Ausgabe 16/2005

True Crime Was the 'Cannibal of Rotenburg' Sane?

Germany's Federal Court of Justice is currently considering the case of Armin Meiwes, the cannibal who met his victim on the Internet and then ate him. After he was sentenced to only eight years in prison, shocked prosecutors are seeking to have him classified as insane so that he can be put away indefinitely.

Armin Meiwes is known as the "Cannibal of Rotenburg"

Armin Meiwes is known as the "Cannibal of Rotenburg"

It's been said that there's only one thing that truly frightens Armin Meiwes, 43, known as the "Cannibal of Rotenburg": being classified as insane. Apparently nothing else scares him. He would even accept life in prison, just as long as he's not thrown into the "loony bin." He doesn't want to go there. Insane? No, that's one thing he doesn't want to be called.

Meiwes certainly isn't the only defendant with this attitude. A criminal who's sent to prison will eventually be released. In fact, it's usually even possible to predict the precise date of his release. Even criminals sentenced to prison for murder can hope to be released one day. "Normal" prisoners, that is, those who aren't classified as insane, don't have to worry about being locked up in an asylum for life.

But when should a psychologically disturbed criminal hope to be released from a closed prison medical facility for psychopaths within a prison? When does society decide that he's no longer a "ticking time bomb," and when is it ever willing to accept the "residual risk" he's believed to pose after having committed his crime?

On Jan. 30, 2004, the district court in the northern German city of Kassel sentenced Meiwes to a prison term of eight years and six months for committing homicide against Berlin engineer Bernd B. Was the sentence appropriate? The public prosecutor sought a life sentence for the cannibal. Would that have been the right solution? Meiwes is one of those people who behave extremely well in closed institutions like prisons. They're able to conform and they don't challenge authority.

He can already look forward to the prospect of being released. But is this justifiable? A dangerous, disturbed personality structure cannot simply be shed in a prison's wardrobe when the perpetrator arrives to serve his sentence. It's not something that can be cleaned, ironed and repaired. And when he's released, the perpetrator can't just put on a new set of clothes and adopt a new persona.

The Kassel court, after having heard expert testimony by Klaus Beier, an expert on human sexuality, and Göttingen psychiatrist Georg Stolpmann, ruled that Meiwes has "a special form of fetishistic obsession with male flesh with an androphilic orientation," as well as an "absolutely uncommon … highly pathological form of bonding experience." In plain English, Meiwes can only perceive a bond (or whatever this means to him) to another human being to the greatest possible degree of intensity by consuming that person's flesh.

On March 9, 2001, he met his victim at the main train station in Kassel, then drove with him to his farm in the town of Rotenburg an der Fulda. Based on the men's previous agreement, Meiwes then severed his victim's penis and, after blood loss and pain caused the man to lose consciousness, stabbed the man to death and disemboweled the corpse. In the next few days, he either froze or ate portions of the flesh.

Legal experts call such behavior "severe psychological abnormality," one of the first introductory characteristics (first stage) of diminished or even absent criminal responsibility. More plainly put, someone like Meiwes is simply a cannibal.

A meticulously organized slaughter

Despite this "psychological abnormality," a severe personality disorder, the court held that the defendant was fully responsible for his crime, citing his organized, planned and deliberate behavior before and after the crime. For example, Meiwes insisted on his victim's consent. Whenever a potential victim who had allowed himself to be tempted by Meiwes' bizarre slaughtering propositions would suddenly panic, Meiwes would lose interest and abruptly ask the person to leave. For legal experts, this is strong evidence that the defendant was capable of controlling himself. In other words, he could have done things differently. He could have stopped himself. He didn't act in the heat of the moment, he wasn't under the influence of some drug, not even when he lifted his unconscious victim onto the slaughter bench and, finally on the verge of reaching his objective, slit his throat. In fact, the expert witnesses and the Kassel court were even able to observe Meiwes' actions with their own eyes, since he videotaped the penis amputation (on a kitchen chopping board), the killing and portions of the disembowelment.

During his trial, Meiwes spent hours talking about how his fantasies had developed during childhood and how he began to incorporate sexual components in puberty, about his attempts to establish contact with women, who were always rejected by his ever more controlling mother. The increasingly monstrous fantasies into which he escaped took shape in 1999, when Meiwes discovered the virtual subculture of the Internet, where he found abnormalities of unheard-of proportions. It was this exposure that finally destroyed any remaining inhibitions he may have had, as he realized that his secret dreams could become reality.

The scene of the crime: Meiwes's home in Rotenburg

The scene of the crime: Meiwes's home in Rotenburg

On the Internet, he communicated with supposedly like-minded individuals. The Internet made it possible for perpetrators and victims to approach one another. Bernd B., his victim, was controlled by a similarly severe personality disorder. Instead of being excited by the idea of disemboweling corpses and eating human flesh, he sought the "ultimate kick" in extreme sexual practices. Meiwes and Bernd B. really only had one thing in common: their bizarre fantasy. When the Kassel court issued its rulings, the audience in the courtroom immediately began figuring out when this convicted criminal would be released. And they have good reason to be concerned. As soon as he had committed his crime, Meiwes began searching for his next victim. There was no doubt that Meiwes is a dangerous man, and the public prosecutor's office promptly filed an appeal against what prosecutors believed to be a flawed ruling. Indeed, the language the court used to write its opinion is unusually gentle, perhaps reflective of an unconscious reaction to the defendant's prior sentence.

Last week the matter was brought before the German Federal Court of Justice (BGH). Like the prosecutors in the trial in Kassel, the Federal Prosecutor's Office, wants to see Meiwes convicted of murder. And, "as a special precautionary measure" (to ensure that Meiwes will be kept behind bars for as long as possible), they want the court to acknowledge the special seriousness of the offence. To achieve their objective, the federal prosecutors would have to demonstrate that the case involves several characteristic features of murder. But the problem is finding these features without borrowing from other cases. "Maliciousness" is out of the question, as is "satisfaction of a sexual impulse," at least according to the experts. What about "reprehensible motives?" On the one hand, Meiwes was only interested in satisfying his own desire. On the other hand, Bernd B. agreed to be killed, also to satisfy his desire. Each participant supported the other's objective. Perhaps they even canceled each other out.

And what about the possibility of convicting Meiwes of a different crime? One consideration would be his macabre treatment of the corpse. But this still puts the prosecutors in a difficult position, as well as the BGH's second criminal court, should the court rule that a more severe penalty is called for.

Any attempts by the court or prosecutors to commit Meiwes to a closed facility for psychopaths (for an unlimited period of time) were frustrated by the fact that the lower court in Kassel had already found him to be fully criminally responsible. And if Meiwes, feeling forced into a corner, had not fired his attorney Gunter Widmaier, a specialist in legal appeals, just one day before the hearing in Karlsruhe, the debate before the second chamber would have been capable of lending a new dimension to the case. Perhaps the court would then have discussed whether a person who is so much under the control of his psychological abnormality should be considered reasonable and capable of controlling himself as soon as individual actions only have the appearance of being planned and organized.

Meiwes has been living in an abnormal fantasy world since childhood. He has trained himself to behave rationally in his dealings with the outside world. This highly unusual case could serve as an impetus for the German judiciary to revisit the application of legal provisions relating to the ability to behave reasonably and exercise self-control in cases, like this one, of "severe psychological abnormality."

One question worth raising is whether Meiwes can even escape his bizarre and pathological system of thought. Would the system allow him to do so? After all, the ability to control one's action means that a person is able to consciously interact with his own inner world, and not be a slave to it, as Meiwes is.

One thing about the Meiwes case is clear: He is able to stop his behavior when a potential victim withdraws his consent. But does the ability to move around within the confines of one's own abnormality correspond to the definition of competency in the German criminal code? If Meiwes disembowels his victims, is he competent in the normal sense?

A person with an abnormal emotional life does not necessarily behave like a monster. The fact that Meiwes believed the ill-fated Bernd B., who was willing to allow Meiwes to bite off his penis, to be normal should in itself serve as reason for concern.

Of course, it would probably be easier to give in to the prosecutors' demands and refer the nightmarish case to the Higher Regional Court in Frankfurt, with the stipulation that Meiwes be purged of murderous character traits. This would be sufficient punishment for his crime. But it would not eliminate the danger.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


© DER SPIEGEL 16/2005
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