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The dilemma is not whether Meiwes is guilty or not but with what charge to apply in the case.Image: dpa

German Cannibal Trial Opens in Complexity

December 3, 2003

The trial of Armin Meiwes, the cannibal who killed and ate a willing victim, began in the German town of Kassel on Wednesday with experts keenly watching the complex case which many believe could make legal history.


The case of the German cannibal that alternately captivated and repulsed the world entered the trial stage on Wednesday as proceedings began in a court in the German town of Kassel.

Armin Meiwes, the computer technician who killed and ate a willing victim he met over the Internet, stands accused of "murder for sexual satisfaction," a charge brought against him because cannibalism is not technically illegal under German law. It is a trial so perplexing it could make legal history.

When the macabre case first came to the attention of the public, it was not only the fact that Meiwes had killed and eaten almost half of victim Bernd-Jurgen Brandes over a number of months at his home in Rotenburg that disgusted and shocked the world.

Willingness to die

Opfer des Kannibalen
Bernd Jürgen Brandes.Image: AP

What really chilled the bones was the revelation that Brandes had apparently volunteered himself to this fate by answering an ad Meiwes had placed on a Web site for cannibalism enthusiasts. The fact that Brandes applied for the position of the "well-built man, 18-30 years old, for slaughter" is the crux of the legal dilemma facing the court.

After admitting to killing Brandes -- "I admit what I've done. I accept that I am guilty and I regret my actions" -- and with visual evidence to the fact available in the disturbing form of the footage filmed by the defendant at the time, the question is not whether Meiwes will be convicted or not but on what charge.

If Brandes willingly offered himself to Meiwes for slaughter, as the video evidence of the whole incident suggests, then the problem, according to legal experts, is that a murder charge carrying a possible life sentence will be difficult to apply. The alternative is for Meiwes to be tried for manslaughter, a charge which carries a term of 15 years or considerably less, after which Meiwes would be free.

Illegal euthanasia

In such an unprecedented case, both prosecution and defense teams are offering specifically refined charges to fit the bizarre crime. The defendant’s lawyer insists that Meiwes should be convicted of "killing on request," a form of illegal euthanasia which carries a sentence of six months to five years.

Haus des Kannibalen
Meiwes' house in the town of Rotenburg an der Fulda where Brandes died.Image: AP

However, while prosecutors acknowledge Brandes said he wanted to die, they add that the victim may have been incapable of rational thought. As Meiwes passed a psychiatric examination which found that he was not insane, they believe that his actions took advantage of the state of mind of Brandes and are therefore pushing for a charge of murder motivated by sexual urges to be applied. They will also push for a life sentence on the basis that Meiwes is simply too dangerous to ever be released.

Complex proceedings

Professor Arthur Kreuzer of the Institute for Criminology at Giessen University believes that the complexity of the trial may lead to the proceedings becoming a benchmark case. “This is killing undertaken for both killer and victim and cannot be regarded as the worst case of premeditated killing,” Kreuzer told Reuters. "But I don't think it is a killing on request either because it was not an altruistic, but an egoistic deed."

Kreuzer said the case may go as high as the Federal Constitutional Court and that prosecutors may be forced to consult new medical experts to assess Meiwes' mental state despite the fact that the initial tests showed his mental state to be intact.

Court will view video extracts

The court in Kassel will be shown extracts of the video Meiwes made of the killing but only of dialogue between perpetrator and victim which highlights the agreement between them. The court will also hear the testimony of a British respondent to a previous advert placed by Meiwes who avoided a similar fate by changing his mind and leaving when he realized the cannibal’s intent was real.

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