"Our society does not need people like you, who come here with crude ideas, who contribute nothing to society but instead kill in a cowardly fashion," prosecution lawyer Frank Heinrich said Monday, speaking at the trial in Dresden of Alex W., a 28-year-old German man of Russian origin who is accused of the murder of an Egyptian woman. "I thank God that I only have to put up with you until Wednesday, when the verdict will be delivered."

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But the public prosecutor may have to suffer the defendant for longer than he had hoped: A surprise development could mean that the verdict in the high-profile trial will be delayed. Late on Monday afternoon, a document arrived unexpectedly from Russia stating that W. had been exempted from military service because of psychological problems.

The document, which was provided by Russian authorities in response to a German request for assistance, apparently says that a certain "Aleksandr Igorevich N." was "placed under observation" on July 1, 2000 because of an "undifferentiated schizophrenia." The "N." in question could be the same person as the defendant Alex W., who changed his name to make it sound more German when he moved to Germany.

Alex W. is accused of killing 31-year-old Marwa al-Sherbini, who was the mother of a three-year-old child and who was three months pregnant when she died, by stabbing her 16 times during a court hearing in Dresden on July 1. Al-Sherbini's husband Elwy Ali Okaz also received life-threatening injuries in the attack. The incident triggered anti-German protests in the Muslim world and led to criticism from Muslim immigrants and commentators that Islamophobia is widespread in Germany.

Doubt over Mental State

Monday's revelation regarding W's mental state was particularly surprising as the defendant had already been examined by a German psychiatric expert, Stephan Sutarski, who found no evidence of any condition that could diminish W.'s responsibility. The defendant refused to comment on the new development.

The presiding judge Birgit Wiegand called on W. to clarify his mental state at the time of the crime. "If you committed the act during a schizophrenic episode, then say so!" she said, clearly irritated. "It is your decision."

Sutarski, the psychiatric expert, will now have to testify to the court again and may also need to examine the defendant once more. It is unclear whether the verdict in the case will still be delivered on Wednesday, as was originally expected.

If W. is still considered capable of being held responsible for the crime, then he could face the highest possible penalty under German law. Heinrich, the senior prosecutor, demanded that the defendant be sentenced to life in prison for murder, attempted murder and aggravated battery.

The Man without a Face

Alex W. refused to show his face during the trial. On days when there were hearings, the defendant was pushed into the courtroom, his hands and feet in shackles, looking like some kind of evil demon. He wore dark sunglasses and covered his head with a black ski mask and the hood of his sweatshirt -- a man without a face.

Even when the cameras were not directed at him, W. avoided looking at the judges, the prosecutor or the public. Most of all, he avoided the gazes of al-Sherbini's relatives and their eight attorneys, who sat facing him. He either placed his head on the table in front of him or covered his face with his hands.

Wiegand, the presiding judge, had abandoned her appeals to the defendant to behave properly out of respect for al-Sherbini and the court. Despite his insistence that Germany is his home, the defendant appeared to be unfamiliar with the laws and values of his adopted country.

Sense of Being An Outsider

W. was born in 1980 in Perm, a city of a million people near the Ural Mountains, and spent his childhood in Russia. His parents were divorced when he was two years old. His mother, who worked as an architect and later as a goldsmith, spent many years living in Kazakhstan with the boy, who was already inclined to be unruly and defiant. He only stayed with his father in Perm for isolated periods.

As a result of constantly being shuttled back and forth between his parents, the boy never experienced the kind of relationship that would help him develop his own identity. W. already started to regard himself as an outsider and a scapegoat at an early age.

He had difficulties with his teachers, there were disciplinary problems and he was often involved in fights. As an adolescent and young man, he had no idea what he wanted to do with his life. He tried out various trades, working intermittently as a painter, a plasterer and an electrician, sometimes as a market vendor. He was often unemployed. When asked about Russia today, W. frequently uses words like "hate" and "shit."

A Russian of German descent, W. has been living in Germany with his mother and other relatives since 2003. He obtained a German passport and changed his first name from Aleksandr to the more German-sounding Alex. Since then, he has considered himself a German, which apparently fills him with a strong sense of pride. His outlandish ideas, steeped in Nazi racial fanaticism, seen to stem from a time when people were granted or denied the right to live on the basis of their race.

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