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Felon's rights

August 3, 2011

Police in Frankfurt threatened the kidnapper Magnus Gäfgen with violence in order to gain a lead in their investigation. But Gäfgen had already murdered the victim. Now, he wants to sue his interrogators for damages.

Magnus Gäfgen
Gäfgen's conviction does not strip him of his rightsImage: picture alliance / dpa

On the 27 of September 2002, law student Magnus Gäfgen kidnapped 11-year-old Jakob, the son of the prominent von Metzler banking family in Frankfurt, Germany. Gäfgen wanted to run in the von Metzler's well-to-do social circle, but he needed money in order to wine and dine among Frankfurt's elite. So he demanded a 1 million euros ($1.4 million) ransom from Jakob's parents - after he had already suffocated their child to death.

But Gäfgen's plan went awry when he was arrested shortly after the ransom drop off. Since Gäfgen hadn't made a statement to the contrary, the police hoped that Jakob was still alive. Wolfgang Daschner, at that time vice president of the police, threatened Gäfgen with "pain" in the hope of gaining information regarding the 11-year-old's whereabouts. After Jakob was found dead, a court sentenced Magnus Gäfgen in July, 2003 to life in prison, underscoring the severity of the crime.

The court ruled out an early release on probation after serving 15 years. Gäfgen will remain in prison for decades. He subsequently concluded his law studies in his prison cell. And in March of 2011, he sued for damages in connection with Daschner's threat of "pain." The verdict in the case is expected on Thursday.

Murderer's rights

Although Gäfgen has been convicted of a serious felony, his conviction does not strip him of all his other rights, according to Gerhard Wagner, professor of German, European and international private law at the University of Bonn. For example, if a property owner is convicted of murder, he still retains the right to the income from his tenants. If Gäfgen suffered bodily or psychological harm through illegal behavior at the hands of the police then he has the right to compensation.

Gäfgen, however, has to prove that he suffered bodily or psychological harm. He has stated that the interrogator came dangerously close to him and told him that a specialist was en route by helicopter to make him feel pain like he had never felt before. Gäfgen also claims that the interrogator shoved him, beat him with his fists, and shook his shoulder, slamming the back of his head against the wall.

Murder victim Jakob von Metzler
Police threatened Gäfgen to gain information about Jakob von Metzler's whereaboutsImage: AP

Police Vice President Daschner and the interrogation officer have already admitted that they threatened Gäfgen. The interrogator, however, disputes the accusation that he touched Gäfgen during the situation in question. The two were apparently alone in the interrogation room.

It's questionable whether or not Gäfgen can prove the full extent of his claims. And law professor Wagner does not believe that the pain Gäfgen allegedly suffered justifies 10,000 euros in damages. If he only had to live a few hours with the threat of physical harm, then that would also minimize his claim for damages.

What kind of signal would it send if the court rules in Gäfgen's favor? Wagner says that the suit is certainly tasteless and that people have a right to be outraged. Despite all that, German law - as in other European and Western states - is based on a rational approach. Convicted felons are not damned forever. Rather, their individual transgressions are judged according to the relevant rules.

That protects the accused from disproportional, arbitrary and thoughtless punishments, according to Wagner. As a consequence, society should hold on tightly to this universal principal, even if it also applies to a murderer like Magnus Gäfgen.

Author: Daphne Grathwohl /slk
Editor: Andreas Illmer

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