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Germany

NSU: Zschäpe defense puts awkward expert on the stand

Psychiatrist Joachim Bauer says accused terrorist Beate Zschäpe suffered a difficult childhood. DW's Marcel Fürstenau was in the Munich courtroom, and he doubts whether that assessment will mitigate her punishment.

Four years after the start of the trial of the surviving member of the National Socialist Underground (NSU) in Munich's higher regional court, a discrepancy between the judgments of two psychiatric experts came to a head last week.

In early May, the Freiburg-based psychiatrist Joachim Bauer testified that defendant Beate Zschäpe had exhibited a personality disorder that likely resulted from neglect in her early childhood. Thus, in his professional opinion, Zschäpe is only partially accountable for the NSU's 10 known murders.

On Thursday, Bauer faced questions about his findings from the court's criminal panel, federal prosecutors and attorneys representing the joint plaintiffs. And they had a lot of questions. It was not until eight hours later that the often-interrupted questioning came to an end. Very few sessions of the 363-day trial have lasted so long.

'Beyond body language'

Bauer's assessment was the result of close consultation with Zschäpe's defense attorneys, Mathias Grasel and Wolfgang Borchert. What triggered Bauer's assessment was a previous, much less positive assessment presented by Henning Sass, a court appointed psychiatrist. At the beginning of the year, Sass attested that Zschäpe was fully accountable for her actions and went on to state that she would potentially pose a threat of recidivism after serving her sentence. In his assessment, Bauer painted a much more positive image of 42-year-old Zschäpe than his "respected" colleague did.

Bauer is of the opinion that it would be impossible for Sass to paint a positive image of a right-wing terrorist. The reason: An expert opinion only has meaning if the expert has the opportunity to speak with the person in question - and that is "beyond body language." With that statement, Bauer was making reference to the fact that Sass had been able to do nothing more than observe Zschäpe since her trial began in May 2013, as she refused to speak with him. In contrast, she has spoken often with Bauer since February: fourteen hours in all. Bauer's conclusion: Zschäpe is credible.

In Zschäpe's account, she only learned of the murders after the fact - long after: She had spent 13 years in the NSU with her accomplices, Uwe Böhnhardt and Uwe Mundlos. She was shocked by the revelations but was unable to leave the two. She said that it would have been impossible because she was in love with Böhnhardt and furthermore both men had threatened to kill themselves rather than to go to prison. Zschäpe did not want to be responsible for the men's deaths.

That all came to light in December 2015, after Zschäpe broke her years of silence. Thus, little new information is to be found in the psychiatric assessment. The court's presiding judge, Manfred Götzl, appeared to see things that way as well when he asked: "Was Ms. Zschäpe's credibility commissioned by the defense?" Bauer denied the accusation, saying that he had simply been asked to assess whether or not the defendant's statements were credible.

Although no one asked, Bauer added that Zschäpe never attempted to "make a good impression" or present herself as a "victim." She also never tried to "flirt" or "sweet talk" him. Bauer said the atmosphere during discussions was "dry as a bone."

Pralines for Zschäpe

A mixture of mirth and bewilderment could be sensed among witnesses and press reporters on Thursday. Especially after Sebastian Scharmer, an attorney for the joint plaintiffs, asked Bauer an extremely embarrassing question: namely, if it were true that the psychiatrist had brought a box of pralines into the correctional facility for his May 4 meeting with Zschäpe? "Yes," the psychiatric expert answered. Bauer then quickly added that it was an "utterly harmless gesture," and that there had been no ulterior motive behind it.

"Who selected the documents that served as the basis for the assessment that you produced and was read before the court on May 3?" Scharmer asked.

Bauer paused for a moment, and then replied: "Mr. Grasel." Moreover, he had to admit that he had not asked Zschäpe's attorneys for access to all of her case files. Bauer also admitted that he was unaware of the minimum requirements for so-called forensic psychology reports - although that is exactly what he was asked to produce.

At that point, Bauer seemed much less confident than he had been earlier in the day. His answers were much more hesitant; they often seemed complicated and at times evasive. The joint plaintiffs' attorney repeatedly stopped him, objecting: "That is not what I asked." Eventually, after several hours of questioning, Bauer asked for a break. A little later, presiding judge Manfred Götzl stopped proceedings for the day.

The lasting impression from Thursday is that of an expert witness who either underestimated his task or overestimated his ability. For Beate Zschäpe, Bauer's performance - and what it means for the judgment that will soon be handed down - was anything but helpful.   

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