Berlin Forensics Expert: 'I Have Discovered Possibilities for Committing the Perfect Murder'

As head of the forensic pathology institute at Berlin's top hospital, Michael Tsokos has been helping the police solve crimes for 16 years. In an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE, he talks about the gruesome cases he has experienced and boasts that he knows how to commit a murder without anyone suspecting.

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SPIEGEL ONLINE: In your new book "Der Totenleser" ("The Interpreter of the Dead"), a vengeful husband cuts out his unfaithful wife's eyes and a father murders his son in order to hurt the boy's mother. Aren't stories like this just gratuitous, a sort of pornography of violence?

Michael Tsokos: I know that there is a fine line. My mother is also a doctor and one of my most critical readers. She said of the first version: "Michael, this book will be banned!" However I do not believe I have crossed the line into gratuitous violence. I could have depicted the incidents in much more detail but I deliberately chose not to.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: So the actual reality is far worse than what is in your book?

Tsokos: Yes. And it has become clear to me that no publisher would want a book that told the whole truth, the way forensic pathologists experience it daily -- and no reader could be expected to read it.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Who are your readers then? Are they the kind of people who enjoy "torture porn" movies like "Saw"?

Tsokos: The target group is interested laymen, who are interested in a genuine look behind the scenes and who don't just want the glossy version of reality that television offers. If you take a look in the papers, you will read about cases like this almost every day. But in the newspapers, the stories are only a few lines long. I have also written about the fates of those involved.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The subtitle of your book is "Unbelievable New Cases From Forensic Pathology." How often do these sorts of spectacular cases actually arise?

Tsokos: What is amazing is that we see these bizarre cases regularly, I could fill a book with them every year -- and I'm not talking about a knife fight with two dead. There's a lot of incidents that I didn't even bother to include. Take, for example, the hooligan on the Berlin subway who pulled himself up on the overhead handrail and then swung forward to kick out the carriage's windows. One time he swung too hard, his feet hit the train going in the other direction and he was hurled out of the carriage. He was left lying half-conscious on the tracks and the next train ran him over. These are the kinds of things that just make you shake your head.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In your book, you reveal a lot of details about the day-to-day work of a forensic pathologist. But there are some areas where you leave things deliberately vague, for example the question of how the scene of a crime can be manipulated. Why?

Tsokos: Obviously I cannot give people a how-to guide for manipulating a crime scene.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But you know how to commit the perfect murder?

Tsokos: Yes. In 16 years on the job, I have discovered plenty of possibilities for committing a murder without anybody even suspecting that it was murder. But we forensic pathologists cannot open this Pandora's box.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Does the realism of TV shows like "CSI" suffer because they can't give the true picture, because doing so would give potential criminals ideas?

Tsokos: No. In my opinion, they suffer because they depict methods that do not even exist. One gets the impression they are not being advised by experts.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you actually watch TV crime shows?

Tsokos: Yes, sometimes. But, for example, I don't like these stories about serial killers who are always very cunning and who supposedly have the sort of background knowledge that one could only have if one had been working in my profession for years.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: If we are to believe what we see on TV, then forensic pathologists solve at least as many cases as the police.

Tsokos: The impression is often created that it is the forensic pathologists who solve the cases. On television, the boundaries between forensic medicine and police work are often blurred. The Americans do actually have crime scene technicians working with police units, who take care of fingerprints and DNA samples as well as questioning suspects.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Is it like this in Germany?

Tsokos: In Germany, we are just one piece of the puzzle. The individual forensic pathologist works with a team of scientists: geneticists, toxicologists, coroners and others. You don't get these outstanding heroes who outshine everyone with their clairvoyant talents and multidisciplinary knowledge. It is team work, pure and simple. And it's the police who then go after the offender.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Unlike the police, forensic pathologists are not often threatened with guns. But the job has other dangers, as your book explains. Can you tell us more about that?

Tsokos: I know a few colleagues who became very ill from tuberculosis and were not able to work for a long time. We are obviously also at risk of contracting hepatitis or HIV, just like any surgeon. I do, however, recall one forensic pathologist from Hamburg who carried a pistol for years because he had received death threats after working on a trial involving the Hells Angels.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Your book describes how you also testified in some particularly sensitive cases. You have prepared reports that cast a negative light on the accused. One case involved members of the Russian mafia, for example. Have you ever been threatened?

Tsokos: Not after a trial. But for two years those working in forensic medicine in Berlin were harassed by a stalker, who felt unfairly treated in a report. He hassled us massively around the clock.

Interview conducted by Frank Thadeusz

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About Michael Tsokos
Michael Tsokos has been head of the Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences at Berlin's Charité Hospital, one of the largest university hospitals in Europe, since 2007. In 1998 and 1999, he was part of the German effort to identify bodies in mass graves in Bosnia and Kosovo. At the end of 2004, he traveled to Thailand to help identify German victims of the tsunami. In 2009, Tsokos made headlines when he conducted tests on a corpse found in the hospital's cellar that he suspected was the body of communist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg, whose body went missing after she was killed in 1919. "Der Totenleser" ("The Interpreter of the Dead") is published by Ullstein Taschenbuchverlag and is Tsokos' second book about his work in forensic medicine.


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