Sunday, June 17, 2012

A Question of Justice

Magnus Gäfgen
The reasons for punishing law breakers are varied. The principal reasons are:
  • Retribution,
  • Deterrence,
  • Incarceration, and
  • Rehabilitation. 
In Germany the maximum criminal penalty is life imprisonment, which really means 15 years in prison. There's no death penalty, and "life" imprisonment is limited to 15 years. Despite these lenient penalties, Germany has a relatively low homicide rate. Germany's homicide rate of .81 per 100,000 people compares favorably against the U.S.A's rate of 4.8. (BTW: Monaco has the lowest reported homicide rate of 0.00 while Honduras has the highest at 87.)

It seems harsh penalties have little impact on the homicide rate. Yet, I'm not convinced we should do away with the death penalty or reduce "life" sentences to 15 years. I'm old-fashioned when it comes to facing the consequences of one's acts. On this topic, I'm not a bleeding heart.

Take the case of Magnus Gäfgen, a particularly heinous case that took place 10-years ago. Mr. Gäfgen was a law student studying criminal law. In 2002, he kidnapped and murdered 10-year old Jakob von Metzler. After picking up a 1 million  ransom, Gäfgen was arrested and taken into custody.

Jakob von Metzler
Gäfgen played it cool. He was skilled in police methods, and knew his rights. Gäfgen refused to answer police questions, knowing it would be difficult to pin the crime on him if no body was found. After three days of intense interrogation, the police were ready to give up. Then the Police told Gäfgen he would be placed in a cell with dangerous criminals unless he cooperated. Afraid for his safety, Gäfgen confessed, and told the police where they could find Jakob. (The coroner was uncertain as to the cause of death. Jakob either died of suffocation or dehydration.) Gäfgen later sued the police in the European Court of Human Rights on the grounds of inhuman and degrading treatment. He won, and was awarded 3,000 €.

Gäfgen is now serving a "life sentence." While in prison he was awarded his law degree, published his autobiography Allein mit Gott-Der Weg zurück (Alone with God-The Way Back), and was able to pocket the book's royalties. (Unlike the U.S.A, Mr. Gäfgen can keep the book's proceeds. It seems crime does pay.) In 2018, Gäfgen will be released from prison. He will be 43 years old and plans to practice law. Unlike his victim, Mr. Gäfgen can resume his life, and perhaps start a family. In this case, has justice been served?

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