Do lawyers have a conscience

“I only feel sorry for the victims for tactical reasons”: A lawyer explains how to defend murderers

Thomas Fingerhuth represents murderers, pedophiles and right-wing extremists. There is no mandate for the defense attorney that he would reject on principle.

Mr. Fingerhuth, why are you defending murderers?

As a criminal defense attorney, I also have to take on the really bad cases. It would contradict our understanding of the law if everyone were only petty criminals, but nobody defended murderers and other violent criminals.

What is there to defend in a case like that of Rupperswil, in which the accused confesses?

Even in such a blatant case, I try to understand what drove someone to do such a thing. Alternatives to a high penalty may then be derived from this, for example in the form of a therapeutic measure. I try to show the judge such a way.

You want to understand the fact: Doesn't that just lead to a relativization?

There are different perspectives on every story. The public prosecutor portrays the crime as badly as possible and paints a negative image of the accused. The defender provides a counterweight. Without this compensation there is no fair trial.

But murder remains murder.

Naturally. But everyone knows situations in which they do something that in retrospect they say: That shouldn't have happened. But why did it happen anyway? What made you do it? As a criminal defense lawyer, I am investigating this question. Initially, the judge only knows the prosecutor's story. I tell the suspect's story.

Why do people kill?

Most homicides are relationships. When a conflict in a relationship comes to a head, some people find themselves in a position where they can no longer see any other way out. Most of them never get into such a situation, but nobody should be sure that it will not happen after all: Many of my clients cannot explain to themselves in retrospect why they did what they did.

In the Rupperswil case, nobody understands the accused.

The Rupperswil case was not about a relationship act.

But even in this case, the criminal defense is about understanding the act. In the Rupperswil case, nobody understands the accused. I haven't seen a single newspaper article dealing with the perpetrator's point of view. The act seems simply inexplicable. The case seems clear before anyone even knows what drove the accused to act.

Even if there is an explanation, does this justify or excuse such an act?

Not at all. But every act has its story. If such stories are no longer to play a role in court, then there is no longer any need for trials. Then a simple catalog of punishments is sufficient, which lists how many years in prison there are per victim or per robbed bank. Fortunately, however, we know of criminal law in which every suspect is punished according to his or her personal guilt.

How do you understand the perpetrator?

Criminal defense is a very personal matter. The defense attorney has to get close to the accused and the accused has to open up. That takes time and trust. If this relationship of trust does not arise, the lawyer cannot do his job. So if you ever need a criminal defense attorney, think carefully about who you choose to do the job. It must match.

Do you expect honesty from a suspect?

Not necessarily, because it remains a contractual relationship. When someone comes to me and denies an act, I don't want to know the details at first. I am judging the case on the basis of the prosecutor's files. If I come to the conclusion that the evidence is insufficient to prove the perpetrator, I don't even want to know whether my client may have committed the crime after all. The only thing that matters in court is what can be proven.

What if the evidence is overwhelming?

Then I explain to my client how the situation is from the judge's point of view. It is then his decision whether he also denies the act in court. If he wants that, I'll support him. Of course, I also point out other strategies to him, such as a confession.

If my client tells me that he has not committed an act, I will be one hundred percent behind him.

Do you believe your client?

It's a professional relationship of trust. If my client tells me that he has not committed an act, I will be one hundred percent behind him.

Even if you are convinced otherwise?

Once I have explained the various strategies to my client and they have decided on one, my convictions no longer matter. Even if everything seems clear, the truth may be different. Witnesses contradict each other or those involved are wrong. There is never just one truth.

What if the accused confesses?

Accused people may also have an interest in unjustifiably assuming guilt. For example, to protect a third person. A confession by itself is not evidence of the truth.

Is it compatible with your legal conscience to save someone from punishment, even if you know they did the crime for which they are accused?

Yes. If the act cannot be proven, the truth is not certain.

This leads to real criminals escaping their punishment.

One can also ask the other way round: Is it better to lock up a suspect when all doubts have not been removed that he actually committed the crime? The deeper the proof requirements, the greater the number of those who end up innocently behind bars.

Are there any people you would not defend?

No. The only reason not to take on a mandate is because I can't get on with someone. I defend right-wing radical skins as well as radical, extreme animal rights activists, violent criminals, bankers and pedophiles. But that doesn't mean that I identify with the ideological background of an act. For example, defending pedophile views - that is not possible.

Are there any accused you like?

I've never had a problem with my clients. But you can't become friends in this area. I stay with “you”, don't go out for coffee or beer with clients and don't worry about their families. A professional distance and clear boundaries are important.

Is there a Do your clients have something in common?

Nobody likes to deal with their deeds. Many accused, for whom the perpetrator is undisputed, avoid dealing with the injustice they have committed.

Why is this discussion important for your work?

Because I need to know more about these people and their motivations than they themselves would like to reveal. This helps me to better tell your story in court. If I manage to tell a story to a judge in such a way that a certain understanding develops, this has an influence on the sentence.

How do you feel about acquiring someone who you know to have committed the crime?

Well. I've only experienced this once: it was a drug case and the evidence was not usable in court. This state of affairs was also clear to the court.

If you can't switch off and leave your cases in the office, you won't last long in this job.

How do you personally deal with the abysses of life with which you are confronted every day?

If you can't switch off and leave your cases in the office, you won't last long in this job. In the course of my professional life I have met a few colleagues with sleep disorders, alcohol or drug problems. As a criminal defense attorney, I myself had a case that followed me all the way home. It was about a father who, under the influence of alcohol, beat his child until he fell into a coma. That was very stressful. However, it was a few years ago. Today I would be more likely to keep my distance.

Sensational cases regularly cause outrage. What role do the media play?

It's gotten harder. Today the media often report without talking to those involved in the process. That leads to a certain recklessness. As a criminal defense lawyer, I have to protect my clients from the media these days. At the same time, the media's interest in continuous process reporting is waning - which I regret.

What kind of relationship does the defense counsel have with the victims of the alleged perpetrator?

I am happy if the victims have their own lawyer because then someone will take care of them. As a criminal defense attorney, I am only interested in the victims if there is an advantage for my client - for example if the client shows remorse.

Do you have no sympathy for the victims?

Honestly, only for tactical reasons. I keep the distance on all sides.

That sounds very cold and calculating.

There is only black and white in criminal proceedings. Either you are one hundred percent on the side of the client - or you let it stay. Assuming I had to defend you and you got the impression that I was fraternizing with the victim, you would immediately ask yourself: Whose side is he on?

Where's the justice when tactics are paramount?

Tactics should not be confused with tricks. The point is to find out at an early stage in which direction a process is developing and to react to it correctly. This is my task.

And what is so fascinating about this job that you have been in this job for decades?

I look into an incredible number of different milieus. I meet all kinds of people with the most unlikely stories and experiences. That makes my work incredibly exciting. You do not have this option in any other profession.