Academic journal article Albany Law Review

Comparing Injustices: Truth, Justice, and the System

Academic journal article Albany Law Review

Comparing Injustices: Truth, Justice, and the System

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

On the night of October 13, 2001, Rudolf Rupp, a farmer in the small town of Neuburg an der Donau (Bavaria, Germany) gets into his Mercedes and drives to the bar of the local sports club, where he sits at his table--alone. People avoid him. Often, he would not change clothes and come directly from the barn. But he is also considered a brawler and he drinks, a lot. At around one o'clock in the morning, after having eight pints of beer, he leaves with a blood alcohol level of around .25 percent. This is the last time he and his Mercedes are seen. (1) His wife gets concerned and reports him missing but nothing happens for two years--apart from the gossip that spreads through the village. Rumors circulate suggesting that the family might have killed the unsympathetic Rudi and buried him in the dung heap, or even chopped him up and fed him to the dogs and pigs. In January 2004, police, equipped with a warrant, searched the farm but could not find a trace of blood or any evidence in support of the allegations. The family of the missing Rupp is interrogated at the police station. During these interrogations, Hermine, wife of Rudi, their two daughters, and the fiance of the eldest daughter confessed to having killed Rudi that night. None of them has an IQ higher than seventy. Their confessions are detailed. They describe how they waited for the victim to come home, how they first bludgeoned him, and later dismembered the body in the basement in order to feed the pieces to the dogs. Although physical evidence is missing, the prosecutor charges all four with manslaughter. All four, now represented by attorneys, recant their confessions and deny any involvement in the killing. The case is tried regardless and although evidence is circumstantial, both Rupp's wife and the fiance of the eldest daughter are convicted of manslaughter and sent to prison for eight and a half years. The daughters are tried as juveniles and also convicted. The defendants protesting their innocence appeal the conviction but are unsuccessful.

Then, one day in March of 2009, fire fighters pull a black Mercedes E 230 out of the Danube River. Behind the wheel is the fully intact corpse of Rudi Rupp. "At that time," says the prosecutor, "we knew the story with the dogs was false." (2) Defense attorneys filed motions to reopen the case because of the newly found evidence but the motions were denied, mainly on the grounds that the confessions might have been false in regard to how the body was disposed of but still held with regard to the elements of the crime. On appeal, the State Supreme Court of Bavaria allowed the motions and ordered a new trial. This led to the acquittal of all defendants. During the retrial, the court explained that it was persuaded of the involvement of one or more of the defendants in the death of Rudolf Rupp, however, it simply could not be proven.

There is more to say about this case, about the junk dealer, for example, who was accused of aiding in disposing of the Mercedes (before it was found), who claimed that he was threatened by the police to make statements to that effect. While the original charges were unsupported, he was then accused of making false unsworn testimony when he explained that he was forced by law enforcement. This case of a wrongful conviction in Germany has received some of the highest media attention in past years. It has gained so much attention not only because of the absurdity of the circumstances, but also because it shattered the belief that the German legal system does not produce wrongful convictions. (3) Whether or not this case is exemplary or an exception cannot be answered easily since the extent of wrongful convictions in Germany is unknown. (4) Rolf Eschelbach, a judge at the Federal Court of Justice, estimates (without statistical support) that probably more than 25 percent of all felony convictions are wrongful. (5) The number of wrongful convictions may not be that high, (6) but innocent suspects are accused and convicted in Germany, and inquisitorial systems like Germany may be particularly prone to specific errors like tunnel vision--one of the leading causes of wrongful convictions in the United States. …

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