Judgment and sentence in German cannibal case/Meiwes wegen Totschlag verurteilt

Spiegel online reports that Armin Meiwes (known as Armin M. in the German articles) has been convicted of voluntary manslaughter (Totschlag). He’s been sentenced to eight years and six months in prison. It was not murder because the court did not establish ‘niedrige Beweggründe’ (base motives) as required under German law.

The photo used (DPA) has a bit of a Neanderthal look about it. Meiwes usually looks better than that.

The German lawyers always suggest a judgment and sentence. The defence counsel suggested Tötung auf Verlangen (mercy killing at the request of the person killed); the prosecution said it was murder, carried out for sexual titillation.

This is a decision that is bound to be reported abroad too. Let’s look at the BBC News version.

bq. The defence had sought a verdict of illegal euthanasia, carrying a far shorter sentence of six months to five years, on the grounds that it had been a “killing on request”.
But while rejecting the defence’s argument, the court also ruled that Meiwes had had no “base motives” for the crime and settled on a manslaughter verdict, as Judge Volker Muetze told the packed courtroom.

I suppose most people will understand that it is voluntary, not involuntary, manslaughter involved, but still, translating Totschlag simply as manslaughter seems sloppy to me (I may be alone here). Euthanasia also omits the idea of the victim’s request, but that is added at the end of the sentence.

bq. The case could make legal history in a country which has no laws against cannibalism.

Aargh! I am so tired of reading that Germany has no laws against cannibalism. How many countries have?

bq. Dressed in a dark suit and tie, Meiwes sat impassively as the verdict was read out in court.

Ah, but was his lawyer wearing a white tie?

Now, The Independent (on the front page, the story is mysteriously listed under ‘UK News’).

bq. Prosecutors called Meiwes a “human butcher” who acted simply to “satisfy a sexual impulse” and had sought a life sentence for murder.
His defense argued that since the victim had volunteered to be killed and eaten, the crime should be classified a mercy killing, which carries a five-year maximum penalty.

I prefer ‘satisfy a sexual impulse’ (part of the German definition of murder) to the BBC’s ‘sexual murder’. But when did we British start spelling ‘defence’ with an S?

The Guardian presents an audio report. ‘ quite liked ‘killing on demand’. I don’t think anyone told the reporter how to pronounce ‘Meiwes’, which was coming over as ‘Mieweis’. The written report is somewhat similar to that of The Independent.

After consulting the New York Times, I abandoned the project, as I was getting the impression that all the reports were based on one account.

13 thoughts on “Judgment and sentence in German cannibal case/Meiwes wegen Totschlag verurteilt

  1. I listened to BBC Radio 1 (Jeremy Vine Show) today while driving to a Police Station near Coventry. They discussed the topic extensively and focussed mainly on the issue of the victim’s consent. Some (apparently famous) barrister argued that consent can only given if the person is of sound mental health. If someone is giving asks to be harmed in a serious way (see also sado-masochism) he must have a mental “deficiency” and therefore the term Consent does not apply.

  2. There was a sado-masochist case in the House of Lords a few years ago that this reminded me of. It was R. v. Brown 1993. Some homosexuals were engaging in consensual acts that were quite violent. They caused actual bodily harm (i.e. not terribly serious. They were convicted of assault and the HoL dismissed their appeals.
    Still, I don’t see that consent has much to do with murder. And Meiwes *was* convicted of an offence. I would have thought it was more important whether he believed the victim consented. However, I must admit I haven’t read anything in depth about this case.

  3. These conceptual questions are fascinating, but the case is so completely sui generis that any legal characterisation of the conduct involved is bound to be arbitrary. I don’t think there is any question that M. would have been convicted of murder under UK law, and his motive seems to me wholly “base” in that it involved personal gain (what does German law consider to be a “base” motive).

    Can one consent to permanent slavery – that is, to agree to and allow oneself to be rendered incapable of escape or ever exercising any control over one’s condition ever again? If not, it seems hard to see that one can give consent to be killed (except in the extraordinary, open, controlled and safeguarded circumstances of medically supervised euthanasia of an individual with a fatal illness – but that is, of course, a completely different question).

  4. Yes, he would be guilty of murder in England, probably, but motive (base or otherwise) is not relevant there. He would presumably be pleading a defence of some sort, but not successfully.
    I posted something about the definitions in earlier entries, one on December 4th and two on December 5th. The ‘personal gain’ idea is quite new to me. The public prosecutor concentrated on the idea that the murder was carried out for sexual reasons: Meiwes pursued his victim’s sexual fantasies and gave no thought to him as an individual

  5. The R. v. Brown (1993) quote is a good one. The case is still controversial as to what consenting adults are allowed to do in private. One judge in that case remarked there is a category of act so vile that the law must interfere.

    It harks back to the Eng. case of R. v. Donovan (1934) – albeit the namesake of Scotland’s 1960’s guitar-strumming answer to Bob Dylan – where a 17 year-old call girl could not consent to a crime i.e. of caning by a punter. Would the result be the same today?

    Obviously there are criminal limits to the tort-based defence of volenti non fit injuria that doesn’t seem to be mentioned in connection with the German case. Anyone with an unpronounceable name like Meiwes must be guilty, I suppose!

    And what if there had been a fatal accident in one of those vexed sports-death scenarios like a supervised boxing match with his ‘victim’ whom he’d cannibalised afterwards? Not exactly indictable in the UK as stealing body parts.

    If Armin and his friend had been more organised, they could have taken a one-way trip to Papua Guinea, Fiji or Papa Doc’s Haitii where, even in the remotest villages, there are ‘no laws against cannibalism’.

  6. Thanks for the ref to the earlier entries which were very interesting. The homosexual S&M case referred to (which was and remains known as the “Spanner Case”) is indeed the principal examination of the extent to which a state has an interest in people’s bodies when they are affected by conduct to which there is consent, carried out in private. Interestingly, in 1997 the case reached the European Court of Human Rights on appeal from the British House of Lords (Laskey, Jaggard and Brown v. the United Kingdom). The British appelate decision was unanimously upheld:

    “Common ground before Court: Criminal proceedings against applicants constituted ‘interference by a public authority’ with right to respect for private life, carried out ‘in accordance with the law’ and in pursuance of legitimate aim (‘protection of health or morals’). Only issue: whether interference ‘necessary in a democratic society’.

    State unquestionably entitled to regulate through criminal law the infliction of physical harm – determination of tolerable level of harm where victim consents primarily a matter for State concerned. Court not persuaded that applicants’ behaviour belonged to private morality and was excluded from State’s intervention – evident from facts that activities involved significant degree of injury and wounding – State authorities were entitled to consider not only actual but also potential harm inherent in activities…

    Given degree of organisation, limited number of charges selected for prosecution, and reduced sentences imposed on appeal – interference not disproportionate. National authorities entitled to consider interference ‘necessary in a democratic society’ for protection of health.

    The full text of the ruling can be found here:

    Perhaps the key phrase is “Court not persuaded that applicants’ behaviour belonged to private morality”. In other words, broader social well-being is relevant (whatever that is in respect of these matters!)

    Interestingly, the defendants/apellants set up an organisation to raise funds (The Spanner Trust) with a website that is full of interesting material about the legal issues (including many original documents), as well as introductions and guides to the more arcane areas of sexual gratification involved. If anyone is interested, this is the URL:

    The European finding only upholds British practice and doesn’t provide any guidance in the current German case, but the ruling does have citations to European Court cases (Dudgeon v. the UK 1981; Olsson v. Sweden 1980; Norris v. Ireland 1988; Modinos v. Cyprus 1993; Buckley v. the UK 1996 – but I have no idea what these cases involved). The issue remains – how is the state’s general interest in the well-being of the whole of society to be conceptualised legally in cases like Spanner or Meiwes. If Miewes’s victim had lived because of a timely interruption towards the end of the encounter with Miewes, would he/should he also have been charged with a crime, as the passive as well as the active participants in the Spanner case were?

  7. Margaret, Athens seems to be thanking you for the earlier entries and not me for the earlier case of Donovan. All very confusing as the rest of the contribution also touches on my points.

  8. @Athens: thanks for the other references. I had forgotten it went to the ECHR. I think that is the problem with this case: it would be more interesting if the victim had lived, but then again, that wasn’t the idea. The question is: was it murder or not? (There will no doubt be an appeal. I would have thought another court might have found it was murder, but I quite liked the decision for voluntary manslaughter). But another question is: how far will the courts protect consenting adults against themselves?

    @AMM: Yes, but probably because I answered Athens first. I am being brief because I haven’t been here long. I was attempting to look after a dog as well. But I do see a difference between protection of a minor despite minor’s consent, and the Brown case. If I remember right, some of the people in Brown were considerably younger than the others, say early twenties, but not minors. And the extent of injury was probably greater than in the case of caning. Still, I did wonder why these practices were forbidden when boxing is permitted. I suspect the long-term effects of boxing are worse for some people than those of the wounding in the Brown case.

    Spanner is somewhat of a false friend – in German ein Spanner is a peeping Tom.

  9. It’s an extremely interesting topic, and one that I imagine makes the proponents of assisted suicide fairly uncomfortable. Actually, now that I think of it, I’m a proponent of assisted suicide, and it makes me uncomfortable. There, I’ve proven it.

    On the other hand, I can certainly see the rationale for prosecuting Mr. Miewes. I’m not familiar enough with the case to know, but what if Mr. Miewes was a terribly charismatic fellow? What if he convinced a hapless person that said hapless person really would be better off in his digestive system? I know that’s a concern of people opposed to euthanasia, but I guess the motive’s the crux.

    Margaret, I think your comment about Germany not being the only nation without laws against cannibalism is well-taken. I’d be more worried about living in a society that felt the need to pass such laws. Wouldn’t you? “What’s that Joe? Going out to the corner store for a lottery ticket and a six-pack? Be sure to look out for the cannibals…”

  10. Can we clarify that the culprit’s surname is the cat-sounds Armin Meiwes, and not the mispronounced Miewes version, before it becomes an entrenched typo. Amen.

    Athens’ point about the guilt of the survivor is reminiscent of the point that a survivor of a suicide pact in the UK is still prosecutable for murder. Suicide itself stopped being a crime in 1961. An abrogation 100 years before that would have saved the long-defunct Clerkenwell House of Detention a long list of prisoners in Victorian times.

  11. @AMM Yes, I overlooked the spelling. Of course, Robert writes a superb foodie blog, so he’s probably concentrating only on the gustatory elements of the case.

  12. I have recently been fired as a commercial agent (in France) by a German company as, in the context of a personal letter to them complaining about their extreme chaos and my behaviour necessary as a result to my customers, I referred to the fact that there had been “a darker side of German history”.

    I said nothing else, and have never made any illusion. In fact I was thinking about having to tell lies to my customers since they kept giving wrong information – on the lines of “Goodbye Lenin” – but they are telling me that I was obviously referring to Germany’s Nazi Past, and so I was obviously calling them Nazi’s, and under German Law you can fire anyone for calling someone a Nazi and you have no obligation to give them any compensation.

    I think this is extraordinary.

    I am unfortunately being forced to spend money on a German lawyer to seek compensation for the work we did for them, but the lawyer says that it is possible that if we go to court in their town, we might lose.

    It seems incredible. I didnt even call them a Nazi – and this seems too easy a law to use to avoid just compensation.

    Has there been any test case going to Bruxelles on this German law, and would I win in Bruxelles if I had to appeal over the small town prejudice? Is there any cheaper way of going to Bruxelles on this kind of case, or any chance of getting costs back in case I do win (as I guess this is very expensive)?

    In case you dont know, do you have any idea where I can find out about this?



  13. I can’t answer your questions, and I couldn’t possibly give you legal advice online even if I were a practising lawyer and knew how to.
    Your lawyer should be able to answer your questions.
    Apart from anything else, I suspect that any further remedies you have depend on you exhausting the German remedies first. For instance, if you wanted to go to the European Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg, you could only do that if your German court finds against you, and you appeal. But I may be wrong, and as I say, it isn’t advice.

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