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.

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."

Fotostrecke

Photo Gallery: The Man who Hated Muslims

Foto: DDP

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.

Hatred of All Muslims

The first encounter between W. and his victim occurred on Aug. 21, 2008, when Marwa al-Sherbini walked onto a playground on Hopfgartenstrasse in Dresden with her son. Al-Sherbini was an attractive woman wearing jeans and a blouse; her headscarf was the only thing that identified her as a Muslim. The boy wanted to play on the swing, but both swings were occupied, one by W. Al-Sherbini, speaking in German, asked him if he would make room for her son on the swing.

W. immediately began swearing at al-Sherbini, calling her an "Islamist" and a "terrorist" who had no business being in Germany. He also said that her son would grow up to become a "terrorist."

Fotostrecke

Photo Gallery: The Man who Hated Muslims

Foto: DDP

"The defendant refused to accept that he, as a German, should make room for a non-German," a witness who tried to calm W. down later told the court. "He said that 'those people,' the Muslims, should not be allowed to have children, because they would only end up blowing up Germans."

The string of insults continued. Al-Sherbini told W. that it was a public playground and asked the bystanders if anyone had a mobile phone she could use.

A woman handed her a phone, and the man who would later testify in the murder trial called the police. W. began shouting at the woman whose phone was being used, asking her, in Russian, why she had done it. "I'll give my mobile phone to whoever I want," the woman replied in Russian.

"They're killing our soldiers," W. shouted, "and you're kissing their ass!"

'I Feel Humiliated'

Al-Sherbini filed a complaint against W. for verbal abuse. In October 2008, the Dresden District Court ordered W. to pay a fine of €330 ($488). He formally objected to the order and wrote to the court, his German marked by misspellings and grammatical mistakes: "I simply am not understanding since when is forbidden to tell truth in this so-called 'constitutional state.' Everyone knows that Islam is dangerous and crazy religion, and that members of Islamic religion describe others as 'non-Islamists' and misguided people who must be either converted or destroyed. In light of all this it is easy to understand why I see them as enemies … To tell you truth, I also want to say that the insanity of the Islamists is not just because of religion but mostly because of their race itself … I feel humiliated and unfairly treated by the German justice system."

Perm, the Russian city where W. was born and spent part of his childhood, is about as far away from Germany as Egypt is. Al-Sherbini and her husband moved to the northern German city of Bremen in 2004 and later to Dresden. Elwy Ali Okaz obtained his doctorate at the prestigious Max Planck Institute in Dresden, and she completed an internship at the university hospital and in a pharmacy so that she could eventually work as a pharmacist. Al-Sherbini spoke German very well; certainly far better than W. who, despite having gone through several state-funded integration programs, never really found his feet in Germany.

Verbal Abuse

Because of Alex W.'s objection to the court order, a hearing was held in the Dresden District Court on Nov. 13, 2008. Once again, W. was stubborn and unbending. "It was immediately clear that he was not going to pay the fine, nor that he would apologize," the municipal court judge later testified. "He wanted to decide for himself what he wanted to say. Laws have limits, he said, and he claimed that was merely defending his Lebensraum (living space)."

"But you must have told him," the presiding judge interjected, "that his tirades are considered verbal abuse under German criminal law. If he feels that everything German is so wonderful, he must have accepted that."

"No," the municipal court judge responded. "He denied that these people have the right to feel insulted." Muslims, W. apparently said, are not people, and a German should not have to make space for them on a swing.

After that, W. was ordered to pay a fine of €780, a decision he immediately appealed. Tom Maciejewski, the presiding judge of the regional court, and two lay judges heard the case on July 1. Al-Sherbini, who had been summoned as a witness, came to the hearing with her husband and their young son.

'She Is Dying!'

At that hearing, the defendant calmly told the court that, after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, such "monsters" no longer had the right to live in Germany. He said that he classified people according to race, and that he believed that European races should be permitted to stay in Germany, while others should not. "As Herr W. was launching into a discussion of Holocaust denial, I interrupted him and told him that such denials are punishable by law," Maciejewski said.

The judge choked up repeatedly when recounting the events that unfolded in his courtroom at the end of that hearing, when W. suddenly rushed toward the woman and began frenetically stabbing her. His eyes filled with tears as he described how the badly injured husband clung to his wife and said: "She is dying! She is dying!"

"I had actually decided to dispense with the hearing of the witness, because the defendant had already acknowledged the facts of the case, and because I did not feel that the district court's sentence was excessive," says Maciejewski. "I wanted to dismiss her, because the matter was clear."

But one of the lay judges had a few more questions. If, instead, he had agreed with the judge's suggestion, al-Sherbini would still be alive today.

There were many witnesses to the crime, and each of them saw different things from his or her perspective. When these details are put together, like pieces in a puzzle, a clear picture emerges. The husband threw himself in front of his wife to protect her, struggling with the killer to get the knife from him. In addition to sustaining serious stab wounds, he was shot in the leg by a police officer who erroneously took him for the attacker. By the time W.'s defense attorney shouted: "No, that's the wrong person!" it was too late.

No Security Check

During the murder trial, recordings of the emergency calls received by the police on that July 1 were played to the court. How the dead woman's family members sitting in that courtroom must have felt when they heard the desk officer's ponderous responses: Uh huh, what was that? A stabbing at the regional court? Okay, where? Loth - rin - ger Strasse. Would you spell that please? Okay. On the ground floor? Which courtroom? What's the phone number? And your name? Okay, I'll send a car.

Al-Sherbini's attacker had stabbed her with so much force that she was beyond help. W.'s defense attorney argued that his client had not planned to use the knife in his backpack to attack the witness or her husband, but that it was just a knife he carried with him wherever he went. But why did W. feel he needed to carry a 30-centimeter (12-inch) knife with an 18-centimeter blade around with him?

The building that houses the Dresden Regional Court today was magnificently restored after German reunification in 1990. But it was considered too expensive to add a security checkpoint at the entrance -- and so none was built.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan