Tough but brilliant - the NSU trial′s chief judge | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 15.04.2013
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Tough but brilliant - the NSU trial's chief judge

The high-profile trial against alleged National Socialist Underground killers and accomplices is one of the most closely watched German cases in the post-war era. The panel of judges is under immense pressure.

No fewer than five judges will determine the verdict in the trial against the sole surviving alleged member of the neo-Nazi terrorist organization known as the National Socialist Underground, or NSU. Four of the legal experts have been appointed as associate justices, but their votes will carry the same weight as the chief judge. However, the chief judge plays a key role in the trial as the person who determines the tone and pace of the proceedings.

Manfred Götzl is the lead judge. The 59-year-old otherwise heads the internal security section of Bavaria's State Court of Appeals (OLG) and is considered an experienced judge with a proven track record for high-profile cases. In the 1980s, he worked as a state prosecutor, quickly becoming a judge thereafter. He eschews publicity and does not give interviews.

Neutral and controversial

Gisela Friedrichsen, a long-time legal reporter for German magazine "Der Spiegel," has followed nearly every major court case in Germany in the last 20 years - experiences that have offered her insights into Götzl's character. She described him in a conversation with DW as a brilliant legal mind.

"He thinks fast. He thinks in a structured way. If you want to be uncharitable, he's a technocrat," Friedrichsen said.

A judge's gavel © Gina Sanders

Götzl is brilliant but has a temper, says court reporter Gisela Friedrichsen

Those tendencies became apparent in Götzl's handling of the procedure to distribute seats among the media wanting to cover the NSU trial. He aimed to avoid violating protocol by trying to be completely neutral. As such, the court was not going to handpick the media for the few available seats and instead allotted the limited space solely on a first-come-first-serve basis.

What followed was an e-mail delivery mishap, for which the Court of Appeals has accepted blame, although, in a written statement, Götzl defended his allocation decision, which he dubbed a "greyhound procedure."

Critics - including the Turkish media - called the allocation process insensitive. Turkish audiences, they said, had a particular interest in the trial since eight of the ten murder victims had Turkish roots.

Shoring up that position, the German Constitutional Court ruled late last week that Turkish journalists must be granted accreditation to what will be one of the most-watched trials in post-war Germany.

Lacking the right touch?

Judge Götzl adheres strictly to regulations and facts, pays attention to detail and takes his responsibilities seriously. Many consider his handling of trials to be awkward. He often gets deeply absorbed in the search for truth.

"He is a judge with a very short fuse," said court reporter Gisela Friedrichsen, adding that when something bothers him, he can very quickly "explode." That can happen, for example, when statements from witnesses or lawyers seem to him to be too long-winded or beside the point.

Manfred Götzl +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++

Has Götzl struck the wrong tone even before the case gets underway?

"I've seen him get involved in very intense disputes, especially with expert witnesses that present things to him that don't suit him. He can get very harsh," Friedrichsen said.

As such, she questions whether Götzl will be able to maintain the right tone in the NSU case. Friedrichsen sees that as important, given that the expectations and interests of the victims and their families are at stake. A total of 71 joint plaintiffs are being represented by 49 lawyers.

"There will be people there, who come from other cultural backgrounds, who react differently and more emotionally, and Götzl will have to understand that," believes Friedrichsen, who points to the chief judge's particular role as an arbitrator in German courts. For those affected most - the families of the victims - legal principles are not the only things involved.

When it comes to legal principles, however, Manfred Götzl is in command of them like no other. During his entire tenure just one verdict of his was later revised by a higher court. As a result, many trust Götzl to be able to manage the massive case.

Vast troves of records

280,000 pages from 600 investigation files had to be read in preparation. The state prosecutors' bill of indictment alone extends to nearly 500 pages.

Over 600 witnesses are to testify, and 22 psychiatrists and coroners will offer their expertise. There are five defendants. The most important is Beate Zschäpe, the sole survivor among three alleged core members of the NSU. She has three defense attorneys. The trial will center on how directly Zschäpe was involved in the murders and why she did not stop them. 85 days have been set aside for testimony, but the entire trial is expected to last two and a half years - with Manfred Götzl at its center.

The courtroom where the NSU trial will take place (c) CHRISTOF STACHE/AFP/Getty Images

The five judges on the NSU face an incredibly complex set of data

The seasoned judge has chaired a number of high-profile cases. For example, he heard the case against accomplices to the German chapter of the propaganda network Global Islamic Media Front. In 2005, he convicted the murderer of the well-known German fashion designer Rudolph Moshammer. And in 2009, the former Wehrmacht officer Josef Scheungraber had to answer to Götzl for revenge murders committed against Italian civilians in 1944.

Scheungraber was ultimately sentenced to life in prison. In order for the same sentence to result in the NSU case, four of the five judges involved would have to agree to send Zschäpe to prison for life. As such, Götzl will not determine the punishment alone.

Avoiding mistakes

Ahead of the NSU trial, many have questioned how free and independent a court can be with so much media attention as well as the political expectations surrounding the case. Christoph Frank is the head of the German Association of Judges and serves as a senior public prosecutor in Freiburg. Frank believes courts are entirely capable of navigating the extreme attention and publicity.

"Judges know - in contrast to the public - the entire record," Frank said. It's about the facts, he continued, noting that the judges are acquainted with all of the little games that are played along the way. "We know what strategies are used to manufacture publicity and to steer the public."

In fact, the judge believes publicity work is often part of the defense strategy - even if such a move is transparent to judges.

One lingering issue when it comes to the trial is the threat of violence from right-wing extremists. The German Association of Judges has said, however, that it is not concerned. Nevertheless, security measures have been tightened around the appeals court building in Munich where the case will be tried.

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