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Schirach on Crime

May 17, 2012 By: John Kindley Category: Uncategorized

One of the most remarkable things about the collection of short stories by Ferdinand Schirach entitled Crime is that the legal system he describes (i.e. Germany’s) is far more humane and just than the system we’re familiar with here in America. His abrupt claim therefore in the very last sentence of the Afterword that the differences between the two systems are “insignificant,” after everything that’s gone before, strikes the reader — or at least the informed American reader — as intentionally and enigmatically untrue.

Two significant differences: In Germany, the prosecutor is supposed to remain “neutral” and is apparently not even supposed to take a position at trial on the defendant’s guilt or innocence, leaving that determination to the judges and jurors. Another significant difference is that in Germany there is no such thing as “plea bargaining,” which we here in America imagine is indispensable.

Two of my favorite stories were “Summertime” and “Self-Defense.” I remain befuddled by the last paragraph of the former story, which suggests that the criminal defense attorney pulled a fast one on the prosecutor and the court and by that legerdemain got his more-than-likely guilty client acquitted of murder. I still fail to see the flaw in the argument that persuaded the prosecutor and the court, and would be grateful to any reader who would be so kind as to cure my blindness.

“Self-Defense” begins with a heart-warming account of two neo-Nazi thugs looking to have a little ultra-violent fun at the expense of a mild mannered bespectacled middle-aged man on a subway platform getting their comeuppance when the man goes all Jason Bourne on their asses and fatally dispatches them to the netherworld with uncommon skill. Turns out the middle aged man is very likely a professional hit man for very wealthy and connected people. The criminal defense attorney of course gets this man acquitted of all charges and released back into society. The story ends with the criminal defense attorney giving rare expression to feelings of disgust (feelings which weren’t expressed at the conclusion of “Summertime,” for example), although it’s not clear whether that disgust was solely in reference to the man himself or whether it was directed to the attorney’s own role in securing his release. If the latter, it might conceivably be explained by the observation that there is dangerous and there is dangerous. A man who has committed a murder and has thereby demonstrated that he is capable of murder is undoubtedly more dangerous than your average man, but a man whose very profession is murder will undoubtedly commit more murders. This cannot sit well with a man whose profession is to defend people, even if his job may call upon him to try to set a professional murderer free.

One little gripe with the book: The author in his Preface makes it sound like these stories are true crime stories drawn from his own criminal defense practice, and this impression has found its way into more than one review. While I don’t doubt Schirach found inspiration in real life cases, his stories are obviously fiction.

5 Comments to “Schirach on Crime”

  1. Final paragraph of “Summertime”. My interpretation is this: several months after the trial Schmied (the prosecutor) realizes that the discrepancy between the time on the video camera and the time on Boheim’s watch could be explained by the fact that Boheim could have set his watch to the wrong time. So the suggestion is not that the defense attorney pulled a fast one, rather it is that Boheim planned the murder so well that he fooled everybody.

    I think the stories are great. But the translation is awful.

    • John Kindley says:

      I figured that the time on Boheim’s watch could be explained by the fact that since everybody’s clock had just recently changed he had simply forgotten to change his. But this doesn’t explain or refute the defense attorney’s argument that the time shown on the video camera demonstrated, given the clock change, that he had in fact left the hotel at 2:30 rather than 3:30.

  2. I’ve just realized there is another possibility. My first interpretation was a rather convoluted one which I’ll explain in more detail below. But there’s a simpler one which I have just realized: what if the maid forget to set her watch back? She wrote on the work sheet that she entered the room at 3:26pm. But if she had forgotten to put her watch back, then the actual time would have been 2:26pm. I now think that this is this possibility that Schmied realizes several months after the trial.

    Here’s my initial convoluted explanation (which is still possible, but Occam’s razor leads me to favor the maid theory): There are two possibilities for the in time between Boheim’s watch and the video camera time:

    1) (The story as directly told) Boheim is innocent. The clock on the video camera was not turned back and Boheim had turned back his watch. He left the hotel at 2:26.

    2) (The hidden plot twist) Boheim is guilty. He planned the perfect murder. He deliberately turned his watch back *two* hours so that it would bring into doubt the accuracy of the clock on the video camera. He new his lawyer was good and cooly relied on the fact that his lawyer would be smart enough to discover the time discrepancy.

    My initial interpretation of the final paragraph was that Schmied had realized that (2) was a possibility. But, as I said, I now think it was just that Schmied realized that the maid’s could have forgotten to set her watch back.

    • John Kindley says:

      The possibility that not only Schmied forgot (or intentionally “forgot”) but also the maid forgot to set her watch batch is in intriguing possibility. But, although I don’t have the book in front of me, didn’t she immediately call the security and the police when she discovered the body? And I’m sure they arrived shortly. Therefore, it seems very likely that the time reported for her discovery of the body was accurate given these corroborations. But I’ll have to look at the story again.

  3. Just read the book now. With DST, Boheim’s watch should really have said 16.26 rather than 14.26. You turn back the clock! Boheim was clever but his laywer even more so.


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