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Germany

Illegal racing: Cars as lethal weapons

Is a driver who races illegally and kills another through negligent action a murderer? A current trial in Berlin is facing this very question. A former Cologne mayor has personal reasons for closely following the trial.

Marvin N. is 24 years old. On the night in question he was driving a white Mercedes, model AMG CLA 45. He's in the dock at the Berlin district court, alongside 27-year-old Hamdi H. Hamdi H. was also driving a white car, an Audi A6 TDI. When they came across each other on Berlin's Tauentzienstrasse in the early hours of 1 February 2016, it sparked a fateful incident that the public prosecutor says constitutes joint murder. Those two white cars became the murder weapons.

Hamdi H. was traveling at at least 160 kilometers per hour (just under 100 mph) when his car slammed into an SUV with a 69-year-old man at the wheel. This was at 00:50, just minutes after he crossed paths with Marvin N. The victim's Jeep was flung 70 meters down the road, eventually coming to a stop on its side. The driver, a retired doctor, died at the scene.

After plowing into the Jeep, Hamdi H.'s car, which had been souped up to 225 horsepower, crashed into Marvin N.'s Mercedes. The two young men walked away with minor injuries. Both cars were a write-off.

Deutschland Illegales Autorennen in Berlin (picture-alliance/dpa/B. Pedersen)

The victim's car was flung 70 meters down the street

An administrative offense

An illegal car race in Berlin; the Kurfüstendamm shopping street a death zone? A witness who was sitting in Marvin N.'s car recalled during the trial that the Audi first appeared behind them at a traffic light. She said the two men, who knew each other slightly, stopped briefly on the road, wound down their windows and chatted. Suddenly, she said, Hamdi H. stepped on the gas, and Marvin N. followed suit. They shot off, ignoring the red lights.

For the Berlin public prosecutor, these elements of the offense mean that they committed joint murder. If the court imposes a life sentence, it would be particularly significant for victims and their families, who complain that crashes like this are often treated as no more than an administrative offense. This means that the drivers responsible are able to get away with suspended sentences.

Deutschland Illegales Autorennen in Berlin Mordprozess eröffnet (picture-alliance/dpa/P. Zinken)

Defendants Marvin N. (second from left) and Hamdi H. (fifth from left, sitting and with face covered) with their lawyers in Berlin district court

"What racers get up to in town centers, where you really cannot drive that fast, is just not acceptable," says Fritz Schramma. The former mayor of Cologne lost his son Stephan in a similar an incident in his home town. Stephan Schramma was just 31 years old. "You just ask yourself: Why doesn't this stop?" Schramma said in an interview with DW. There are regular reports about car races like these; often, they have been illegally organized.

Probation feels like an acquittal

Schramma's son died almost 16 years ago, but he and his wife Ulla still follow cases like the one in Berlin intently. In this son's case, the two drivers, then aged 24 and 22, were initially sentenced to three years probation. This was then reduced to two years on appeal. Was this a fair punishment?

"It's a second slap in the faces of the victims when drivers are allowed to walk out of the courtroom on probation at the end of a long trial," says Schramma. "Because for many people – especially the perpetrators – it's as if they've been acquitted." He has been raising awareness about this issue for many years now, and also set up an organization in Cologne to help victims. "I would have liked to receive some kind of apology from the perpetrators. Or their parents," he says. "Perhaps that would have helped us, in our grief." 16 years on, the Schramma family is still waiting.

Deutschland Fritz Schramma Oberbürgermeister von Köln (Getty Images/V. Rys)

Former Cologne mayor Fritz Schramma, whose son was killed in a racing accident

Instead, racers – as is their right – avail themselves of every legal possibility in order to avoid jail. This January, the Federal High Court confirmed a sentence of two years and nine months. The man in question was driving a rented sports car through the center of Cologne at 109 kilometers per hour (68 mph) when he hit a 26-year-old cyclist. The man died in hospital three days later. "With this sentence we wanted to set an example, to make clear to others that you simply cannot drive like this," the presiding judge, Benjamin Roellenbeck, said in Karlsruhe.

Revoke their license

Efforts to set such an example are also being made at a political level. Last year the Bundesrat introduced a bill that is currently undergoing interdepartmental coordination. Transport policymakers also want to take action, by making what has until now been classed an administrative offense a crime. "Suspended sentences are certainly not appropriate when people are killed in illegal car races," says Patrick Schnieder, a CDU politician and member of the German Bundestag who is also a traffic expert. A driver's license wasn't something for "rowdy adrenaline junkies," Schnieder told DW. Confiscation of cars and revoking driver's licenses should also be an option, he said. "Then I have to consider whether I can ever let such a driver loose on humanity again," he added.

Every week Fritz Schramma and his wife Ulla visit their son's grave. Stephan had many plans; he wanted to move in with his girlfriend and get married. They have a kind of gallery of family photos at home, including ones of Stephan. The sympathy extended by the people of Cologne has given the family strength. "Even today, every taxi driver, for example, will say something to me about it," says Schramma. He has to pass the scene of the crash, the Rudolfplatz junction, almost every day. "Until now there was always this old tree there," he says. "Now it's being cut down." Perhaps the change will make his journey a little easier to deal with.