New Documentary on Jens Soering

This is a new German documentary about Jens Soering, the German national who was convicted of a 1985 double-murder and sentenced to life imprisonment in Virginia, where he still is. Here are two trailers, the first in German, the second in English.

Soering's case has a long and complex history. While in England, he fought extradition to the state of Virginia on the grounds that it would violate European human rights law for Britain to extradite Soering to Virginia to face the possibility of capital punishment. The European Court of Human Rights agreed in Soering v. UK. Virginia dropped its demand for the death penalty, Soering was returned, convicted, and now is in prison for life.

He initially confessed to the crime and fled the country. He now claims he's innocent of the crime, but I haven't really been convinced by anything I've read so far. The documentary looks intriguing, I'll post any thoughts as soon as I've seen it.

This is the first and last time I will ever put a trigger warning on this blog, but these videos contain brief shots of crime scene photos with mutilated human bodies, so be advised. 


Bleg: German News Coverage of Failures of German Justice

I am working on an op-ed piece and perhaps an article about journalistic coverage of the German criminal justice system which I hope to publish on paper, in German, in some German newspaper.

The subject is going to be what I perceive to be the imbalance in German-language coverage of the American criminal justice system versus the German criminal justice system. That is, German-language newspapers are full of coverage (of widely varying quality, much of it error-filled) about Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, American death row inmate X or Z, but rarely cover problems in the German criminal justice system. Before asserting this, I want to try to make sure it's true!

So what I am looking for is articles in the German-language press by Germans which deal with potential justice problems in courts in German-speaking countries including:

(1) wrongful convictions;

(2) racial, ethnic, or religious disparities in conviction rates or sentencing;

(3) allegations of racial or ethnic or religious bias among German prosecutors and professional or lay judges;

(4) interviews with prisoners currently serving prison sentences in Germany who claim that they are completely innocent of the crimes of which they were convicted; and/or

(5) detailed examinations of systemic problems in German criminal justice or prisons, things such as underfunding, outdated regulations, disproportionate penalties, or the use of unreliable evidence.

I'm interested, in particular, in well-researched studies or in-depth reportings, not just stories like 'this lefty activist claims he was convicted only because the judge was a right-winger and we lefty activist journalists of course totally believe him and feel no need to research the allegations any further!!' There's a lot of that about in Germany, and it's generally justly ignored.

Also I'm not super-interested in stories about the RAF, which I consider to be an irrelevant side issue. I'm interested in well-considered stories about why random anonymous criminal Achmet got 4 years in prison for the exact same crime that random anonymous criminal Detlef got 2 years for.

Thanks in advance for any links in comments.


Pay Your Church Tax or No Wafer for You

Rod Dreher, a conservative American commentator, can hardly believe his eyes when he reads about the German church tax (Kirchensteuer):

In Germany, as in a number of other European countries, if you are a member of a church or mainstream religion, you have to pay a pretty significant tax to the government, which distributes the money to the churches. From the Wall Street Journal:

German church members must pay an additional 8% to 9% of their gross annual income tax and capital gains tax bills to the church. That is typically steeper than in many other parts of Europe. A registered believer, for instance, paying a 30% income tax rate, or €30,000, on an income of €100,000, would pay another €2,400 to €2,700 in church tax.

To American eyes, that’s stunning. Now, the German government is closing a loophole having to do with capital gains, which means an effective tax increase for its officially registered Christian believers....  The church tax issue has become a big deal with the German Catholic bishops taking the lead in trying to liberalize the universal Catholic church’s rules on married and divorced people receiving communion. Look at this report from theNational Catholic Register:

In response to the numbers de-registering, the German bishops issued a decree in September 2012 calling such departure “a serious lapse” and listing a number of ways they are barred from participating in the life of the Church.

The decree specified that those who do not pay the church tax cannot receive the sacraments of Confession, Communion, Confirmation, or Anointing of the Sick, except when in danger of death; cannot hold ecclesial office or perform functions within the Church; cannot be a godparent or sponsor; cannot be a member of diocesan or parish councils; and cannot be members of public associations of the Church.

More:

The critics point out that while Cardinal Kasper and most of his fellow German bishops have been leading the charge to allow those in “irregular” marital situations — those who are divorced and remarried — to receive Communion, they have simultaneously denied the sacraments, including even Confession, to those who opt out of paying Germany’s “church tax.”

In both cases, the German position is at odds with Church teaching: admitting to Communion those formally not allowed; and forbidding those whom the Vatican says can validly receive the sacraments.

The German definition of mercy, critics say, is a “pay to pray system” that has its “financial” limits.

The bishops in Germany “are notoriously the most merciful in wishing to grant Communion to the divorced and remarried, but at the same time are the most ruthless in de facto excommunicating those who refuse to pay the church tax, which in their country is obligatory by law,” Vatican analyst Sandro Magister wrote Oct. 29 in his “Settimo Cielo” blog for Italy’s L’Espresso newspaper.

Read the whole thing.  If I were a German Catholic or Protestant, I would be enormously offended by this whole thing. It’s outrageous that if you are a German Catholic who wants to go to confession, the priest will deny it if you haven’t paid the church tax. How is this much different from Johann Tetzel’s indulgence business, selling salvation to Renaissance German Catholics?

So, who agrees with Dreher? Not being religious, I don't have a dog in this fight. Well, at least not in the title bout -- although as someone who pays German taxes I do subsidize many relgious activities with my tax dollars. Further, coming from the United States, I tend to regard estabilshed churches with a skeptical eye.

But even setting aside these biases, I've often thought the church tax was a particularly clumsy way of regulating church-state interaction. Nevertheless, Dreher can calm down somewhat: You aren't going to be denied Communion at a Catholic church in Germany if you haven't paid your Kirchensteuer unless you tattoo that fact on your forehead, and probably not even then. Germans are famous for dropping out of the church they were raised in as soon as they become adults, thus saving themselves the Kirchensteuer. Then, if they decide on a church wedding, they re-join, since getting married in church is complicated enough transaction that the church will demand you be a member to enjoy this benefit. But despite the Bishops' huffing and puffing, I've never heard of an ordinary German Catholic being denied Communion for not having paid the Kirchensteuer. But then again I don't travel in churchy circles, so I might not know.


Painful Questioning and Breaking on the Wheel

Doing a bit of research I came across the online version (g) of the Bambergische Peinliche Halsgerichtsordnung, one of the first European criminal codes. It was written by a German knight, one Johann the Strong, Baron of Schwarzenberg and Hohenlandsberg. Johann was 'Hofmeister' (a senior court official) to the Bishop of Bamberg.

From a legal perspective the Bamberg code is forward-looking in many ways, but in other ways it's, er, medieval. And what's even more awesome is that the medieval stuff is illustrated. Directly below we see court officials preparing for interrogation under torture, the so-called peinliche Befragung (g). It's even accompanied by a short poem (anyone want to try a translation in comments?). Below that we see a man about to be beheaded with a sword in the foreground, with a poor bastard broken on the wheel in the background.

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The Exaggerating Nun

The usual suspects (feminists and Christians) are lobbying for Germany to ban prostitution. They're not likely to get very far -- the current government is only contemplating punishment for men who knowingly hire women who have been forced into prostitution. How you're supposed to prove that is anybody's guess. As usual in these debates, nobody seems to even acknowledge the existence of male prostitution, or the possibility that men might be forced into selling their bodies. When it comes to human dignity and exploitation, apparently gays get a free pass!

The politics of prostitution in Germany are interesting: the educated urban bourgeoisie (EUB) is generally against it, likely because (1) that's the position of many (if not all) German feminists; and (2) prostitution involves capitalism, for which German EUB-types are expected to evince a genteel disdain (they aspire to high-prestige government jobs with excellent benefits). Yet being anti-prostitution puts them in the same boat with American puritans and conservative Catholics, two perennial bugaboos of the EUB. 

What to do? Most seem to favor banning or limiting prostitution. Which means when a German journalist interviews an anti-prostitution campaigner (just as when they interview an anti-GMO, anti-death penalty, or anti-nuclear activist), the questions are softballs and not even the craziest claim is challenged. Not to put too fine a point on it, German reporting on these issues is riddled with outlandish claims and bare-assed lies (GMOs cause cancer! Fukushima engineers died by the dozens!) passed on uncritically by cheerleading journalists.

Case in point, a nun named Sister Lea Ackermann, who heads a group called Solwodi (g), short for Solidarity with Women in Distress -- doubtless an extremely worthwhile organization. In this interview (g) Sister Lea says she wants Germany to combat prostitution by making it a crime for men to buy sex from women, as some Scandinavian countries have done. Note that she doesn't seem to have any opinion on whether men who buy sex from other men shoud also be punished. At one point in the interview, she makes a rather startling assertion about 'flat-rate' bordellos (my translation):

Heuer: [So you want to ban] things that violate human dignity such as 'flatrate-sex'. The governing coalition wants to ban that as well.  

Ackermann: Yes! Why haven't they done this long ago? A woman, a beer and a sausage for €8.90. Can you imagine anything worse?

Heuer: No, I can't. I find it exactly as horrible as you do. But the question is whether such things can be banned by law. How would you be able to enforce it?

When I read this, I nearly did a spit-take. Are there places where you can actually get a beer and a sausage and a sex act for €8.90 (about twelve bucks)? That sounds shriekingly implausible, yet the interviewer lets Sister Lea assert it without a shred of proof. And it fails the bullshit test on many levels. For one thing, given Germans' love for beer, sausages, and most of all bargains, there would be a line of men (and perhaps even a few women) stretching halfway across Germany to get into this place.

Just a few seconds' searching on the Internet reveals that this horror scenario is fake. Since prostitution is basically legal in Germany, bordellos can advertise openly, with price lists (Here's the Wikipedia entry for Pascha, a bordello in Cologne that's Europe's largest). I won't link to any here, since this is a family-friendly blog, but you will find that even the cheapest German house of joy literally won't even let you in the door for less than 25 Euros, and the costs surely mount quickly (so to speak) once you're inside. The average price for a 1-hour visit to an 'entertainment lady' (to translate the German phrase literally) seems to be between 80 and 150 euros, depending on what services are on offer.

By all means debate the proper policy on prostitution, German journalists, but don't treat your readers like idiots.


Politics and the High Court in the US and Germany

Bverfge
Adam Liptak of the New York Times recently noted and lamented the fact that the decisions of the American Supreme Court are increasingly decided on explicitly partisan grounds: 

The perception that partisan politics has infected the court’s work may do lasting damage to its prestige and authority and to Americans’ faith in the rule of law.

“An undesirable consequence of the court’s partisan divide,” said Justin Driver, a law professor at the University of Texas, “is that it becomes increasingly difficult to contend with a straight face that constitutional law is not simply politics by other means, and that justices are not merely politicians clad in fine robes. If that perception becomes pervasive among today’s law students, who will become tomorrow’s judges, after all, it could assume a self-reinforcing quality.”

Presidents used to make nominations based on legal ability, to cater to religious or ethnic groups, to repay political favors or to reward friends. Even when ideology was their main concern, they often bet wrong.

Three changes have created a courthouse made up of red and blue chambers. Presidents care more about ideology than they once did. They have become better at finding nominees who reliably vote according to that ideology. And party affiliation is increasingly the best way to predict the views of everyone from justices to bank tellers.

The lefty in me wonders what all the fuss is about. Commentators such as Driver posit a politics-free space of legal analysis which used to exist and has been eroded in the past few decades, and that this erosion is a bad thing. You can doubt each proposition; perhaps the Supreme Court has always been a place of political contention obscured by a thick veneer of procedural legalism, and we're all better off now that the veneer's been washed away. 

But this seems a bit glib. The increasingly naked partisanship of American Supreme Court Justices is almost certainly a Bad Thing, and damages the reputation the United States internationally. Further, it's hard to see it changing anytime soon: given that (1) there are only 9 spots on the Supreme Court; (2) the ideological balance is razor-sharp, and (3) each judge literally serves for life, any President who defected from the strategy of appointing reliable votes for his party would face a huge backlash: 'Why did you appoint that squish when you could have appointed someone more reliable? Do you think the next president from the opposite party is going to return the favor? Of course not -- congratulations, you've just changed the composition of the nation's highest court for the next 35 years.' 

Germany doesn't have problems this acute, since German Federal Constitutional Court (FCC) judges serve only 12-year terms. In Germany, seats on the Federal Constitutional Court are allocated according to a semi-secret agreement between the two largest political parties, the CDU and the SPD. As Maximilian Steinbeis points out in a recent entry. The judicial Selection Committee of the German Parliament is formally assigned to choose new FCC judges, but the real decision is made out of public sight long before the Committee votes. Right now, an 'SPD-associated' judge is about to retire, and the SPD gets to choose her replacement. They actually carried out a sort of audition for potential replacements. But picking judges through informal backroom agreements has its own problems (my translation):

I was always for a more public and transparent procedure for choosing FCC judges. The SPD parliamentary group's procedure thus conforms to the trend: choosing FCC judges is getting more political. The expertocratic tradition that has dominated until now -- in which the search for candidates is in the hands of tight-lipped and well-connected legal politicians do thorough background checks, conduct many, many confidential discussions, and then filter out the One (and for God's sake no one else!) to present to the parliamentary party behind closed doors -- this sort of thing no longer looks good.

Therefore, the plan to have judges ... chosen no longer by the intransparent Selection Committee but chosen in a plenary session of the Bundestag (g) seems like an appropriate solution. Of course, nobody wants the process to become as politicized as it is in the USA, and therefore the vote should happen without public speeches. Even so, we will in the future know -- for better or worse -- exactly how much support each Judge had when he or she assumed office. It remains to be seem how that might affect the atmosphere in the chambers of Karlsruhe.

Steinbeis isolates the central problem here: transparency leads to political accountability, and that's precisely what you want to limit when picking judges. Until the late 1960s, the American system managed to sustain the ideal (illusion?) of neutral criteria for picking judges, but as hearings became increasingly public, the judge's political profile increased to the point where it's now dominant. And that's why Steinbeis cites America not as a model, but a cautionary example.


The Limp Arm of the Law

When it came time for Heinz Nieder, to go to prison for the rest of his life, the local authorieis sent him a letter (g). We now have another example of the German authorities' never-ending, relentless, embittered, near-frenzied search for the truth: art hoarder Cornelius Gurlitt. He deceived the Munich prosecutors' office using one of the most devious strategems imaginable:

"State prosecutors insisted that Mr Gurlitt had 'gone missing'. However, the reporters said Mr Gurlitt had been at home all the time and had simply refused to answer the door."


The Story of the Evil Landlord and the Good Landlord

The Krahestraße in Düsseldorf is in a working-class area near the main train station. For years it's been known for something vicious and ugly: An apartment house owner, Heinz Nieder, wanted to flush out some inconvenient tenants who opposed a renovation, so he hired a workman to open a gas pipeline in the basement of his own apartment building at night.

Six people died in the resulting blast (g), two others were severely injured. The series of resulting trials of the home owner, Heinz Nieder, must count as one of the most humiliating debacles in post-war German justice: he was forced to languish in 'investigative custody' for so long (eventually eight years in total) that the Federal Constitutional Court set him free. Then  two trials against him were overturned on appeal (g) by the German High Court. During much of this judicial odyssey, he was often seen (g) in Düsseldorf's trendy Oberkassel neighborhood, taking walks or sipping espresso.

He was finally sentenced and the verdict upheld on appeal only in 2009. The sentence was life imprisonment (actually a 15-year minimum sentence). The prosecutor's office -- believe it or not -- sent him a letter asking him to show up for his life prison sentence, please. The letter was sent to his last registered address. Shockingly, it turns out that Mr. Nieder hadn't lived there for at least 3 months (g). He had gone underground and remained on the run for much of mid-2009, working as a renovator. He was picked up only with the help of 'Detective Serendipity' (Kommisar Zufall), as the Germans say -- he was found outside a hotel in Marburg Germany full of pills and confused, apparently the result of a suicide attempt. He said he was Ralf Möller from Cologne, but police at the hospital recognized his face (g) from the wanted poster. As of 2011, he was serving his sentence as a cook in a prison hospital (g).

So much for the story of the despicably greedy landlord. Now to the story of the enlightened, art-loving landlord, which also takes place in the Krahestrasse, next to where Heinz Nieder murdered six people. I was biking by there recently and came upon the freshly-completed series of apartment houses forming the 'Mosaic Facade':

Traumfassade Krahestr. (Mosaic Facade) Krahestrasse (Josipa Horvat) General View. ('Traumfassade' Krahestrasse (Josipa Horvat) General View Mosaic Facade Krahestrasse (Josipa Horvat) Peacock Dorrway Mosaic Facade Krahestr. Detail of Entrance with Birds. Detail of Entrance with Birds Mosaic Facade Krahestr. Window . Window

The project was the brainchild of landlord Hans-Rainer Jonas, who has a 'social vein' and prides himself on charging reasonable rents and providing communal space for his tenants. He originally thought of Hundertwasser to decorate the facades of his houses, but then chose the Düsseldorf artist Josipa Horvat. She involved a team of other artists and also residents (g). Sometimes children would come by with fragments of mirror or crockery which would be mosaiced right in next to everything else.

I have my doubts about some urban public art projects, but I love this one. Cheerful without being saccharine, whimsical, and beguilingly curvy. Makes me want to move...


German Melody Thieves

Every time I whip out my favorite collection of German mainstream pop music, Schlager für Millionen, I can't help noticing that many of the songs have melodies which are directly copied, note for note, from American or British pop songs or traditional ballads. The brazen theft is never noted on the album info, and I'd imagine that the vast majority of German fans aren't aware they're listening to musical copies. Given that the German rights-enforcement agency is blocking thousands of Youtube videos in an attempt to ensure (what they consider) proper payment for artists, I'd also be interested to know whether the German Schlager stars at least licensed and paid for the music they used that was still under copyright when they stole the tune.

Just a few examples. First, Udo Lindenberg's 1983 hit Sonderzug nach Pankow:

which is a copy of the Glenn Miller Orchestra's Chattanooga Choo Choo. To be fair, Lindenberg never tried to conceal this fact, and his song itself is about trains. But still, he copied the music note-for-note from Glenn Miller.

And now the 'hymn' of the Cologne football team, FC Köln, being sung by thousands of fans.

How many know it's a note-for-note copy of this traditional Scottish ballad?

UPDATE: Thanks to commenter Christan Schorn, who reminded me of one of the most shameless thefts, Bert and Cindy's transformation of Black Sabbath's scorching 'Paranoid'...

 

into this abomination:

Double derivativeness points for the German text drawing from Conan Doyle's 'Hound of the Baskervilles'.


Germans and Registration

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Conor Friedersdorf notes the German privacy paradox:

Any inquiry into privacy in Germany would be incomplete without a look at the West German census of 1987 and the huge backlash against data collection it provoked. Opponents of the census challenged the very right of the West German state to know so much about what went on inside its borders, and argued that the census rules would permit personal information to be shared too widely among state agencies. A nationwide boycott movement went mainstream, a bitter debate about its propriety divided West Germans, and the Green Party made opposition a core issue. Even today, asking Germans about the subject, I noticed several repeating the same talking point: that a pre-WWII census in the Netherlands permitted Nazis to more easily round up Jews and other condemned classes when they invaded. This was intended to illustrate that even information collected with good intentions can be unexpectedly abused.

What a lot of foreigners in Berlin couldn't understand, and that confuses me too, is why the 1987 census, as well as Google Street View, caused such a fuss in the country, yet there seems to me no controversy about a longstanding requirement for everyone to register their address with authorities* when they move to a new city or apartment. Germans don't seem to be bothered by that policy, which would provoke widespread controversy even in some less privacy-conscious nations.

The immediate tu quoque riposte most Germans would think of: 'If Americans are so privacy-conscious that they would reject a registration law or government ID card, why is it they allow private companies such as Facebook, Google Street View, credit-rating agencies, etc. so much power over their lives?' Another thing that shocks Europeans is that there are no protections for your reputation if you become involved with the criminal justice system. Suspects are identified by name and address as soon as they're booked. In fact, as the New York Times recently noted, there are websites whose sole purpose is to collect mugshots (like the one above), publish them online, and charge victims hundreds of dollars to remove them later. Even if all charges against you are later dropped, the fact that you were once arrested can remain public knowledge to anyone, anywhere for the rest of your life. This could never happen to an ordinary citizen in Germany.

But on to the German privacy paradox. Why are Germans so nonchalant about informing the authorities where they live? A few hypotheses:

  1. Path-dependency. It's been going on for all of living memory, so nobody thinks to question it. The U.S. census is similar -- the Constitution has required one every 10 years for all of American history, so everyone except a tiny radical fringe just accepts it.
  2. Neighborhood. Almost all European countries have a similar policy, so Germany would stand out if it didn't keep these records.
  3. Staatsvertrauen. Germans have a high level of trust in their civil servants and public officials, so they simply don't envision that these data will be abused. They are much more concerned about private companies collecting information on them, which explains the controversy when some German local governments considered giving private firms access (g) to registry data. The odd thing, though, is that during the Nazi era and in East Germany the citizen residence registries (as well as the 1933 census) were abused (for instance, registry data was one of the sources for the 'Jew registry' (g) that enabled the Nazis to track down almost all Jewish citizens), but somehow that hasn't tainted residence registries in the German historical consciousness.
  4. Citizens benefit. Germany showers its citizens with cash and benefits. Parents get money for having children, the state subsidizes mortages, there's a meagre but still substantial permanent welfare scheme, etc. Although these benefits are now done mostly by bank transfer, the government still wants your address, since some of the benefits are calculated based on, e.g., how large your apartment is or what the living expenses in your area are.
  5. City planning. Germany is one of the global leaders in urban planning, and many of its cities are some of the best-planned in the world. Having a good base of information about what sort of people live where helps in this.

Those are a few reasons I can think of off the top of my head, but none of these explains why Germans would accept mandatory registration but fear a census. That, I think, is just a partially irrational distinction based on the fact that registration has always been a fact of life, but the census has not.