In a case that has divided Sweden, a 50-year-old man was this week acquitted of murdering a teenage boy in Rödeby, southern Sweden, last year. This was despite the fact that the man admits shooting the boy at close range in his own back yard. Nobody claims that this was an accident – after putting one bullet into the 15-year-old, the man reloaded his gun and shot him again, in the back. He also seriously injured a 16-year-old boy.
Blekinge District Court dismissed all charges against the man, ruling that in his panicked state he was completely unable to comprehend the consequences of his actions and therefore lacked intent. He was therefore not sent to jail or to a secure mental hospital – the doctor who examined him said he had been psychologically disturbed at the time of the shooting, but had since recovered. He was even given his gun back.
That is one side of the story. On the other side is a a campaign of intimidation against the 50-year-old’s family carried out by the dead youth and the four other teenagers accompanying him on the night he was shot. That evening, the gang had made threatening phone calls to the man’s 19-year-old son, who has learning difficulties. The extreme stress of the situation quite simply made the 50-year-old flip out, according to the defence.
Sweden’s editorial writers have been trying to make sense of the case. Aftonbladet argues that the acquittal is “problematic”.
“Shooting dead a 15-year-old must have legal consequences. Otherwise, we will have a society in which people think they can take the law into their own hands,” the paper says in an editorial. It also points out that Sweden’s National Board of Health and Welfare’s scientific advisory committee disagreed with the psychologist, saying that the man remains seriously psychologically disturbed and could offend again if forced into a corner.
“Given this, it is strange not to commit him to a secure mental institution. The acquittal means not giving care to a person who needs it,” Aftonbladet writes. It also warns that the verdict could conflict with the public’s sense of justice.
“This could open the door to a lynch-mob mentality,” the paper says.
Svenska Dagbladet’s Maria Abrahamsson questions whether it was right to rule that the man lacked intent. She contrasts this with cases such as the conviction of Mijailo Mijailovic for murdering foreign minister Anna Lindh in 2003. Mijailovic might have been psychologically disturbed when he shot Lindh, but he still knew what he was doing and was convicted accordingly, she says.
“If there is to be equality before the law then the father in Rödeby, who fetched a gun, aimed and shot another person dead, should be considered to have acted with intent.” The fact that the family had been terrorised by the youths should be taken into account in sentencing, “but he should not be acquitted due to a lack of intent.”
Dagens Nyheter says the case inspires conflicting feelings: empathy for the father who feels his family is threatened is counterbalanced by a sense that in shooting the youngster for a second time the man crossed a line.
“He reloaded and shot the youngsters in the back. The fatal shot was fired from a distance of four metres.”
“Is that not a criminal act? Can a citizen who feels threatened assume the right to kill another person?”
But, the paper goes on to argue, “for someone to be convicted for a crime it is a requirement that they knew what they were doing. The 50-year-old did not.” It points out that the man had a history of psychiatric illness, suffering from Tourette’s Syndrome and repeated panic attacks.
“The question is whether he is slightly under or slightly over the level at which a court can sentence someone to a secure mental hospital.”
“Rödeby is a reminder of the legal gap that exists in cases in which the attacker is judged to have been ill at the time but better now. That said, it is not a strong argument for closing this gap.”
In Blekinge Läns Tidning, Rödeby’s local paper, Inga-Lena Fischer also dismisses calls for the gap to be closed. She rejects government plans to allow courts to jail people who commit crimes while temporarily insane. The plan, she says, jettisons the concept of intent and puts the emphasis on revenge:
“A young man is dead, parents have lost a son, someone needs to take responsibility, namely the 50-year-old.” This reasoning, the paper says, “is not about him specifically, his psychological state or whether he understood what he was doing. He did it. He must be punished.”
“This fits very badly with Swedish legal tradition, which considers crimes from the inside, not the outside,” Fischer concludes.
Where the main newspapers stand:
Dagens Nyheter, “independently liberal”, Stockholm-based, owned by the Bonnier family.
Svenska Dagbladet, “independently liberal-conservative”,
Stockholm-based, owned by Norwegian media company Schibsted.
Göteborgs-Posten, “independently liberal”,
Gothenburg-based, owned by the Stampen media group.
Sydsvenska Dagbladet (Sydsvenskan), “independently liberal”, Malmö-based, owned by the Bonnier family.
Aftonbladet, “independently Social Democrat”, Stockholm-based, owned by trade union federation LO and Norwegian media company Schibsted.
Expressen, “independently liberal”, Stockholm-based, owned by the Bonnier family.
Blekinge Läns Tidning, “independently liberal,” owned by Göta Media.