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Sex, lies and cannibalism in Sweden: was it all just a miscarriage of justice?

He was known as Sweden's Hannibal Lecter. He confessed to murder, rape and cannibalism. Now Sture Bergwall has been cleared of the last of 8 convictions for murder; so was this a huge miscarriage of justice?

DW: He was known as Sweden's Hannibal Lecter. Sture Bergwall, or Thomas Quick, as he used to call himself, confessed to sometimes raping, murdering then cutting up, and eating, more than 20 victims in the country's worst ever serial killing case. Far outdoing anything that fictional detectives like "Wallander" might investigate. He was convicted of eight murders over the years, in trials starting in 1994, and has been locked up in an institution for the criminally insane in Sweden ever since. But earlier this week, his last conviction was overturned, in what has turned now into Sweden's worst miscarriage of justice.

So how did this happen?

Ann Törnkvist: Sture Bergwall, as he is now known because he went back to his original name, confessed to a string of murders, more than 20, and when these murders went to court, he was convicted of more than eight of them.  Basically he would tell the courts what he had done to the victims, and he said he had eaten some of them, and there was a sexual and quite predatory nature to many of the abductions he claimed to be responsible for. Even at the time, some of the relatives of the victims weren't convinced he was the person that had killed the people he claimed to have killed. He was already in prison in the early 1990s for a robbery. I say prison, but he was in a psychiatric institution, and has said himself that he was on an incredibly heavy cocktail of drugs, and he just couldn't stop himself [with these confessions]. Now one of the questions is whether he's a liar? Whether he likes inventing these stories, or whether he was just mistreated and drugged up to the point that he wasn't able to stop this carousel. Added to that, of course, is that Sweden is asking what the police were up to, what the courts were up to, and what the prosecutors were up to.

What kinds of questions are people asking about Swedish justice?

As in most European countries, the Swedish justice system relies more and more on forensic evidence. But these cases were almost exclusively based on his accounts of what happened and nothing else. So the problem was that the our legal process means that if there are doubts about a court case, the prosecutor has to revisit the case and they have to make a new judgment about whether, if they go to court again, with new circumstances, they can actually put someone behind bars for what's been done. What happened this week is that the prosecutors said, "we can't keep him in prison for this either." This was the murder of a fifteen year old. One of the police officers connected to the case has been saying for some time, that he doesn't even think this fifteen year old was murdered. What seems to have happened is that he thinks he got drunk, got lost, it was minus ten degrees, and he may just have died of exposure. But nobody was listening in the police, and some people, the more cynical people, say that the police were so incredibly concerned with closing some quite difficult cases, that no one stopped to say "hang on a moment." There was a book and documentary about Sture Bergwall, where the main journalist behind that, Hannes Rastam, who has been credited for blowing the lid on this thing, showed that even when they took Sture Bergwall to the scene of the crimes, if he told them something in these crime scene re-enactments, if he told them something that didn't fit forensics, with the little bit of forensics they had, they would give him another chance to redo a statement until it fit their version of events.

Why do you think that they relied so heavily on his confessions? Do you think it was because they were so shocking and brutal that people thought: he just can't have made them up?

Well, there's no doubt about the fact that he has a violent past. Not only the robbery, but he also stabbed a man that he met at a gay club in Uppsala when he was quite young. So, I suppose, the psychological profile [seemed to fit] in the sense that he wasn't an unlikely candidate to have made these kinds of things happen. I suppose the prosecutors and the police, and I haven't spoken to Sture Bergwall, or his lawyers, but I suppose the prosecutors must have thought his accounts were too detailed to ignore.

So in these eight cases that he was convicted of originally, and the other ones that he confessed to, the real killer -or killers- are still out there?

The point is that Swedish justice system has not been able to find anyone for these specific crimes. The man who survived the stabbing attack, he told GQ magazine that Bergwall could be lying again, that he is a compulsive liar, and that he is trying to kill the Swedish justice system. I think you should perhaps not put too much store on one witness' account of things, which, one would hope, this affair might have already taught Sweden, if anything has. But, there seem to be questions about what happens to these cases that are now closed, when the statute of limitations has expired, and the Swedish justice system is not equipped to deal with cold cases although we do have a cold case unit.

And, what's been the reaction from Bergwall, from the Swedish public, and from the families of the victims involved in these overturned cases?

The father of one of the victims, an 11 year old called Johan Asplund who disappeared in 1980, he went out and said "listen, I never thought this man killed my son." And he's distraught because there have been no efforts made to find the actual killer. One of the biggest newspapers in Sweden wrote an editorial this morning about the size of the miscarriage of justice. The paper has, for several years now, been calling for considerable reforms of the Swedish police. So there are several things: people want the Swedish psychiatric system to be reviewed, and the local administration will also now review Bergwall's diagnosis once again which in actual fact means he might walk free. There has been no talk yet of a proper independent inquiry or commission, but that might follow.

Ann Törnkvist is a Swedish reporter who has been following this story, and is acting deputy editor of The Local in Stockholm.

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