Berlin's regional court has convicted two men of murder after killing a 69-year-old motorist in an illegal car race on the capital's Kurfürstendamm. The perpetrators, both in their 20s, will face life imprisonment.
There were cries of disbelief and tears from relatives of the two defendants when the judge read out the verdict. Defense lawyers had argued that 28-year-old Hamdi H. and 25-year-old Marvin N. had been grossly negligent but not guilty of homicide after an illegal car race in downtown Berlin in February 2016 led to the death of a 69-year-old man.
But judge Ralph Ehestädt agreed with prosecutors who said the two men were guilty of murder. The judge said that they had shown "limited willful intent" in staging a deadly late-night race that saw them reach speeds of up to 170 kilometers an hour (106.5 mph). In the process they ran several red lights along Berlin's famous Kurfürstendamm boulevard. The judge said that even though the defendants had not intended to kill the victim, they had accepted that people might well be killed by their behavior and thus were guilty of murder.
"This was not a race down a country road," Ehestädt said. "It was a race on a main street in western Berlin where people stroll around even late at night. There were people on the streets and other cars."
Hamdi H.'s car slammed into the vehicle driven by the victim - a widower, retired doctor and father of two - killing him and hurling his car 72 meters along the street. Bits of wreckage were strewn everywhere. The judge said a forensic expert who had testified at the trial had described the scene of the accident as "a field of rubble" that resembled a "battlefield." The two defendants and a passenger in Marvin N.'s car were only slightly injured in the accident.
It was the first time in Germany that such an incident has been deemed murder. In handing down the harshest punishment allowed under German law, Ehestädt rejected the idea he was making an "example" of the two defendants. But this was a high profile case, and many people, including prosecutor Christian Fröhlich, expect it to serve as a precedent and a warning to a particular sub-class of people in Germany.
"I just hope that the verdict has a deterrent effect," Fröhlich said after the sentencing. "I hope that it makes at least some of these people who drive far too fast think twice."
Inside the minds of 'Raser'
Ehestädt said the psychology of the defendants had played a role in the verdict, and he spent much of his hour-long remarks describing the mentality of so-called "Raser" - a German word for people who get a kick from driving at extreme, unsafe speeds.
The judge pointed out that both defendants had a number of traffic citations before the accident and that Hamdi H. had prior convictions for crimes including robbery. Hamdi H., Ehestädt said, was a "narcissist" who "over-estimated his driving abilities to the extreme." Both of the young men, the judge said, derived "self-esteem" from the idea "that they were better drivers than anyone else."
Ehestädt cited two other instances of road racing in the cities of Cologne and Bremen, in which those convicted received far lighter sentences. The judge argued that the Berlin case was far graver because it involved higher speeds, three times the legal limit, and took place in the middle of a big city. He said that because of the built-up urban streets, the racers had no way of knowing whether any other vehicles would cross their paths.
"You couldn't see anything," Ehestädt said, disputing the idea that the defendants had assumed the street would be clear late at night. "You had no chance of reacting."
Ehestädt's portrait of the defendants' mindset was based partly on an evaluation delivered in January by Swiss traffic Jaqueline Bächli-Biétry, who described the case as "extremely crass."
Defendants to appeal
The judge said that of the two defendants Marvin N. was somewhat less guilty because he had initially refused to participate in the illegal race, had stopped at two red lights and had shown remorse after the fact. But Ehestädt said that life imprisonment was the punishment mandated by German law, which gave him no leeway in sentencing.
Hamdi H., who remained standing for most of the court session, protested verbally when Ehestädt read out the verdict, drawing a rebuke from Ehestädt.
"I'm not here to have a conversation," the judge said.
Defense lawyers, who had sought verdicts of manslaughter for Hamdi H. and reckless driving for Marvin N., called the court's judgement unjust and said that they would appeal. Such an appeal must be lodged within one week and justified within one month.
"You're looking at an enraged defense attorney," one of Hamdi H.'s lawyers told reporters after the session. "If this verdict inspires further ones, we might as well forget our liberal state, based on the rule of law."
German police representatives welcomed the verdict.
"As of today it's clear that anyone who runs a number of red lights at a speed vastly exceeding the legal limit is accepting the death of other people and using his vehicle as a deadly weapon," German police union president Oliver Malchow said in a statement. "That makes the 'Raser' into a murderer."
The German government is currently preparing legislation that would specifically outlaw road races.